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War: What Is It Good For? (and Why?)

March 30, 2011

Here’s an SAT essay prompt for you: compare and contrast President Bush’s March 2003 speech announcing the Iraq invasion and President Obama’s March 2011 address justifying the Libya attack. Or should I just say: Past is prologue? Justify your response.

There are comparisons enough to make between the two. Both presidents open with a catalogue of diplomatic efforts. Bush can claim, “For more than a decade, the United States and other nations have pursued patient and honorable efforts to disarm the Iraqi regime without war.”  Obama reports that “we broadened our sanctions, imposed an arms embargo, and enabled Qaddafi and those around him to be held accountable for their crimes. … I said that he needed to step down from power.”Both Bush and Obama justify military intervention on the same grounds. Bush: “We are now acting because the risks of inaction would be far greater.” Obama: “So while I will never minimize the costs involved in military action, I am convinced that a failure to act in Libya would have carried a far greater price for America.”

And both presidents say time has run out. Bush opens with the statement that “events in Iraq have now reached the final days of decision.” Obama builds up to the statement that “if we waited one more day, Benghazi… could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.”

So both presidents argue (1) they tried diplomacy—it failed; (2) that action is better than inaction; and (3) there’s no time to lose.  It’s a chilling reflection.  Who wants to think the Libya situation akin to the Iraq one, with blood and treasure poured endlessly into sand?

But there are also contrasts. In fact, Obama’s speech can be read as an almost point-by-point rebuttal of Bush’s address.

For example, Bush argues, as we all remember, that Iraq threatens national security. Obama claims, “There will be times, though, when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and our values are.” Bush blamed UN inaction for American invasion: “The United Nations Security Council has not lived up to its responsibilities, so we will rise to ours.” Obama claims intervention in Libya helps support the UN, that without the no-fly zone, “[t]he writ of the United Nations Security Council would have been shown to be little more than empty words, crippling that institution’s future credibility to uphold global peace and security.” So while Bush argues for safety and against the UN, Obama pushes beyond security and for its support.

There’s also how the presidents conceive of the attacked people. Bush addresses the Iraqis directly. He promises:

Many Iraqis can hear me… I have a message for them. If we must begin a military campaign, it will be directed against the lawless men who rule your country and not against you. As our coalition takes away their power, we will deliver the food and medicine you need. We will tear down the apparatus of terror and we will help you to build a new Iraq that is prosperous and free.

He goes on to warn:

And all Iraqi military and civilian personnel… your fate will depend on your action. … War crimes will be prosecuted. War criminals will be punished. And it will be no defense to say, “I was just following orders.”

In doing so, Bush projects a future, describing how he sees the war going (victory is assured) and peace unfolding (democracy will flourish).

Obama, on the other hand, speaks about the Libyan people:

But it should be clear to those around Qaddafi, and to every Libyan, that history is not on Qaddafi’s side. With the time and space that we have provided for the Libyan people, they will be able to determine their own destiny, and that is how it should be.

He describes past events rather than future images:

Yet when one of our airmen parachuted to the ground… this American did not find enemies. Instead, he was met by people who embraced him. One young Libyan who came to his aid said, “We are your friends. We are so grateful to those men who are protecting the skies.”

Obama provides evidence of what has already happened in support of further military involvement. He separates American intervention from regime change and delineates responsibility (we support; Libyans decide). In what is coming to be known as the Obama doctrine, we see the definition of leader shifting from commander to facilitator, both in the person of the President and the role of the US. Such contrasts stand in sharp relief to the surface similarities between these speeches. Perhaps, rather than past as prologue, we see here an example of past as lesson—we see a president learning from mistakes.

If you want to know more:

  • Not everyone accepts the idea of a clear Obama doctrine. Dissenters can be read here and here; those on the fence are here, here, here, and (holy media analysis, Batman) here. Inter alia, of course, since everyone in the blogging universe has an opinion as well.
  • Obama’s speech seems to have inspired semi-rhetorically-focused critiques as well as the typical reader-response and partisan-based rebuttals. Here’s a The New York Times Blog that compares Obama’s speech with Bush’s second inaugural address. Here’s Hendrik Hertzberg at a New Yorker blog briefly discussing audiences, publics, narratives, and how political critiques should come with alternative proposals rather than just criticisms.
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