current speeches historic speeches presidents archives scholarship programs about links search

Responses to Message to Saddam
March 17, 2003

J. Gregory Payne
Emerson College

President Bush's speech reflected his fundamental belief that the "security of the world demands that we disarm S. Hussein now." The problem with this claim is that neither American nor President Bush can dictate world opinion. There are other countries and world leaders - and over a billion and a half people - who disagree with the assessment and timing of the proposed military action. It also furthers the perception that the United States has appointed itself as the sheriff of the world who decides on our own what is needed, and precisely when to keep what the sheriff determines to be "order."

The speech also reflected further identifying France as stifling the diplomatic efforts in the UN. Bush recalled the appeasement acts of the past as further evidence in damaging "Old Europe's" pespective on Iraq in our current day.

Curioius at best is the President's admonition to the Iraqis "not to set the oil wells on fire" as his first warning - rather than detonating "weapons of mass destruction" which was cited second by the President - even though it has been the major reasonfor the Bush's decision to engage in an historic pre-emptive strike against another country.

One of the best rhetorical moments was the President's directive to the Iraqi troops "not to die for dying regieme." He also continued his repitition of "regieme," "tyrant," "murder," and other devil terms to help enhance the reception of his claims among his target audience - which even with the references to the people of Iraq - clearly is the American electorate. President Bush continued to reflect on the memories of 9/11 as a warning of what is to come if we don't act against Hussein. One of the weaknesses of this argument here as in the past is the fact that very little, if any, credible evidence connects Hussein to the events of 9/11. Yet, it is clear that the President as well as many of his target audience's "mediated reality" makes the connection despite the lack of hard evidence. It is a driving force of the President's rhetorical message regarding this questionable move in Iraq.

The President's penchant for religious references, which has been the subject of many articles and mediated dialogues, was evident in the closing when Bush concluded with his usual call for "God to CONTINUE to Bless America."

Summed up - "Might makes Right"


James M. Farrell
University of New Hampshire

The speech extends the tradition of “war justification” rhetoric. However, George W. Bush faces a number of significant rhetorical constraints not normally impinging on such discourse. The President did not have at his disposal many of the traditional arguments used by American presidents to rationalize or justify the use of military force against a foreign adversary. In most cases, such speeches explain American military action as an effort to defend democracy, restore freedom, protect liberty, and thwart naked aggression. Presidents have also tried to emphasize the international support for such action.

In this instance, the President did not have grounds to make credible claims about support from the international community. Neither could he reasonably argue that the action contemplated was justified by the need to defend democracy and freedom, or because it was necessary to oppose an aggressive action by an adversary. Clearly in this instance, the United States will be the aggressor. The president says he “will work to advance liberty and peace in that region” but such sentiments hardly serve to convince Americans that this is the motive for undertaking the enormous invasion of a sovereign nation that may be only days away.

The president, then, was left on the one hand to emphasize the “legal” aspects of the proposed action, citing specific United Nation’s resolutions, and the historical context of the last dozen years in which Iraq has failed to comply. This, I think, was the president’s strongest argument. But, that argument is less compelling when the U.N. itself is not supporting the anticipated action. It is reasonable to ask: can the United States alone be the sole arbiter of compliance by its adversary to international law? I believe the president’s case would have been strengthened had he quoted directly from the resolutions he cited, so that the American people could judge simply whether Iraq had, or had not, complied with the existing resolutions of the United Nations.

The president also relied on a rhetoric of self-defense, emphasizing again the threat posed by the regime of Saddam Hussein. However, this argument has been shown to carry the President only so far, and he has arguably exhausted his credibility on this issue, certainly with the international diplomatic community, including the arms inspectors, and even with a significant minority of the American people. Many Americans, I think from a habit of fair-mindedness, are like our fellow citizens from Missouri who say “show me.” They want to trust the President’s judgment, they understand that Saddam is a brutal dictator, but they want to see the evidence that there is an immediate threat to our nation from the Iraqi regime. In my view, the President has not done a competent job of making that case.

