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Rhetoric of atrocities: the place of horrific human rights abuses in presidential persuasion efforts.

Over the course of the last fifteen years, rape rooms, concentration camps, and pillaged incubators have become symbolic embodiments of regimes confronted by America. When arguing their case for war, presidents have turned to visually evocative narratives of pain and suffering deliberately inflicted by the prospective enemy on vulnerable innocents. This article focuses on the turn to horrific human rights abuses when justifying war: its causes, manifestation, and consequences for public opinion and foreign policy. Although emphasizing the other side's savagery is by no means a novelty in the construction of enemies (e.g., Ivie 1980, 1996), the post-Cold War era has brought about a need for change in presidential discourse, aimed at filling the rhetorical void created by the fall of communism (Stuckey 1995). The idea presented here builds on past theories of presidential crisis rhetoric and enemy construction, turning the spotlight to a unique facet of recent war rhetoric: the rhetoric of atrocities.

War is an emotionally engaging experience for the nation. Accordingly, times of national emergency are rare moments of heightened citizen attention to political discourse (Hallin and Gitlin 1994; Zaller 1994). Understanding the practices and consequences of wartime rhetoric is essential to understanding the formation of public opinion about the war. Conceptualizing the rhetoric of atrocities can facilitate an understanding of the way in which the savagery trope, discussed in existing literature, has evolved into an essential component of the case for war, turning to evocative imagery and narrative accounts of concrete horrific actions.

Mills (1940) hypothesizes that "typal vocabularies of motives for different situations are significant determinants of conduct" (p. 908). In the case of military intervention, a vocabulary of motives associated with the other side's horrific deeds corresponds with the president's inclination to take action. This rhetoric of atrocities centers on acts such as rape, torture, and the victimization of children by the enemy, which factor in the dramatic narrative account that is requisite in war rhetoric (Campbell and Jamieson 1990). Presidents applying the rhetoric of atrocities go beyond denouncement of the perpetrators and beyond mere factual description of the extent of these crimes. They turn to narrative form, particularly anecdotes detailing the torment experienced by individuals as a result of the enemy's misdeeds.

In other words, this rhetorical style is marked not so much by the choice of terms that depict the other's actions, such as "war crimes," "atrocities," or even "genocide" (see Bates 2004), but by the choice of story through which these constructs are concretized. This perspective is informed by Fisher (1984), who introduces a narrative paradigm for interpreting institutional rhetoric, a concept that offers a "dialectical synthesis of two traditional strands in the history of rhetoric: the argumentative, persuasive theme and the literary, aesthetic theme" (p. 2). The narrative paradigm holds that persuasion may be based not solely on argumentation and inference but on the provision of good reasons: "The world is a set of stories which must be chosen among to live the good life in a process of continual recreation" (p. 8). Narratives capture the audience's experience of the world, appealing to various senses, emotions, accepted facts, and values. There is no need to grasp "narrative probability and narrative fidelity" to comprehend their meaning: narration works by "suggestion and identification," unlike argumentation, which operates by "inferential moves and deliberation" (p. 14).

Through narrative accounts of the prospective enemy's atrociousness, the president draws a sharp moral contrast between America's humanity and the other's savagery. Such accounts of horrific acts need not be supported by evidence as to the prevalence of these behaviors or to their distinction as worse than America's own actions or her allies'. Instead, narratives identify the essence of the enemy in terms that relate to the values and experiences of the audience. The rhetoric of atrocities, as discussed in this article, is marked by emphasis on the experiential component and the personalization of horror. Atrocities are not only emphasized and accounted for but dramatized and recounted, a rhetorical device that should produce empathic reaction to the suffering of the helpless and, consequently, garner support for America's military effort. A second argument proposed here claims the inverse: presidents wishing to avoid intervention in foreign crises will deemphasize instances of individual-level, personal suffering and resort to more abstract references to war crimes, if any.

