Bush in Baghdad: A Linguistic Analysis

by John Hickman

During his two-hour Thanksgiving tour of duty in Baghdad, Bush advanced ‘terrorism’ and ‘freedom’ as themes, omitting mention of ‘WMD’ and ‘democracy.’
Every retailer in the United States knows that Americans become sentimental and careless during the holidays. Sappy sales pitches cause us to buy what we wouldn't buy at any other time of the year and we are disinclined to read the fine print on contracts. That politicians also understand that vulnerability helps to explain the content of the speech that George W. Bush delivered during his two-hour Thanksgiving tour of duty in Baghdad. Wrapped in the inevitable invocations of divine blessing and military patriotism, his speech summarized the second Bush administration's current policy justification for its war in Iraq.

Unsurprisingly, Bush did not mention Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Though these were the primary pretext for the war in Iraq when it started, discussion of that non-existent threat appears to have been tabooed by the administration. “Terrorism” and “freedom” remain the revised explanations for the war.

According to Bush, the US military must defeat terrorists in Iraq "so that we don't have to face to face them in our own country." In the next breath, he said that our military were "defeating Saddam's henchmen."

Conflating the al Qaeda terrorists responsible for the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon with the supporters of Saddam Hussein appears an all-too-obvious effort to exploit the American public's weak grasp of international affairs. Ba’athist Iraq was not home to al Qaeda terrorists. If al Qaeda is now operating in Iraq, it is because a chaotic U.S. occupation has helped make the country a suitable environment.

What seems more likely is that most of the insurgents in Iraq are Iraqi nationalists, people who hardly need to carry their fight to the US homeland. Why should they? The second Bush administration has provided them with plenty of targets within easy driving distance of a donkey cart.

Bush's terrorism justification not only deals in deliberate confusion, it also misrepresents the facts. The US military does not appear to be winning. Iraqi insurgents are elusive and operations against them further alienate the Iraqi civilian population. They have demonstrated the ability to kill an average of one US soldier every day, and that attrition may be a winning strategy. Not only does it undermine support for the war in the US, but it also forces the US military to focus its efforts on limiting casualties.

When Bush uses previous US sacrifices to justify future US sacrifices, he compounds confusion and factual misrepresentation with illogic.

When Bush uses previous US sacrifices to justify future US sacrifices, he compounds confusion and factual misrepresentation with illogic. "We did not charge hundreds of miles into the heart of Iraq, pay a bitter cost in casualties, defeat a brutal dictator and liberate only to retreat before a band of thugs and assassins," he says. (Imagine for a moment the howls of conservatives had Bill Clinton dared make statements that appeared to place himself, even figuratively, among military personnel in active combat.)

Bush's appeal here is an obvious "sunk costs" argument. Familiar to economists, "sunk costs" is an emotional appeal not to abandon a losing effort because losses are so large already. For example, investors might be urged not to sell off a losing investment but instead to invest more in the hope of recouping previous losses. Confidence artists often exploit sunk costs, thinking to cheat the same victims repeatedly. Americans should expect to hear versions of the sunk costs argument from the administration and its conservative supporters whenever the war news from Iraq takes a new turn for the worse.

Freedom is the other justification for the war in Iraq. The word ‘freedom’ appears 8 times in Bush's speech, yet it is unclear what he meant by the word. As used in the speech, one can live in freedom, believe in freedom, spread freedom, defend freedom, pay the ultimate price for freedom, or rebuild Iraq based on freedom. Presumably anything but define freedom. More tellingly, Bush uses the word 'democracy' only once, and then not in connection with the promise to, "stay until the job is done." Whatever the second Bush administration means by freedom or by staying until the job is done, it does not appear to require establishing a real democracy.

Reluctance to promise a democratic government is hardly surprising. The administration bungled the occupation of Iraq so badly that it effectively aborted any realistic hope of establishing democracy. Any Iraqi government installed by the US is likely too illegitimate to survive as anything other than a police state. Rather than establishing a democracy, the administration is likely to be content with an authoritarian regime capable of maintaining itself in power, protecting new U.S. economic interests in Iraq, and making sure that Iraqi crude flows without interruption. With respect to foreign policy, ‘freedom’ may be conservative code for nothing more than authoritarian capitalism.

Traditionally, Americans mark the end the holiday season by making lighthearted, self-mocking New Year’s resolutions to avoid the kinds of unhealthy indulgence that peaked during the holidays. Perhaps we ought to begin 2004 with a more serious individual commitment—resolving to reject rank nonsense whenever we hear it from politicians.

John Hickman is associate professor of political science at Berry College.

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This story was published on December 2, 2003.