The President also makes a reasonable argument about the necessity of acting now, rather than later. With regard to this aspect of the speech, I found some rather compelling parallels between the President’s remarks, and the famous “Liberty or Death” speech. Certainly the speeches were stylistically different, but the essential argument, and the necessity for immediate military action in the face of a grave threat, and in the context of widespread talk of “peace,” there are some very interesting similarities. I would suggest a look at that speech for some constructive insights.

Among the more interesting features of the address were the attempts by the President to speak directly to the people of Iraq, and to its military officers. These messages had the function, of course, of warning and attempting to discourage the Iraqi military establishment. They also aimed to communicate with segments of the Iraqi people who may oppose Hussein internally. But, at another level, from the perspective of those in the world who oppose American action, they may have resonated as Orwellian, “War is Peace” doublespeak. When the President promises that “war crimes will be prosecuted. War criminals will be punished.” Some might argue that it is the President and the United States who are the aggressors, who will be the “war criminals.”

What was peculiar, to me, was the fact that the president did not acknowledge at all the fact that many Americans do not support the action he contemplates. Maybe that would be expecting too much in these circumstances, and I don’t mean that he should refrain from taking action because there is opposition, but it seems to me that he should have acknowledged and addressed that opposition, and justified his decision to go to war despite that opposition. He needed to say, “I know there are some Americans who disagree. I know this is the right thing to do. I may not convince all Americans of the necessity to undertake this action, but I must take the action that I am convinced is absolutely necessary for the protection of our lives and interests.”


William Harlow
Texas Tech University

The president's speech tonight failed to take advantage of the rhetorical situation as effectively as it might have. While he made a number of arguments in favor of war with Iraq which some might consider compelling, none of these arguments were new. They were old enthymemes with which the audience was already familiar, but that they had not yet accepted. For example, his points about the continued refusal of the Iraqi leadership to comply with the inspections was inherently a claim which had been repeated for 12 years.

Perhaps the most powerful argument leveled against Bush has been that he is acting alone in this potential conflict. He reinforced that image this evening by giving Iraq an ultimatum. This was unfortunate, because just this weekend he had appeared on an international stage with the leaders of other nations to proclaim that Hussein must go. Indeed, President Bush has received endorsements from many states and outright opposition from only three-France, Germany, and Russia. Those that remained undecided wanted some manner of multilateral action. Bush could have more nearly mollified those concerns by making the same announcement in the company of his colleagues.

The arguments in the president's speech were interesting, but they were rhetorical tools which had already been spent. Additionally, he passed up an opportunity to more effectively make the case that he is acting in multilateral fashion. His failure to make any significant new argument ultimately left the nation no better prepared for war than it was before his speech.


Bruce Gronbeck
The University of Iowa

This President Bush has been facing a serious rhetorical difficulty his father didn't. Saddam Hussein's government in 1990 had moved into another country; as that has not happened, the son has had great problems in articulating an exigency requiring immediate rhetorical--and military--action. In the face of such problems, the President had to bend time in the speech tonight. He folded today, 3/17/02, into a sandwich between the past and the future. Today was made into the product of twelve years of yesterday and one-to-five years of tomorrow. The twelve years of yesterday showed Hussein's non-compliance, and the up-to-five-years of tomorrow hosted his threats. Today, then, became the time to act against a non-compliant threat.

It is very, very difficult to fold time in such a manner when the past seems distant and the future seems a fantasy. It's a rhetorical task made even harder when important agents-of-change--key members of the UN Security Council, especially--appear so immovable. Equally bad, the President still has not built a now-is-the-time argument satisfying the full spectrum of the American citizenry. Over the last month and for the first time since 9/11, the President's negative job performance ratings by the public are running in the 32%-38% range (see PollingReport.com).

The President is in an ugly position. The longer he waits, the more time he gives to the electronically organizing anti-war sentiment, yet if he acts too quickly, not even his allies (a key British minister resigned today over the Iraqi situation) will be able to provide strong support.

