Deconstructing Bush's Iraq War Rhetoric President Bush is giving a series of speeches aimed at bolstering support for the continued occupation of Iraq. Recent polls indicate a majority of Americans favor a plan to withdraw troops as sectarian violence there edges closer to open civil war. The president asserts that Iraq is the front line in the so-called "war on terror" and vows to stay the course.
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Deconstructing Bush's Iraq War Rhetoric

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Deconstructing Bush's Iraq War Rhetoric

Deconstructing Bush's Iraq War Rhetoric

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And now let's talk a little more about what the White House is saying or not saying about the war. This week, several members of the administration tried to link the war in Iraq and against terrorism in general to the fight against fascism during World War II. Here to talk about this wartime talk and where it fits historically is Christopher Gelpi. He's a professor of political science at Duke University. Welcome to the program.

Professor CHRISTOPHER GELPI (Duke University): Thanks for having me.

BRAND: First let's listen to a bit of what President Bush said yesterday.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: These groups form the outlines of a single movement, a worldwide network of radicals that use terror to kill those who stand in the way of their totalitarian ideology.

BRAND: Christopher Gelpi, totalitarian ideology. Is this classic wartime rhetoric?

Prof. GELPI: Well, I think it's certainly one strategy that people have used for wartime rhetoric, and that is to build up the sense of threat and try to make this part of a larger campaign. It's also something that the president sought to do before the 2004 election when he largely, successfully I think, sought to link the war in Iraq to the war on terror. And he's trying to do that again, and I think whether he succeeds will depend on whether he can get that message across or whether people look at Iraq and just see a civil war.

BRAND: Is he more or less adept than past presidents in using this kind of rhetoric?

Prof. GELPI: Well, he's more adept than people give him credit for. He's known as someone who tortures the English language on occasion, whereas Reagan is someone who is sort of the great communicator. But I think Bush is actually more effective than people give him credit for, largely because he's extremely good at staying on message, and he refuses to be deflected from what he wants to say.

BRAND: Well, speaking of Reagan, we do have a clip of tape of him, the great communicator. Let's listen to that.

President RONALD REAGAN: To ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil, I ask you to resist the attempts of those who would have you withhold your support for our efforts, this administration's efforts, to keep America strong and free.

BRAND: That kind of rhetoric, is that something that President Bush is trying to emulate?

Prof. GELPI: Absolutely. In terms of his sort of leadership style, he certainly reflects, say, President Reagan much more closely than he does his father, and I think he sees himself as a leader of an ideological movement in the same way that Reagan did and that his father did not.

BRAND: Well, do others see him that way?

Prof. GELPI: Well, Bush is one of the great polarizing figures of the last 50 years. I think people either really accept the notion that he is a leader of an ideological movement who is facing down an evil threat that is equivalent to fascism, or people think that he is simply manipulating the public. There's just a really sharp divide.

BRAND: Well, well, I wonder if we could just parse that a little further, and I wonder if it's better or not to invoke these sort of grand ideas, battling fascism, terrorism, you know, Communism in the cast of President Reagan. Or is it more effective to be specific, to be - to say this is exactly who we're fighting against, and this is why?

Prof. GELPI: Well, I think it depends on what your goal is. If, for example, his goal is to maintain or generate more support for the war in Iraq specifically, then I think he's going down the wrong path here, that he ought to focus on the specifics of what's happening on Iraq and try to argue that there's progress. Now, given what's going on in Iraq these days, that's sort of a tough road to hoe, to argue that there's progress, so that may be part of why he is shifting ground.

But another reason might be that he may be really focused more on the elections in November, and one of the things that may not get people to support the war in Iraq but may get people to turn out for Republican candidates is to give this sort of ideological message that this is part of a broader campaign, a broader ideological campaign, and that's something that he tried and largely succeeded with in 2004, and I think he's trying again.

BRAND: Christopher Gelpi is a professor of political science at Duke University. Thank you for joining us.

Prof. GELPI: Thanks very much for having me.

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