This distinction between the narrative and the abstract requires some elucidation. Lewis (1987) studies two types of narratives that mark the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan: anecdote and myth. By anecdote, Lewis refers to "quick stories, jokes or incidents that are the verbal counterpart of the visual image" (p. 282). Anecdotes are intended to spark their listeners' interest and be interpreted through a larger frame of understanding, which the narrator assumes is shared by the audience. Myths refer to stories that relate the origins and destinies of a society. The bulk of narratives that establish the rhetoric of atrocities are anecdotal; they are brief, visually concrete accounts of events that have transpired. Reagan, for example, was very conscious of tying anecdote to images, particularly those images that were etched in the memories of his television-viewing audience (Jamieson 1988). Likewise, narratives of atrocity briefly detail easily visualized actions undertaken by the other side and directed at vulnerable individuals. It is through the personal, concrete experience of the victims that these anecdotes assume their narrative form. Abstractions, in contrast, avoid the personal experiences undergone by the victims, centering on quantitative accounts (i.e., number of victims) or a unique terminology (genocide, murder, callousness). By "abstraction," I refer not only to the focus on "elemental ideas and concepts" such as religious ideas or "dreams" (see Lim 2002, 334-35) but also to nonspecified deeds and groups, or to statistical information.

The first part of this article details three key tenets of past research that are at its epistemological core: (1) presidents define international crises, (2) presidents construct the enemy by narrative account, and (3) the post-Cold War era required a change in presidential war rhetoric. Based on these theoretical underpinnings, I analyze the rhetoric of post-Cold War presidents in major international crises: the first Gulf War and the intervention (or lack thereof) in the Balkans; the Panama and Haiti crises; three cases of nonintervention (Kurdistan, Rwanda, and Darfur); and the current war in Iraq, which stands out for the president's extensive application of the rhetoric of atrocities, in particular his recurrent reference to rape rooms, and its consequences as brought to bear by the Abu Ghraib scandal. The concluding section of this article fleshes out these consequences and the place of atrocities in presidential war discourse. These findings identify the rhetoric of atrocities as the prominent manifestation of the savagery trope employed by presidents in arguing their case for war in the post-Cold War era. The narativeness and vividness of this rhetorical device can provide a visual, experiential framework for justifying war when ideological or existential justifications are absent or insufficient to warrant military engagement.

Presidents and the Rhetoric of International Crises

With rare exception, international crises are socially constructed. Edelman (1988, 12) argues that problems enter public discourse not simply because they are there but because they serve an ideological purpose: "They signify who are virtuous and useful and who are dangerous or inadequate." Windt (1990, 6) goes one step further, claiming that "a 'crisis' that does not involve a direct external military attack on the United States is a political event, rhetorically created by the president in which the public predictably rallies to his defense." Presidential rhetoric, according to this perspective, is not only a persuasive tool in response to international crises; it is, on some level, the crisis itself. The ways in which a president constructs a crisis--and signifies the good and the bad--will, therefore, affect the way in which the public perceives it.

Presidential crisis rhetoric varies with the exigencies it addresses (Dow 1989). Cherwitz and Zagacki (1986) identify two types of discourse employed by presidents in international crises: consummatory rhetoric, in which the presidential reply itself serves as America's reaction to the crisis, and justificatory rhetoric, where presidential rhetoric is aimed at rationalizing military action in response to the crisis. Dow (1989) argues that an analysis of crisis rhetoric should relate to the functions these messages serve for their audience. She distinguishes between epideictic strategies in crisis rhetoric, which fulfill a need for communal understanding of an event, consistent with the community's values, and deliberative strategies aimed at policy approval, such as the use of military force. Whereas Dow suggests that the appeal to shared social values is applied most commonly for "the maintenance of normal policy" (1989, 297), the rhetoric of atrocities builds on such values, namely the aversion to cruel and unusual punishment, as evidence for the justification of military action.