Martin Luther King Jr. successfully constructed a now-is-the-time argument in 1963 in the face of gradualist objections. The President simply must find the same rhetorical inspiration, or risk serious credibility problems at home and abroad.


Amos Kiewe
Syracuse University

In the Talmudic tradition of “if not now, when?” a resolute President George Bush set forth a straightforward message: Saddam Hussein has 48 hours to leave Iraq or else. The “final days of decision” are here and the next move is clear to all—war. The speech sought to justify the United States going to war after 12 years of efforts and “good faith” to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. In a somber and confident voice, Bush described the gravity of the situation imposed on the United States by a reckless regime and a ruthless dictator.

Bush did not mince words and did not care to engage in diplomatic niceties. The United States, he said, is justified in going to war, and while the United Nations’ mission is an honorable one, it failed to deliver in the case of disarming Iraq. The justification for war, he said, is not a matter of authority but of will. The defense of the United States is in the hand of its commander in chief and not, he implied, in the hands of the United Nations. Absent the resolve of some nations (namely France and Germany), the United States’ resolve is intact. But the resolve is directed at the Iraqi leader: not its people. Though it is too late for Saddam Hussein, his army’s fate depends on its action. Military tribunals will take place, thus offering military leaders a clear choice at hand: step aside and not engage the United States military or face punishment later. The last attempt to appeal to the Iraqi people and its military leaders was made.

Consistent with earlier addresses, George Bush described the decision to go war as a reluctant one. After patience has run out, the United States has no choice, he argued, in the face of weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of terrorists or used by rogue nations. Consistent with other declarations of war, the President presented the United States decision as morally justified by law and by events on the ground. The diplomatic events of the past few weeks and even few hours were clearly in the background. Anger over lack of support by the Security Council strengthened the United States’ resolve. Perhaps the larger objective of remaking the Middle East, changing old regimes, hoping for once and for all to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict, and perhaps even refashioning the United Nations now that it proved its uselessness, are all factored in the decision to go to war, a decision that was likely made some time ago, but that had to wait for its time. The Bush doctrine of the remaining superpower flexing its muscles to bring peace and confronting rogue nations is now in force. The unacceptable situation of other nations dictating to the United States its moves was simply a non-starter.


James R. Andrews
Indiana University

I would make two points on George W. Bush’s televised speech of last night (March 17, 2003).

First, the President of the United States has always had the responsibility, especially in times of great challenge, to interpret events in the light of America’s history and America’s mission in the world. Lincoln at Gettysburg, Wilson before Congress to ask for a declaration of War, Franklin Roosevelt delivering his First Inaugural in the throes of the Great Depression, Lyndon Johnson addressing Congress and the nation at the height of crisis in Selma—in all of these instances, as well as in the Inaugural Addresses, in messages to Congress, in ceremonial speeches, and in calls to action, presidents have most often sought to connect the present with the past. George W. Bush’s speech of last night, an ultimatum—by definition the final word to which there is no rhetorical rejoinder—completely ignored such a unifying persuasive effort. Not only is the notion of a preemptive war a break with past U. S. policy, the president’s message signaled a rhetorical break with presidential speechmaking. There is absolutely no sense of history here. (The off-handed, and completely misleading, analogy with the British and French policy of appeasement before Word War II echoed the elder Bush’s unconvincing comparisons between Saddam and Hitler in the first Gulf War, and, without an overt Iraqi attack on a neighbor, was even more feeble.) The “Why Iraq?” “Why now?” questions are questions not answered by insinuations made fact through clever semantic associations (“Saddam Hussein and his terrorist allies”) or lurid imaginative assertions of what might happen, or conflations of “terrorists” into a single entity represented by the Iraqi regime. The why questions are demands for a clear and rational explanation of how national policy is consistent with national principles, as well as reflections of a deep emotional need to feel that we are living up to the expectations of an ideal—perhaps mythical, but no less real—that reflects our traditional values. Great presidents rise to this rhetorical demand; George W. Bush did not.

