Professor Wendy Atkins-Sayre
April 10, 2000
Rhetorical Criticism of President George Bush’s
Announcement of Allied Forces’ Air Raid on Iraq
One of the most exciting genres of rhetoric to study is war rhetoric. It is packed with language that excites the senses. It follows a compelling dramatic structure. It features a battle of good versus evil. What follows is a rhetorical criticism of war rhetoric, in particular, Bush’s address to the American people announcing that U.S. armed forces were launching air raids on Iraqi military targets in Kuwait. By adopting a dramatistic critical perspective, we can better understand and appreciate this rhetorical act.
The world was shocked when, on August 2, 1990, Iraq executed a “lightning-fast” invasion of Kuwait (Yetiv 11). Saddam Hussein, dictator of Iraq, ordered the invasion in the hopes that it would end the economic depression in Iraq while strengthening Iraq’s standing among Middle Eastern powers. The United Nations responded quickly, imposing economic sanctions against Iraq. The sanctions and repeated attempts at peaceful negotiations failed to convince the Iraqis to retreat. Finally, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution: Hussein had until January 15 to evacuate, after which the U.N. approved the use of “all necessary means” to route out the Iraqis. Immediately after the deadline passed, a U.S.-led United Nation’s air force conducted an air raid on Baghdad, aimed at destroying prime Iraqi military targets.
President George Bush’s January 16, 1991 speech arose out of a dual need: to justify the United States’ military involvement in the Persian Gulf crisis and to win public support for this and future military actions. As President of the United States and Commander in Chief of the United States armed forces, it was expected that Bush make a statement before the American people. Moreover, there was an urgent need for Bush to explain the air raids, for just two months before the air raid, public opinion polls showed that an “overwhelming majority of Americans…wanted to wait for economic sanctions to work rather than resort to military action” (German 293). Bush was faced with a hostile—or at least, doubtful—audience that spread even across political lines. Republican Senator John McCain, a staunch supporter of Bush, warned: “…if you get involved in a major ground war in the Saudi desert, I think support will erode significantly. Nor should it be supported. We cannot even contemplate, in my view, trading American blood for Iraqi blood” (Smith 140).
Bush was able to reach the American people with the aid of the media. Within the day of the air raid, he was on television screens across America. According to Kathleen German, the speech “reputedly [was] seen by the largest American television audience in history” (292).
An understanding of United States foreign relations in the fifty years preceding the Persian Gulf Crisis is essential to understanding the rhetoric of Bush’s speech. The most significant historical event that influenced Bush’s rhetoric was the Vietnam War—the primary cause of American’s unwillingness to use military force in the Middle East. In the eyes of most Americans, the Vietnam War has become, as Mary E. Stuckey puts it, “shorthand for the divisive potential of protracted military involvement in a distant country” (247). It is a national symbol of the “bad” war. In order to bolster public support for the war effort, Bush’s speech would have to persuade people that the Gulf War would “not be another Vietnam.”
The second most significant historical event that influenced Bush’s rhetoric was World War II. Two months after Hussein ordered the invasion of Kuwait, Bush was reading a history book on the second world war. The President, a WWII veteran, told the New York Times: “…there’s a parallel between what Hitler did to Poland and…