Justificatory rhetoric requires the cultivation of attitudes toward the enemy is central to rallying public support for war (Cloud 2004). Presidents can frame the conflict, in the sense that they provide rhetorical structures and lexical choices through which the audience interprets the situation and actors (following Pan and Kosicki 1993). The elicitation of atrocities fits within this framework as "epideictic oratory--where the ritual of identification and blaming of adversaries is performed" (Cherwitz and Zagacki 1986, 313), but with the purpose of clarifying the need for violent recourse.

The construction of a crisis and particularly the construction of an enemy are accomplished through the dramatic narrative from which the argument for war is extracted (Campbell and Jamieson 1990, 107). Rhetorical analyses have looked at the justifications of war through their topoi, Aristotle's notion of a reservoir of arguments or "pigeonholes from which dialectical and rhetorical syllogisms draw their premises and forms" (Brake 1965, 112). Ivie (1980, 283-92) identifies three "topoi of savagery" in America's justifications for war: force versus freedom, irrational versus rational, and aggression versus defense. In Ivie's terms: "The identification of topoi as sources of appeal to victimage promises to reveal a major generic mechanism for legitimizing a call-to-arms" (p. 282). The construction of the other as savage allows the speaker to construct a binary discourse differentiating "us" (on the victims' side) from "them" and consequently "our" use of force--technologically driven and precise--and "theirs," which is brutish and vile. (1)

Butler (2002) adds an important distinction between constructing the enemy as a modern savage or as a primitive one. Whereas European enemies or Japan could be constructed through their "mechanized madness" (Ivie 2005a), the primitive savage is defined by the actions of his body. (2) The need to distinguish between the two types of savages is important when thinking about the place of atrocities such as rape and torture in presidential war rhetoric. The rapist and the torturer touches, hears, and sees his powerless victim, which makes his inhumanity stand out as he indulges in senseless cruelty. Ivie (2005b) considers the allusion to such bodily atrocities "decivilizing vehicles" which at the same time act to humanize "our" side. The image of primitive savage adds a dimension of irrationality to the other, stressing the consequent futility of negotiation and the need for immediate intervention on behalf of the savaged: "Although an enemy nation's men often represent 'the enemy,' the women (and children) of that same nation often are represented as the victims needing rescue from the men of their society" (Cloud 2004, 289). The rhetoric of atrocities positions America's cause as the cause of modern human values, such as care and compassion for the weak, contrasted with an enemy driven by primitive corporal motivations.

References to primitive savagery serve a second function: enlisting public reaction to the crisis. Evocative narratives have persuasive power: "When arguments are arranged into stories they are more readily recalled and more easily believed" (Jamieson and Waldman 2003). Likewise, transportation theory suggests that an audience's absorption into narratives reduces counter-argumentation with the message (e.g., Green and Brock 2000). The personalized nature of these accounts furthers empathetic responses to the predicament of the victims as persons, rather than as a group or a people in need. Furthermore, narrative accounts are more appropriate for televised relay than quantitative information and reasoned arguments. These accounts are, therefore, more likely to make it to American homes, particularly when stories fall into the mold of us/them dichotomies, which are a mainstay of American television journalism (Hallin 1993). Consequently, narratives of the enemy's savage actions as told by the president will reverberate with the public, receive ample media attention, and could be perceived by the audience as indicative of the situation as a whole. A corollary in psychology can be found in the study of the "availability heuristic" (Tversky and Kahneman 1973), which posits that emotionally engaging imagery will be assumed by its viewers as representative of the concept to which it is tied, even in the face of statistical evidence to the contrary. In this vein, evocative, personalized narratives can serve to construct the depravity of the enemy better than elicitation of the numbers of crimes in which the enemy partook or abstract allusions to wide-scale atrocities such as genocide or mass murder.