My second point, perhaps because the observation is more obvious, is one that calls for little comment. The speech, consistent with the actions of this Administration, ignored world opinion. Again, with our history in mind, I could not help but think how far we have come since Thomas Jefferson and his founding colleagues declared their “decent respect for the opinions of mankind.”

It appears that in the time of crisis in which we find ourselves we have a completely unhistorical president who utterly fails to understand our history and what our rhetoric demands of a leader.


David Levasseur
West Chester University

As with most rhetorical performances, Bush's war message contained certain observable strengths and weaknesses.

In terms of strengths, the speech showed the level of certitude necessary in war rhetoric. Taking a nation to war is not a rhetorical situation that calls for equivocation. The momentousness of such a decision demands certainty, and the President demonstrated such certainty throughout his address. The speech itself is full of strongly-worded, largely unsupported assertions (e.g. "The United States and other nations did nothing to deserve or invite this threat."etc.). While claims are generally strengthened by supporting evidence, war rhetoric may demonstrate that this is not always the case. Certainly, Bush could have gone to great lengths in his address to recount the evidence against Hussein. But such justification suggests the need for justifying one's actions, and acknowledging such a need fails to convey certainty. One could also argue that without ample evidence Bush may fail to convert Americans who oppose the war effort. But was Bush really interested in this audience? I fail to see any effort in his speech to acknowledge or identify with this group of people.

As a second strength, Bush showed an awareness of the longstanding rhetorical connection between war and peace. Specifically, since advancing the cause of war is antithetical to the fundamental human value of peace, messages advocating war must depict a nation firmly committed to peace (i.e. blessed are the war-makers since they advance world peace). Bush again and again evoked the value of peace; he spoke of "peaceful efforts to disarm the Iraqi regime," he defined Americans as "a peaceful people," and he noted that our overall goal was to seek "peace in the region." Bush also adeptly reinforced this appeal to peace by offering Hussein and the Iraqi people a final chance to avoid war by either forcing Hussein into exile or by refusing to fight for an unjust regime.

In terms of weaknesses, Bush somewhat diluted the overall strength of his war message by offering multiple justifications for war. Will we fight this war to advance UN resolutions, or will we fight the war to protect the U.S. against terrorism, or will we fight this war to liberate the Iraqi people? War messages necessitate certainty, but Bush's mixed justification messages suggest uncertainty. G. W. Bush should have learned a lesson from his father. In 1991, the elder Bush's administration advanced as many reasons for the Persian Gulf War as they could uncover; their war rhetoric seemed in many ways like a public brain-storming session as opposed to a coherent rhetorical strategy (at one point, they even argued that the Persian Gulf War was necessary to lift the nation out of a recession-fortunately, they quickly pulled that rationale). In 1991, the elder Bush was subjected to a great deal of media criticism because of the lack of clarity in his war rhetoric. The younger Bush is seemingly following in his father's rhetorical footsteps. Bush would have made a stronger case to the American people if he had simply justified an invasion of Iraq based on U.S. security/terrorism concerns. After all, this appears to be the justification that is resonating most with the American people-despite the fact that it is supported by little evidence. Bush's additional explanations of the war served only to dilute the waters, and they also appeared somewhat disingenuous. It is very difficult to make the case that we are fighting the war to enforce UN resolutions when it is very clear (and has been in the news all week) that the UN does not want us to fight this war. It is also difficult to frame this as a war of liberation. The Iraqi people have been oppressed for decades. Has this only now come to the Administration's attention?

As a final note, while Bush's speech in many way adheres to traditional war rhetoric, it also departs from this tradition in one very significant way. Bush's speech advanced a new line of argument. Specifically, the President argued that the U.S. should fight a war based on a perceived future threat; Bush supported an invasion of Iraq based on the contention that Iraq might one day supply terrorists with weapons of mass destruction. If this argument becomes firmly ensconced in America's war rhetoric, it has the potential to greatly expand the opportunities for war. In the past, we justified wars based on what other nations had done to us. Now, we are justifying war based on what a nation might do to us. Hence, any regime that amasses power and that is hostile to U.S. interests becomes a potential candidate for war.


