President Obama on Libya: A Rhetorical Analysis, Part I

As an undergraduate at the University of Washington, I wrote a senior-year thesis on George W. Bush’s use of “fear rhetoric” in defining the September 11 terror attacks. Recalling Aristotle, I argued that Bush relied on an array of pathos appeals to create a rhetorical-situational context in which the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were a morally high-grounded matter of red-blooded necessity. It was a tough paper to write and, frankly, an even tougher one to stomach. The further my analysis delved, the more absurd (and obscene) the President’s rhetorical prestidigitation revealed itself to be.

On Monday night, President Obama stood before an audience at the National Defense University in D.C. to outline his rationale for involving American forces in the presently-unfolding conflict in Libya. The exigency from which the speech grew was rooted as much in face-saving as it was in nation-saving. As a from-square-one opponent of Bush’s 2003 Iraq invasion, the President was in a precarious position; he needed to address not only questions of policy, but questions of honesty and ideological consistency. Some questions would require direct confrontation, others rhetorical reorientation. All, though, demanded acknowledgement. For instance:

Why had we entered Libya? In what capacity was America involved? With whom were we cooperating? What was our ultimate goal? And most importantly, was Obama now a bona fide war president?

The political pressure to provide clarity was extreme. By many on the right he was being called a hypocrite; by many on the left, a traitor. Why ‘no’ on Iraq but ‘yes’ on Libya? both sides demanded to know. Ohio Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich went so far as to explicitly compare Obama’s actions in Libya with “what Bush did,” saying we needed to beware “getting dragged into another Iraq.” Fox News analyst Peter Johnson, Jr. towed a similar if alternately-concerned line when he posited that Libya would become “Obama’s Iraq.”

In this key rhetorical moment, the President needed to accomplish at least three things:

1) First and foremost, he needed to establish in concrete, unambiguous terms his reasons for engaging pro-regime forces in Libya, and he needed to establish the expediency of his particular course over infinite others – i.e., he needed to create a deliberative case for his foreign policy—the professed purpose of the speech.

2) He needed to counter the perception that he lacked the courage of his ostensible convictions regarding military interventionism – i.e., he needed to undermine the predications of those on the right who painted his Libya stance as hypocritical—a tacit purpose of the speech.

3) He needed to reconcile his perceived non-interventionist stance, as per his 2008 election platform which included opposing the invasion of Iraq, with his current role as a President engaged in conflict abroad – i.e., he needed to mollify those on the left who regarded his stance on Libya as ideologically treacherous—another tacit purpose of the speech.

Items two and three he needed to accomplish without direct acknowledgement, as to do so would implicitly undermine his authority as Commander-in-Chief. He needed to address them nevertheless, though, as to ignore them would serve only to welcome further claims of hypocrisy and treachery from his detractors.

While Obama has long since exited the stage at the National Defense University, I’m afraid that my stage has only just been set. In the next installment of this two-part blog, I will examine Obama’s Libya speech in an attempt to understand the rhetorical strategies at play in it and to make a determination as to their effectiveness or failure.

In the meantime, I have a nice, crisp five-dollar bill for whichever person comments on this blog entry first.

Josh Hubanks

Josh is a former student in the Communication, Culture & Technology (CCT) M.A. program at Georgetown University. A native of Seattle, Josh graduated with honors from the University of Washington in 2009. He holds a B.A. in Communication with concentrations in politics and rhetoric, and is a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. At CCT, Josh is interested in studying the emerging intersection between politics, rhetoric and social media. In his spare time, he enjoys sleeping, eating and watching totally radical movies. Follow Josh on Twitter at @jhubanks