All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth.”
On Tuesday, September 10, President Obama will address the nation regarding his proposal to attack Syria in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. Obama will attempt to sway public opinion in favor of bombing Syria. Anyone who takes his word that this is a vital national interest, that the predicted outcome of such action will go according to plan, and that he will not deviate from his prescription for military action against Syria is a total fool. From his rhetoric, whether they concern domestic or foreign policies, Obama makes it plain that he believes central planning can solve the world’s ills; the results of his policies prove otherwise.
Watching President Obama and his allies bumble their way through press conferences the past week reminded me of my high school senior year English class. That year, we read Henry V, and I remember our teacher telling us the play revolves around the king’s rhetoric. Obama’s rhetorical history, and events at home and in Syria are strikingly similar to the eponymous character and plot of Henry V. Analogizing Obama and Syria to Henry V may seem like nothing more than a thought exercise, but given Obama’s and Henry’s reliance on rhetoric to further their agendas, it is important to examine the promises, successes and failures borne from the rhetoric of heads of state.
The basic plot of Henry V is the son of Henry IV has just ascended to the throne following his father’s death. The English are weary of the civil wars that have wreaked havoc on their country. Utilizing esoteric interpretations of land laws and his distant relations to the French royal family, Henry V lays claim to parts of France. The French Dauphin denies Henry’s claims, in an insulting manner, and Henry decides to invade France. Henry convinces the English nobility and clergy to support his war, and Henry gives impassioned speeches which inspire his army to victory over the French.
Peter Parolin writes in “Figuring the King in Henry V: Political Rhetoric and the Limits of Performance”: “It seems somewhat perverse to use Henry V to talk about the limitations of rhetoric when the play is substantially about the way the heroic English king uses rhetoric to fashion an unforgettable image of himself and the nation-building enterprise on which he is embarked. But while the play does chronicle Henry’s military victories in France, it ends with a vision of his death and the squandering of his legacy. It is surely worth considering that if rhetoric was a major source of Henry’s strength, it might also contain the seeds of his undoing. Rhetoric is the vehicle by which Henry V establishes himself as an irresistible king, but it is also the vehicle that enmeshes him in contradiction, in the condition of loss, and in the messiness of collaboration, where other points of view complicate his self-presentation.”
In 2012, Obama imposed the “red line” the Assad regime crossed by using chemical weapons. Obama has decided that as a result of the use of those weapons, America’s military must be brought to bear against Assad. Palorin states, “Henry V shapes his rhetorical self-presentation in relation to a world in which his own primacy is in doubt…” This is congruent to Obama’s “red line” declaration. Obama inserted himself into Syria’s civil war via what weapons are allowed to be used not because of fealty to an international decree, but for Obama’s own ego. If his primacy on the world’s stage was not threatened, he would not feel the need to follow through on his arbitrarily drawn line via missile strike; he still desires to strike Syria even though America would be the sole country enforcing a rule that the vast majority of other nations supposedly wish to uphold. The American populace is overwhelmingly against getting involved in another war; well, then the American people need to be convinced it’s the right thing to do.
Obama first gained national prominence during his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, in which he praised the American Dream of opportunity, freedom and equality. Four short years later during his nomination victory speech, he proclaimed, “I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth.” As Parolin points out, “rhetoric confers dizzying power: a gifted rhetorician can change men’s minds and his own stature; he is like a god in his ability to alter the givens of a reality.” …one aspect of rhetoric that merits scrutiny is the possibility that the skilled rhetor can use language to approximate the condition of a god.” Obama hadn’t won the election, yet he was promising feats no human being can rationally guarantee.
Obama’s rhetoric in 2008 gave the impression that he possessed supernatural powers. He never really ever gives specifics about how jobs are created, how healthcare is delivered, how wars are concluded, nor how damaging climate change is stopped. Those details don’t matter to a master rhetorician; the guarantee that we will be delivered onto the Promised Land is all that is required. Obama promises miraculous events, and all he asks for in exchange is our faith in him. He uses his rhetoric to confer on himself the powers of a god. God is infallible, and therefore unaccountable; Obama possesses a canny ability to deny any blame others may confer on him.
Obama’s prescription for involvement in Syria is a limited campaign of missile strikes designed to remove Assad from power. It isn’t just war-weariness that drives opposition to bombing Syria; many people simply do not trust Obama. There are many similarities between Obama & Syria and Henry V, but one huge difference is Henry’s rhetoric inspires his army’s victory over France at Agincourt, despite overwhelming odds, because his rhetoric had led to prior victories in battle, whereas Obama’s rhetoric is empty and the results of actions he advocates do not match their lofty promises.