Cori Dauber
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The biggest rhetorical problem for this speech, as for all the administration’s rhetoric on Iraq, is that it occurs in the context of a rhetorical mistake made months ago. For whatever reason, the administration chose to release the National Security Strategy centered on the doctrine of preemption in the midst of the debate over war with Iraq. Whether one agrees or disagrees with that doctrine on the merits, the timing seems highly questionable – it was both predictable and unnecessary that the two debates would be immediately conflated in such a way that it rapidly became impossible to pull the two apart. This has been hugely disadvantageous to the administration’s case on Iraq. Most advocates of war with Iraq believe it is hardly necessary to justify it on preemptive grounds, but that war grounded in the fact that original cease fire agreements from 1991, formalized in UNSCR 687 and in more then a dozen subsequent resolutions, have been violated for twelve years. War in a legal sense, then, at best is justified by those earlier resolutions (certainly by 1441); perhaps a legal state of war never even ended.

The first major theme of this speech ties it back to the president’s September 12, 2001 address to the United Nations. It states that the UN should, if it wishes to have its word taken seriously, enforce its resolutions, and the United States is willing to work through UN processes to see if that is possible. But when it becomes obvious that the UN is not serious, will not exercise the will to be taken seriously, the United States will not conclude from that that it therefore has no options when its own security is at stake. Here the President deploys a strategy that the administration began to use the previous week, along with representatives of the British government. The British began a few days earlier, the Americans the day of the summit on the Azores, and the strategy can be summed up easily: the French are players with an agenda in this thing too, and nothing can be accomplished in the UN given their agenda of obstruction. It is unfortunate that it was not until the very end of the endgame that the French strategy was named as such. If the polite fiction of mutual efforts at persuasion had been abandoned publicly at an earlier stage, perhaps we would have been more successful at actually gaining votes in the Security Council.

The second critical aspect, and to my knowledge one that is unusual if not unique in war rhetoric, is addressing so much of the speech to the enemy army. Obviously this is in part an opening salvo in a campaign of psychological operations. But given that the military forces are so unevenly matched that the outcome is indeed certain, if convincing military forces to surrender saves lives, it is difficult to see anything wrong with it. But at the level of presidential rhetoric, the move serves another function. As long as people believe the war to be one of choice, then they will hold the Bush administration accountable for what happens during the war – even for what Saddam does. Did Saddam kill civilians? Well, he wouldn’t have if you hadn’t started the war. Did Saddam use chemical weapons? Well, he wouldn’t have if you hadn’t started the war. And so forth. No matter how heinously Saddam behaves, there are those who will hold the American side responsible. If, on the other hand, it is made clear that the outcome is absolutely inevitable, to the point where it is obviously useless to resist, then resistance gains no one anything but delaying the moment of liberation, and increased casualties, then accountability for allowing Saddam’s atrocities flips back from the Bush administration to those who bought Saddam time to make them possible: the Iraqi military who fought to no purpose.

Politically, of course, the real brilliance of the speech is bringing a war speech in the guise of an “ultimatum,” coopting the Arab government’s chosen strategy of offering exile. For eleven years, last chances had been offered in such a way that advocates could protest that progress was being made, “death bed conversions,” were already being talked of this time around – in the 1990s it had happened even when Bill Clinton had the bombers in the air. Exile is a threshold issue, a binary, a yes/no proposition. But setting a deadline gives everyone a chance to prepare psychologically, people in the region chances to prepare physically, journalists and aid workers chances to move out altogether. War was coming, but the burden rhetorically was placed on Saddam, for if the choice offered him was, in the end, a bad one, it was better then the choices he had ever given any of his victims in thirty years of bloody rule.


<< Go Back