Some Change

John Oddo

This short essay compares the war-time rhetoric of George W. Bush with the rhetoric of Barack Obama. The eerie similarities between the two lead me to question Obama's promise of change.

During his presidency, George W. Bush was heavily criticized for his war-time rhetoric. Many critics questioned Bush's most enduring linguistic creation: the so-called "war on terrorism." They wondered whether it was practical to declare war on a phenomenon. But, more importantly, they questioned (see, for instance, Sederberg) the use of the war metaphor itself, a metaphor which suggests a defined state enemy, front lines in a demarcated territory, and all the trimmings of conventional battle (aerial bombing, ground troops, etc.). After all, if our "enemy" was a loosely defined organization of autonomous cells, operating in over 100 countries, and employing unconventional military strategies, did it make sense for Bush to activate a "war" schema? Of course, these weren't the only criticisms of Bush. Some charged, for instance, that his rhetoric of unilateralism—his apparent willingness to take the country to war against "evil-doers" with, or without, others' help or permission—was politically inept. Still others condemned Bush's fondness for discursive binaries that split humanity into two camps: the good (us) and the evil (terrorists). Between these two groups there could be no overlap, no nuance. Bush's worldview was oversimplified, perhaps, but he clung to his rhetoric 'til the bitter end. Indeed, in his farewell address, he rearticulated his vision of the moral universe: "Good and evil are present in this world," he said. "And between the two there can be no compromise."

Obama Bush face morph

"Change You Can Believe In? Obama/Bush"
by smallislander, flickr

In his campaign, Barack Obama promised change: a change in rhetoric and a change in policy. But what kind of change does he really offer? A review of some of his speeches and actions leaves me feeling uneasy. For one thing, Obama co-opted, rather than questioned, Bush's "war on terrorism." In fact, he depicted a terrorist enemy in words awfully reminiscent of Bush. In an interview with Bill O�Reilly, for instance, Obama explained that "we have to go after" terrorists "bent on attacking America, who have a distorted ideology, who have perverted the faith of Islam" ("Obama Talks"). Compare this to Bush who, in 2001, remarked: "The terrorists practice a fringe form of Islamic extremism… a fringe movement that perverts the peaceful teachings of Islam. The terrorists' directive commands them… to kill all Americans." Notice how Obama and Bush constructed the same depraved and perverted enemies; enemies that want—apparently because of their warlike nature—to attack Americans. Obama also agreed with Bush that this enemy cannot be dealt with diplomatically—the terrorists are simply too deviant and diabolical, and so "we must go after" them. He agreed, too, if only by implication, that we, Americans, are not like them—we do not have a distorted ideology or a perverted faith; we are not bent on attacking people. In fact, when Obama talked of terrorism, he reproduced Bush's binary. We're good, they're evil—the substance of the rhetoric had not changed.

Later, in a debate with John McCain, Obama reported the frightening news that a terrorist enemy was "plotting to kill Americans right now" (my emphasis). Therefore, he explained that, as President, he would redirect troops from Iraq to the "central front on terrorism"—along the Afghan-Pakistan border. If we have the enemy "in our sights," he announced, then "we have to act and we will take them out. We will kill bin Laden; we will crush al Qaeda. That has to be our biggest national security priority." Of course, we had heard this all before. In 2001, Bush had warned us of the terrifying enemy that "plot[s] evil and destruction." He had already made the global war on terror his top security priority, had already declared the importance of getting bin Laden—"dead or alive"—and destroying al Qaeda "where it grows." And Bush had already spoken of deploying troops to a "central front in the war on terror." Of course, for Bush this "central front" was in Iraq—not Afghanistan. But the point remains: Obama had not changed Bush's rhetoric of fear; he had not challenged the notion that killing one man would make us safe; he had not questioned the idea that autonomous cells of very angry people around the globe could be "crushed" in a battle on a single front. Obama had not changed Bush's rhetoric, or his policy, of war. He had merely suggested that the troops move from one front to another.

Indeed, Obama sounded a lot like Bush, but perhaps that was just because he was "talking tough" on the campaign trail. Maybe President Obama would drop this rhetoric. Maybe, as President, he would avoid this "search-and-destroy" discourse. Maybe he would even (dare I say it) try to understand the "evil-doers," try to understand their grievances. But in Obama's soaring inaugural address were the same old Bushian categories: a world divided neatly into us and them; an assumption of their habitual evil and our unconquerable good:

We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.