Savagery's role as a definitive staple in the rhetoric of military intervention has become more central with the culmination of the Cold War. To be sure, characteristics of Cold War rhetoric, such as the zero-sum frame and an overall sense of endangerment, had carried over into the 1990s (Campbell 1993). Cold War rhetoric itself was by no means exempt from references to primitive savagery, particularly when fighting wars in the Southern Hemisphere. Yet Cold War rhetoric was delineated by two strands, operating concurrently (Wander 1984): the first, prophetic dualism--involving binary discourse of the us/them variety--was tempered by the second, technological realism--a recognition, in the age of mutual assured destruction, of a need to find language that facilitates coexistence. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, American presidents lost the rhetoric of Cold War drama as a rallying call for public opinion as well as the accompanying need for restraint in the face of another superpower (Stuckey 1995; Olson 2004). Ivie (2005a, 60) describes the central message of the new war rhetoric that has emerged: "Savagery ... depicted the post-Cold War era as a perpetual condition of ubiquitous violence, a Hobbesian state of nature and vicious warfare on civilians that would seem to indicate the fall of civilisation or signal the arrival of a modern leviathan of imperial peace."

This Hobbesian state upends the premise of Cold War rhetoric, which assumed "the world [was] a relatively stable place, [and] that countries get along with each other by following pre-established international laws and codes of action" (Cherwitz and Zagacki 1986, 318). Even when these codes were violated through the "savagery" of others, such as the downing of a Korean jetliner by the Soviet Union (Reagan 1983b), the president, more often than not, employed rhetorical restraint. Cherwitz and Zagacki (1986) tie this trend to the state of nuclear parity between the superpowers, which required that conflicts be resolved at the consummatory level.

With America as the sole superpower, and the stability of Cold War deterrence dissolved, presidents may lean more toward justificatory rhetoric. It is in this context that the rhetoric of atrocities becomes imperative in presidential crisis rhetoric. Granted, Cold War presidents were apt to employ narratives of victimization in their speech and relied on them significantly more than their predecessors (Jamieson 1988). Reagan, for example, was a great storyteller and not one to spare a good story when there was one to tell. But he also had at his disposal the allusion to evil stemming not from the deeds of the enemy but from their very being. The Cold War context provided presidents with preset tools, namely the certainty of the ideological divide, as a basis for foreign intervention. Communism's evils required less exemplification. Reagan's Evil Empire speech (1983a) found evil in the godlessness of the Russian ideology rather than in the actions they undertook. With the Iron Curtain collapsed, and the imminent threat of assured destruction removed, presidential rhetoric needs to construct an enemy whose particular actions, rather than its place in global politics or its belief system, warrants the use of violence. As long as "Islamo-fascism" is not culturally embedded in the national psyche, current presidents do not have the shorthand provided by an evil godless empire.


In this section, I demonstrate the ways in which presidents employ the rhetoric of atrocities to propagate the construction of enemies as primitive savages. Presidents do so by emphasizing acts that are personal and physical. The other side's cruelty is established not necessarily by the terms presidents use but through engaging narratives of particular horrors carried out by armed men against the helpless. The centrality of the rhetoric of atrocities is such that, as the nation is drawn closer to war, it will hear detailed accounts of these atrocities directly from the president. Yet if the president wishes to avoid war, he will rarely turn to these evocative narratives of human suffering. This hypothesis should hold not for one president or another but for the presidency as an institution entrusted with the decision to engage America in military action.

The following rhetorical analysis looks at statements initiated by presidents during particularly salient international crises (the first Gulf War, Kosovo, Panama, Haiti, Kurdistan, Rwanda, Darfur, and Iraq). Initiated statements refer to remarks made by the president in his speeches or at the beginning of news conferences and photo opportunities prior to the question-and-answer portion. Responses to questions are considered solicited rather than initiated. In these statements, I search for explanations the president gives for military intervention overseas and, in particular, under what circumstances a president recounts atrocities--instances of cruelty such as rape, torture, or the victimization of children. The focus on initiated statements presupposes that presidents will rarely say that which they do not wish to say simply because reporters asked them the right question. With few exceptions, we can reasonably assume that presidents seeking to justify military action will initiate statements aimed at garnering public support for the cause rather than be prodded to do so.