Parolin writes, “While rhetoric holds exhilarating promise, it also raises concerns about social control.” Indeed. Usually those who hear rhetoric of Obama’s magnitude expect the man speaking those words to deliver on at least a few of those promises. How has Obama fared on his promises? He spoke against the individual mandate during the Democratic primaries; the individual mandate is a cornerstone of Obamacare. Despite his promises of Obamacare’s benefits, and actually due to the effects of the law, health insurance premiums have and will continue to rise, and some people who already have health insurance will lose it. Obamacare is also leading to people getting their work hours cut back, and many new jobs created since he took office have been for part time work. The stimulus was supposed to keep unemployment below 8%; it rose above that figure, and stayed above it for more than three years. Obama and neo-conservatives asserted the need to impose a no fly zone over Libya, and that Gaddafi and Mubarek had to step down in favor of democracy in the countries they ruled; a year after Gaddafi was overthrown the attack on America’s compound in Benghazi occurred and the Libyan government is unable to keep domestic peace, while in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood tried to impose a theocracy and that country’s military continues to crack down on violent protestors.
Then there is the more subtle rhetoric when his administration decides to not enforce certain aspects of Obamacare, parts of the DREAM act and DOMA. The president’s role is to enforce laws. He can use the bully pulpit to speak out against laws he thinks are unconstitutional or unfair, but a president who decides he just won’t enforce some laws is not only conducting his office in an arbitrary manner, but helps foster uncertainty that could cause other branches of the government and the general populace to question his leadership.
It is not fair to blame Obama for chaos in the streets of Middle Eastern countries undergoing regime change, nor is it fair to solely blame him for America’s domestic problems. However, if the events that have taken place at home and abroad show anything, it is that people and nations act in their own perceived self-interests despite the rhetoric and policies of Obama, or any other American president.
Herein lies another similarity between Obama and Henry V. Parolin states “there is something in the condition of rhetoric itself” that brings about Henry’s downfall: “The problem may lie in the fact that, fashioning himself rhetorically, Henry necessarily engages in performance – the verbal performance of self – and performance is always slippery and transient: it is glorious in the moment, but it cannot deliver the enduring heroic legacy that Henry craves.” The problem with Obama is all too often he goes back on his word, his promises do not come to fruition, he and his allies redefine words and phrases for political expediency (terrorism is a “man-caused disaster,” Nidal Hassan’s Fort Hood shooting was “workplace violence,” and a lack of “boots on the ground” makes a war not a war), and when inconvenient he denies his previously spoken rhetoric (“First of all, I didn’t set a ‘red line,’ the world set a red line… My credibility is not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line. And America’s and Congress’s credibility is on the line.”). How is he supposed to use his rhetoric to convince the American people that bombing Syria is the right thing to do when his words have neither meaning nor worth?
Palorin references a scene in Henry V in which the king’s “rhetorical presentation is exposed…as a fraud; he and the bishops have already agreed about a matter that they now pretend is an open question,” to argue that “rhetoric can never be a neutral conduit for conveying reality; rather rhetoric fashions the very reality it purports to describe. This exposure of rhetoric puts us in the world of Machiavelli, who advised princes to pursue power ruthlessly even while they publicly justified their actions in the language of common values.”
Many advocates of bombing Syria have said that if we don’t, America will “lose credibility.” In Reason.com’s “War in Syria: The Endless Quest for Credibility” Steve Chapman writes, “[W]e are told we have to bomb Syria to preserve our credibility in world affairs… Really? You’d think it would be every other country that would need to confirm its seriousness. Since 1991, notes University of Chicago security scholar John Mearsheimer, the U.S. has been at war in two out of every three years. If we haven’t secured our reputation by now, it’s hard to imagine we ever could…On the surface, American credibility resembles a mammoth fortress, impervious to anything an enemy could inflict. But to crusading internationalists, both liberal and conservative, it’s a house of cards: The tiniest wrong move, and it collapses.” There are other, far more concrete ways for America’s government to damage its credibility: engaging in wars of choice, rather than wars of necessity predicated on real threats to American national security; drone strikes that kill as many, if not more, civilians than terrorists; a democratically elected government that ignores the wishes of a populace overwhelmingly opposed to bombing Syria.
Back to Palorin: “Rhetoric thus does not fashion a permanent reality but rather outlines a present reality and persuades others to accept it, for now…rhetoric is not about conveying the truth; it is about creating an impression of the truth that others are willing to accept.” He who holds the sword in one hand and the moral high ground via lofty rhetoric in the other need not concern himself with justifying his aggression. His position will never be static, but nebulous, and in motion. His rhetoric compels himself and his acolytes forever forward to strike down the next enemy he sees, and before any dissenters can respond to the present reality reified by his rhetoric, he will have already passed them by on his way to the next crisis.
So, to the President Obamas, Bill Kristols and Senator McCains of America, I ask: When do we get to rest on our laurels a bit? Do we have any credibility saved up in the bank, waiting to be used on a rainy day, or do we squander the credibility we create? Is the US living hand to mouth when it comes to credibility? Is America’s credibility comparable to the Great Recession? Were we living beyond our means for so long that we were unable to absorb any crisis or contraction? Has this analogy lost its credibility yet? I imagine I’ve worn out the reader’s patience. Maybe this is what it feels like to be Obama.