I wanted to celebrate change, but I'd heard this rhetoric—this hawkish swagger—before.

To be fair, the new President wasn't all bluster and bravado. He promised to depart from Bush's rhetoric by using diplomacy to restore America's credibility and increase global security. Specifically, he announced at the State Department his intention to "seek a lasting peace" between Israel and Palestine, assigning a special envoy, George Mitchell, to "listen" to both sides of the conflict. This announcement came in the wake of intense violence in the Gaza Strip. Hamas had fired rockets into Israel, killing half a dozen people. In response, Israel launched a deadly retaliatory attack ("Gazans"). They bombed—directly or indirectly—20,000 residential buildings. They bombed a hospital using white phosphorous—a substance provided by the U.S. that reignites again and again ("Israel"). They bombed school playgrounds; they bombed a U.N. relief agency. In fact, the Israeli bombardment killed about 1,300 Gazans—at least half of them women and children.

Bush had responded to the situation by saying that the violence in Gaza "was caused by Hamas" (apparently Israel bore no responsibility) and he decreed that Hamas' rocket-fire amounted to an "act of terror." Meanwhile, Bush stated that Israel's retaliatory violence was not terrorism, but self-defense. As he put it, Israel had "obviously decided to protect herself and her people." To be clear, both Israel and Hamas had indiscriminately attacked civilians in clear violation of international law. But, according to Bush, only one of them—Hamas—was a terrorist organization. The other—Israel—was simply trying to protect itself. I expected, then, that Obama, the diplomat, would depart from Bush's one-sided rhetoric in the Israeli-Palestine conflict. I expected that he would declare that the only way to broker a lasting peace between Israel and Palestine is to be impartial (and not to supply one side with military aid). I expected that, to be even-handed, Obama would condemn the violence of both Hamas and Israel as terroristic and unlawful. But while Obama announced that he was "deeply concerned" about the suffering of Gazans, he never once condemned the Israeli violence. Instead, he rearticulated Bush's claim that only Hamas had engaged in "acts of terror," and made clear that the United States would continue to support Israel: "America is committed to Israel's security. And we will always support Israel's right to defend itself against legitimate threats."

Predator Drone

"MQ-1 Predator" by jamesdale10, flickr

A day later (his fourth day in office), President Obama authorized "Predator" drones to fire missiles at "terrorist targets" on the Pakistan border. Twenty-two people, mostly civilians, were killed in the attack (Grisanti and Yusufzai). This news did not make ripples. Most Americans paid no attention to it. Many probably never even heard about it given the media buzz surrounding Obama's "new plans" for the country. But the news did reach me. In fact, it affected me deeply. I wondered if this unilateral attack, purportedly waged without Pakistani permission, would be counted as murdering the innocent (something that only terrorists do). I wondered if Obama truly represents the change that so many millions of people see in him. And then I remembered that, on the campaign trail, Obama had announced his intention to "take out" terrorists with, or without, Pakistan's approval. As he put it: "There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans. They are plotting to strike again… If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will" (qtd. in Tapper). If only I had been listening more carefully to those echoes of George W. Bush, I might have seen it coming…

Weeks later, I watched Obama appear again and again, on network after network, apologizing for his great mistake: nominating Tom Daschle to be health and human services secretary ("Obama"). Amazingly, he never admitted that killing Pakistani civilians was a mistake. There was no press conference, no interview with Anderson Cooper, and certainly no apology. Apparently, this kind of "mistake"—the kind that kills people—happens all the time and there is no need to request forgiveness. Nor is there any need for Obama to request forgiveness for his other continuations of Bush policy (Savage). In fact, as Obama commences his expansion of Bush's war on terror, deploying 17,000 troops to Afghanistan, there is no need to apologize for anything. As he reminded us in his inaugural, we need "not apologize for our way of life."

Some change.


Works Cited

John Oddo is a doctoral candidate in Kent State University's Rhetoric and Composition Program and he works as Editorial Assistant for the journal Written Communication. He focuses his research on political and media discourse, and he is currently working on a manuscript about war legitimation in presidential addresses.