The analysis looks at presidential statements from the time a crisis emerges until its resolution by military action or otherwise, (3) focusing on the instances in which the president engaged in narrative accounts of an atrocious act. This rhetorical analysis is not a quantitative content analytical account of how often certain phrases were used, but rather a study of the persuasive tools to which the president would turn in justifying America's reaction to a foreign crisis. Below, I offer examples of the usage of the rhetoric of atrocities and its relationship with the course of action chosen by the president.

Two central military campaigns are omitted from this analysis: the invasion of Afghanistan and the intervention in Somalia. The American-led campaign against Afghanistan's Taliban regime began less than a month after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. As such, this military involvement was related directly to an external attack on America and would not need further construction by the president. This is not to suggest that the president did not address the savagery of the enemy in his rhetoric, but as the justification for the campaign was practically self-evident, the impetus on enemy construction was lesser.

The intervention in Somalia will be discussed in the context of its effect on the nonintervention in Rwanda. Operation Restore Hope began in the waning weeks of the Bush presidency for the purpose of securing food distribution after the president determined that "only the use of force could stem this human tragedy of Somalia" (Bush 1993). However, its escalation into peacekeeping and an all-out battle against factional militias was mostly unintended (see Bolton 1994; Thakur 1994). For the purposes of studying the rhetoric that accompanied the use of military force, the Somalia intervention was considered more reactive than planned and was consequently removed from this analysis.

The Rhetoric of Atrocities and Global Intervention

Although it was not the first military encounter of the post-Cold War era, (4) the Gulf War is widely regarded as a harbinger and representative of a new kind of international crisis and a new type of rhetorical exigency (Cole 1996; Kuypers 1997; Ivie 1996; Pollock 1994). For the first time since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, America confronted an enemy it perceived as formidable and required the enlistment of public support as it deployed its forces in a faraway land. The rhetorical void created by the absence of Communist threat required President George H. W. Bush to seek alternative language that would set America apart from its enemy and clarify the worthiness of the cause and the stakes if the adversary were not confronted. Pollock (1994, 207) explains:
 In the absence of an ideological foe with comparable military
 might and in the presence of the considerable inhibitions
 resulting from Vietnam, Bush shaped a narrative that made his
 policies moral imperatives and a test of American character.
 The construction of a narrative in which Munich, not Vietnam
 served as the condensation symbol amplified the stakes of
 the crisis and legitimized decisive military action.

President Bush was, indeed, quick to invoke the Munich analogy shortly after the invasion:
 As was the case in the 1930's, we see in Saddam Hussein an
 aggressive dictator threatening his neighbors. Only fourteen
 days ago, Saddam Hussein promised his friends he would not
 invade Kuwait. And four days ago, he promised the world he
 would withdraw. (1990a)

Bush's analogy likened Saddam to Hitler, Kuwait to the Sudetenland, and anything other than forcing him out of Kuwait was a tragic repeat of Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler in Munich. This allusion has multiple corollaries: for one, it provides the conflict with moral clarity. If the audience accepts the analogy, it identifies America as the custodian of good in its battle with pure evil (Katz 1992) and reduces "Iraq metonymically to a representation of evil in the person of Saddam Hussein" (Ivie 1996, 175). It also renders the other side's claims as deceitful as Hitler's promises were.

The positioning of Saddam's Iraq as an embodiment of evil required some rhetorical maneuvering. Prior to the invasion of Kuwait, Saddam was unfamiliar to most Americans and treated by the media as anything between a run-of-the-mill dictator and part-time ally of America (Lang and Lang 1994). Consequently, the military buildup in the Gulf was paralleled by a rhetorical buildup of Saddam as global menace, or "Hitler revisited" (Bush 1990c), and the impending war as World War II reprised. But to judge by Bush's rhetoric, it was not enough to say that the Iraqi regime was like the Nazis; he needed to demonstrate how they were similar.

