Obama's "New Beginning": US Foreign Policy and Comic Exceptionalism

By Chirindo, Kundai; Neville-Shepard, Ryan | Argumentation and Advocacy, Spring 2015 | Go to article overview

Obama's "New Beginning": US Foreign Policy and Comic Exceptionalism


Chirindo, Kundai, Neville-Shepard, Ryan, Argumentation and Advocacy


For the second time since his first inauguration, on June 4, 2009, President Barack Obama departed for an overseas tour focusing on foreign policy. The highlight of the trip was a speech Obama gave at Cairo University, which received the most attention in part because it made good on a campaign promise to address the Muslim world directly. More than "3,000 invited guests, including 500 journalists," witnessed the speech in person along with "an audience of tens of millions more over national television networks, social-networking Web sites, and instant-messaging services" (Wilson, 2009, p. A01). It was Obama's longest speech as president up until that point (Couric, 2009), and it was his "most high-profile attempt to change the direction of U.S. relations with Islamic nations" (Wilson, 2009, p. A01). Immediate reactions to Obama's "A New Beginning" were mixed, though. Gallup, for instance, found that in the three days following his remarks the president's "approval fell slightly among Republicans and independents, while gaining a point among Democrats" (Newport, 2009, para. 5). Some in the American media hailed the president for demonstrating strong leadership ("The Cairo speech," 2009), especially in exhibiting sincerity in his desire "to turn the page from the last eight years" (Madden, 2009, para. 4). At the same time, others were less enthused by the speech. Former U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North (2009), for example, called Obama's appearance part of a "grand apology tour." By no means was the speech an unequivocal success.

Even though Obama's Cairo address received mixed reviews, we think that the speech was important because it signaled a turning point in the articulation of American exceptionalism in United States foreign policy. In our view, the Cairo speech was a microcosm of the distinct doctrine of exceptionalism we are calling comic exceptionalism. Comic exceptionalism is the variant of American exceptionalism defined by an emphasis on reflexivity, agonism, and the pursuit of common ground. To elucidate this point, we draw on the connections among Burkean rhetoric, American exceptionalism, and constitutive rhetoric. We begin by outlinining the relevant contexts in which we approach the Cairo address. Second, we revisit the frames of acceptance and show how they foster various orientations among people. We then develop frames' constitution of orientations as a fourth ideological effect of constitutive rhetoric. Fourth, we connect Burke's frames of acceptance to foreign policy discourse. An analysis of Obama's speech in Cairo follows, and we conclude by exploring the implications of our analysis.

CONTEXTUALIZING OBAMA'S ADDRESS AT CAIRO UNIVERSITY

Obama's effort to launch the foreign policy blueprint of his presidency occurred at a rather complex point in history. Part of the problem Obama faced stemmed from the absence of a coherent strategy in Middle East policy during the latter years of George W. Bush's administration. As Mead (2010) explained, after the initially unilateralist response to 9/11 sputtered, the Bush foreign policy team attempted to rationalize American conduct abroad by recourse to Wilsonian idealism. The war in Iraq became "a war to establish democracy, first in Iraq and then throughout the region" (Mead, 2010, p. 61). Bush's turn to idealism angered hardline conservatives who favored the unilateralism he had displayed in the early days of the war, while less hawkish moderates were skeptical about the sincerity of his idealism. The foreign policy chaos was so bad, wrote Mead (2010), "Bush [himself] (sic) could not have developed a strategy better calculated to dissolve his political support" (p. 61). Elsewhere within the region, escalating political tensions punctuated the salience of Obama's speech: Israeli citizens were establishing controversial settlements in the West Bank; moreover, Israeli-Palestinian peace talks had stalled; America's wars continued despite Obama being in office for four months; Iran was seeking weapons grade nuclear technology, and an Iran-backed Hezbollah was campaigning aggressively in elections in Lebanon. …

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