Friday, September 13, 2013

My Response to President Obama's Syria Proposal: A Brief Rhetorical Analysis

“On Obama and Syria”
God save the children
The crux of the president's argument focused on the morally ambiguous implications of not intervening. He argued that we should not stand by as countless innocent civilians (children in particular) are placed in danger. At the end of his address, Mr. Obama argued, “With modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run.” Of course, this is an argument that we've heard before. Politicians are particularly keen on using children (a proxy for the future) as a reason for either action—in this case military intervention—or inaction (consider the debt ceiling debate from last year). This line of argumentation is flawed because it is resoundingly disingenuous. That is not to say that politicians don't care about children or that the plight of the world's children is not important; the point is that "children" in this context is nothing more than an abstraction in the same way that the "economy" is an abstraction (what, for example, do people envision when they argue that the President, Congress, or multi-national corporations should "fix" the economy?).

Lee Edelman argues succinctly against this rhetorical appeal to children by implying that a strict focus on children, since "children" signifies the future, subordinates the present, that is to say, present concerns and problems. Furthermore, by directing our attention to an abstraction, our solutions become equally abstract. Did Mr. Obama illuminate what this "modest effort and risk" will entail? Also, what are our collective goals? What do we want from this intervention? Regrettably, when we direct our attention exclusively on children (as a rhetorical signifier) we sound like well-intentioned parents who want "the best" for their individual children: our political hearts are in the right place, so to speak, but our brains don't know where to begin.

What you see is what you...I can't recall the rest
For those of you who don't know, I teach English Composition to freshman and continuing education students at the university and the community college level. I am, therefore, not only teaching these students how to write and think; I am also constantly conceptualizing what I want my students to look like as students when they leave my class. I am, of course, pragmatic and realistic. I don't labor under the delusion that my students, once they finish my class, will become avid connoisseurs of great literature. I have a simply and clear expectation: I want my students to be more aware and sensitive to rhetorical situations. I want my students to think more efficiently, which is to say, I want my students to have increased intellectual awareness. My sense is that most competent professors do the same. However, I do not see that sort of endplay at work with Mr. Obama’s Syria strategy. Mr. Obama did not thoroughly explain the expectations regarding a potential military intervention in Syria. What does Mr. Obama see when he conceptualizes a post-intervention Syria? Does he even know?

I suppose one could argue (as the President did) that if chemical weapons are no longer an option, then the intervention makes sense. Mr. Obama argued the following: “Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver…a targeted strike can make Assad, or any other dictator, think twice before using chemical weapons.” Protecting a people from future attack is certainly forward thinking conceptualization. Regrettably, the problem with this objective is the lack of definitive sustainability. We do not, for example, know that this intervention will create elongated stability that adequately protects the Syrian people from future attack. If we take a second look at the language he used, it is clear that Mr. Obama does not seem to have the convention of his rhetoric. He argued that other dictators would “think twice before using chemical weapons.” That sounds less definitive than I’m sure he wanted it to sound. Furthermore, this notion of “thinking twice” establishes a false dichotomy between the sober, reluctant humanitarian interventionist who acts only after thorough deliberation (Obama) and the inhumane dictator who orders chemical attacks with brazen, unreflective disregard (Assad). All we know is that intervention is a finite solution to a much larger, multi-dimensional problem. Protecting a people from immediate attack is important, but if we cannot parley immediate intervention into a sustained prescription for elongated security, is it necessarily worth it? Are we not putting ourselves in a position to re-litigate this problem once the finite solution runs its course? If you think I'm wrong, wait a month or so for this year's debt ceiling debate. This is yet another example of a finite fix to a much larger problem.

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