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Why the World Needs Fareed Zakaria

April 6, 2011

Illustration by Kate Holterhoff

What happens when famous people play rhetorician? Reactions to Obama’s much-anticipated Libya speech from last week gave us a taste of what happens when prominent leaders try their hand at language analysis.

One of the reasons we founded The Silver Tongue was that we couldn’t find a source for sustained, up-to-date commentary on political rhetoric. Oh, there’s plenty of insightful commentary on politics available and plenty of not-so-insightful-and-completely-bonkers-and-not-even-in-a-fun-way commentary too, but you usually don’t see the big names (e.g. ambassadors, sitting senators, etc.) doing language analysis. But when they do, it’s a great opportunity to see how influential people see language.

I want to draw your attention to two reactions to Obama’s address, one from Sen. John McCain and one from Fareed Zakaria, a journalist and well-known commentator on global politics. First let’s look at McCain’s response to Obama:

… he made a very puzzling comment, and that was [regime change by force] would be a mistake. Gadhafi must have been comforted by that.

The president’s policy is Gadhafi must go. I think there’s a chance, if we keep the pressure on, Gadhafi could be thrown under the bus [by people surrounding him.]

It’s clear we’re on the side of the rebels in this conflict. … [But] if we tell Gadhafi, ‘Don’t worry, you’re not going to be removed by force,’ I think that’s very encouraging for Gadhafi.

And here’s Fareed Zakaria responding to both Obama’s speech and McCain’s comment:

It was actually an important speech. It was quite carefully constructed. It had a humanitarian angle, a strategic angle. But at the heart of what Obama is saying is that there are places in the world where the United States does not have vital national interests, where we have not been attacked, but we have limited interests and we’re going to try to find a way to have some kind of limited military response.”

What John McCain was suggesting [in the reaction above] frankly strikes me as a very dangerous argument — that in a place where we have clearly limited interests, clearly nonvital interests, the United States and the president should [have] an open-ended policy of military escalation and say we will do whatever it takes to get Moammar Gadhafi out of office. That is, frankly, the way we got in conflicts like Vietnam. In order to not be humiliated, we couldn’t back down.

What makes Zakaria’s commentary unique is that he’s talking about more than just the content of Obama’s speech; he’s also explicitly addressing Obama’s rhetorical choices. He argues that Obama’s speech plans effectively for future rhetorical situations. He warns that pursuing “an open-ended policy of military escalation” would restrict the United States’ ability to say and do certain things down the road.

The need to plan for future situations is something I work very hard to impart to my professional writing students. When you’re arguing on behalf of an organization, as Obama is doing when he speaks for the United States, it isn’t enough to simply make a good argument. One must make that argument in a way that is consistent with the character of the organization (in this case, the United States). Moreover, you must make this argument with three things in mind: what the organization has said in the past, what they’ve been saying lately and what they might have to say in the future.

Zakaria is able to juggle all three, which is some trick when you really think about it. He considers what the United States has said in the past (by reminding us of the lessons of Vietnam), what we’re saying now (by reviewing Obama’s speech) and what we might have to say in the future (by warning us of the dangers of the rhetoric of escalation).

I’d be curious to hear what readers think of the other responses to Obama’s speech. Should we offer a job at The Silver Tongue to any of the other commentators? I’d hire Zakaria, but he’s probably too expensive.

If you want to know more:

  • The brackets in McCain’s and Zakaria’s excerpts represent CNN’s additions to their comments, not my own.
  • The title of this post is a reference to an earlier post (“Why the World Doesn’t Need Everyday People”) and also the abysmal Superman Returns in which Lois Lane wins a Pulitzer for an article about Superman’s abandonment of Earth titled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.” I’d love to read that article.
  • If you’re not familiar with rhetorical situations, run right out and find a copy of Bitzer’s “The Rhetorical Situation” and then, when you’re done with that, read Richard Vatz’s “The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation.”
2 Comments leave one →
  1. Ethan Pullman permalink
    April 7, 2011 9:00 am


    Again, a great post!

    Here’s the link to Lois Lane’s article “why the world doesn’t need superman”;read=1427&expand=1


    • Doug Cloud permalink*
      April 7, 2011 11:26 am

      Thanks Ethan! That Lois Lane article is good, but I don’t think it’s the one from the movie. There are several versions that other people wrote floating around out there. I’m guessing that we can’t see the text of Lois Lane’s article in the movie because the screenwriters/director didn’t feel like writing an article that would have to be believable as a Pulitzer Prize winner. That would be tough to do on the fly, no?

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