Constitutive Rhetoric Reconsidered: Constitutive Paradoxes in G. W. Bush's Iraq War Speeches

By Zagacki, Kenneth S. | Western Journal of Communication, October 2007 | Go to article overview

Constitutive Rhetoric Reconsidered: Constitutive Paradoxes in G. W. Bush's Iraq War Speeches


Zagacki, Kenneth S., Western Journal of Communication


In March 2003, responding to what he perceived to be an urgent need to destroy Saddam Hussein's Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), to unify and democratize the people of Iraq, and to defeat international terrorism, President George W. Bush ordered the military invasion of Iraq, what the White House dubbed "Operation Iraqi Freedom." From late 2002 and well into 2007, he delivered many public speeches in which he justified the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. In these speeches, the President addressed both Americans and Iraqis, inviting them to see the overthrow of Hussein and the ongoing occupation as a founding moment not only in Iraqi but also in Middle Eastern history. (1) According to Maurice Charland (1987), constitutive rhetorics are crucial during "founding" moments when advocates try to "interpellate" or "hail" audiences, calling a common, collective identity into existence. As Charland might say, President Bush as well as administration officials "addressed and so attempted to call into being" a unified and democratic Iraqi 'people' (p. 134). The Iraqi people, in turn, would "legitimate the constitution of a sovereign" Iraqi state (p. 134). The President addressed them by employing "prophetic dualism," a rhetorical frame for interpreting American foreign policy that divides the world into the forces of good (exemplified by the United States) and the forces of evil (represented by America's enemies). (2) As Wander (1984) points out, conflict between these forces can only be "resolved through the total victory of one side over the other" (p. 342). Prophetic dualism holds that Americans are morally and spiritually superior and destined to spread "good" around the globe. To be sure, Americans formed the President's primary audience: he interpellated them as prophetic dualists. But the effectiveness of Bush's rhetorical campaign also hinged on the way he articulated subject positions for people living in Iraq through a process of "identification" in the uniquely American prophetic dualist narrative. (3) For Bush, the whole idea of 'regime change' presupposed that Iraqis would participate in and secure democratic practices.

By 2005, despite promising elections and the development of an Iraqi political constitution, insurgents intensified their attacks against coalition forces and seemingly uncontrollable ethnic and sectarian violence wracked the nation. As several commentators on the war in Iraq observed, neither the President nor his advisors understood or took into account how the American intervention would unleash ethnic and religious tensions repressed for decades under autocratic rule (Chandrasekaran, 2006; Ricks, 2006; Will, 2006; Woodward, 2006). Washington Post reporter Anthony Shadid (2005) warned that the increasing violence magnified "the sense of U.S. failure in the eyes of most Iraqis ... and the rest of the world.... The carnage itself sent the message of approaching anarchy ... as if it was understood that Americans could say nothing to mitigate the most recent tragedies or promise anything that would end the violence.... Iraq was subsumed in the logic of violence, ruled by men with guns" (p. 426). By the end of 2006, rather than "reconstituting" Iraqis as a unified and democratic 'people,' the President's policy resulted in what the bipartisan Iraq Study Group called a "grave and deteriorating" situation (Baker et al., 2006, p. 6).

My purpose in this article is to investigate President Bush's Iraq war speeches as failed constitutive rhetoric. My study is guided by three overarching questions: (1) Why did Bush's speeches fail as constitutive rhetoric? (2) How did these speeches invoke or impose constraints on the American--Iraqi relationship in the form of what I shall call "constitutive paradoxes?" (3) What rhetorical opportunities are afforded by the failure of constitutive rhetoric? I will argue that, in the process of trying to create identification between Americans and Iraqis, making them partners in a democratic founding, Bush's discourse contributed to the emergence of conditions that were in many ways diametrically opposed to the democratic transformation he was promoting, creating several troubling constitutive paradoxes. …

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