A Potential Primer for Understanding Obama’s Afghan Address

President Barack Obama addressed the nation Tuesday and outlined “the way forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” On first read, what can be delineated and what can be further reviewed to come to some conclusions on Obama’s approach to the eight year conflict?

I always begin analyzing a speech by looking at word counts that are clustered around the main topic. It is what rhetoricians may call a Burkean approach – one that involves looking at the associational words clustering around a subject. In this instance, looking at common words one would associate with any war: victory, defeat, hardship, casualties, war, conflict, peace, stability, etc. However, it is important to note here that just because a word is said numerous times does not make it important. Words must be scouted for on the basis of frequency and intensity. Here are some interesting word choices (and their subsequent counts) I discovered after my quick analysis:

Afghanistan – 45x

Pakistan – 26x

Iraq – 16x

Osama bin Laden – 1x

al Qaeda – 21x

Taliban – 12x

terrorist(s) – 3x

extremism/ist – 11x

victory – 0x

defeat – 2x (both in reference to defeating al Qaeda)

freedom – 3x

democracy – 2x

conflict – 3x

war – 36x

peace – 3x (once in reference to the Peace Corps)

stability – 1x

In reviewing some of these words, there are a couple of interesting trends. The president prefers extremist to terrorist, potentially to separate himself from the rhetoric of the past administration. Victory is not mentioned once, which could be telling for Obama’s worldview. Perhaps the conflict is ultimately not winnable, but some semblance of peace and stability (both used sparingly – intensity words) is the ultimate vision. It also could reflect a worldview that modern wars cannot be “won” in the sense of surrenders and white flags.

Secondly, I look for selection, reflection, and deflection points. Word choices select a particular meaning, reflect other meanings and values, and deflect other associations. This can be accomplished by looking at some of the words identified above to these specific associations. One sentence in particular stands apart from the others:

“America will have to show our strength in the way that we end wars and prevent conflict – not just how we wage wars.”

Strength here selects a particular meaning – not just military strength, but moral responsible strength as well. It reflects the values of responsibility (the you break it, you buy it mentality). And what does it deflect? It deflects the idea that America rushes into the house, burns it down, and tells others to clean up the ashes. There is ownership in this phrase, an important idea of responsibility.

Those are the first two things I always accomplish before I establish a methodological approach for analysis. Rhetorical or critical, by this point something must jump out to establish a potential direction on which to pursue additional research in the speech. For me, this idea of responsibility and ownership sounds like an interesting direction to follow. Ownership is risky business for presidents – if you own something, then you are responsible (the second key idea to follow). It is precisely this reason why I could pursue this; to see if Obama claims ownership or pivots.

Another potential methodological approach might be a pentadic approach, using Kenneth Burke’s model for act, agent, agency, scene, and purpose. Burke was big on motives and god/devil terms, so this might be an interesting analysis to pursue. We can see how responsibility and ownership may tie with agent and agency (who is to blame, how was this crisis “inherited,” etc.). President Obama has not been shy about passing the buck to his predecessor for the country’s economic and military woes. Case and point from the address (“I’ve spent this year renewing our alliances and forging new partnerships.”). Renew implies they needed to be re-established or made new after a period of being worn. 

Whatever your methodological poison, speech analysis (by critical or rhetorical means) can be an interesting way to unpack motives in the Burkean sense, effectiveness in an Aristotelian way, or the construction of metaphors and frames for a subject. Many times, I am surprised by what I discover because I approach each speech as a tabula rasa that is supposed to tell me a story. Not the story of what is on the paper, I can read that. But beyond that – into the thinking, motivations, and expectations of the person giving the speech. It is this I am interested in and can be more fruitful than half an hour of listening to media pundits telling me what I should think. Explore for yourself. You may come across some surprises.