With public support for the war still weak, the Bush administration contracted conservative strategist Roger Ailes to fashion its public justification of the war (McEvoy-Levy 2001). Shortly thereafter, Bush's rhetoric incorporated the vocabulary of primitive savagery when discussing the actions of Iraq in Kuwait. Bush called Iraq's invasion the "rape of Kuwait" (1991a) and looked forward to a new world order "where the rule of law supplants the rule of the jungle" (1990b). He drew narrative evidence from a young Kuwaiti girl named Nayirah who appeared before Congress telling a horrific tale of atrocities carried out by Iraqi soldiers in a Kuwaiti hospital:
 In one hospital, dialysis patients were ripped from their machines
 and the machines shipped from Kuwait to Baghdad. Iraqi soldiers
 pulled the plug on incubators supporting 22 premature babies.
 All 22 died. The hospital employees were shot and the plundered
 machines were shipped off to Baghdad. (1990d)

That the tale was concocted by a lobbying firm hired by the Kuwaiti government and the young girl giving testimony was the daughter of a Kuwaiti diplomat would be revealed only after the war (Jamieson and Waldman 2003; Kellner 1992). In the interim, the pillaged incubators became representative of the sheer cruelty and inhumanity of Iraq. This is not only a well-oiled war machine, the president's narrative suggested, but a force that knows no respect for humanity, attacking the most defenseless of all human creatures, premature babies. To augment his case for war, the president turned to "tales of rape and assassination, of cold-blooded murder and rampant looting" (1990e), and as the air strikes in Iraq began, President Bush itemized all of the horrific abuses undertaken by the Iraqis:
 While the world waited, Saddam Hussein systematically raped,
 pillaged, and plundered a tiny nation, no threat to his own. He
 subjected the people of Kuwait to unspeakable atrocities--and
 among those maimed and murdered, innocent children. The terrible
 crimes and tortures committed by Saddam's henchmen against the
 innocent people of Kuwait are an affront to mankind and a
 challenge to the freedom of all. (1991b)

Even though pursuing the Gulf War was in all likelihood a strategic or economic American interest, and Saddam Hussein was, in fact, a global menace, the case for war needed the evocative images of atrocity delivered by the president to enlist popular support. Interestingly, the president, who had no intention to engage in war outside of Kuwait, made no mention of known atrocities carried out by Saddam's regime inside Iraq. The scene of the atrocities paralleled the scene of the president's military intentions.

This linkage between impending military engagement and a narrative of atrocities would reemerge with a different president, Bill Clinton, and in another venue, the Balkans. Confronted with a set of crises in the former Yugoslav republics, the new president was struggling for a foreign policy adapted to a complex world order "in which terrorists and coalitions other than formal nation-states" are the enemy (Olson 2004, 308). In Bosnia, America avoided sending ground forces to intervene in the humanitarian catastrophe. The atrocities carried out by the Serbs were condemned by the president in more abstract terms such as a "humanitarian interest in helping to prevent the strangulation of Sarajevo and the continuing slaughter of innocents in Bosnia," which "do not justify unilateral American intervention" (Clinton 1994d) or vague condemnations:
 The world cannot tolerate the savage practices which are committed
 under the ugly slogan of ethnic cleansing and purification. It is
 against all human values to see such claims emerge at the
 threshold of the 21st century. (1993a)

The particulars of individual-level atrocities that took place in Bosnia would ultimately emerge in Clinton's speeches as America was committing its ground forces for peacekeeping in Bosnia. Ironically, this means that the president turned to concrete accounts of atrocities as the warring Bosnian factions were about to sign their peace accord in Dayton, Ohio. Once the deed was done and America had agreed to send peacekeepers, Clinton appealed to the nation with his most poignant account to date about the plight of Bosnia:
 Horrors we prayed had been banished from Europe forever have been
 seared into our minds again: skeletal prisoners caged behind
 barbed-wire fences; women and girls raped as a tool of war;
 defenseless men and boys shot down into mass graves, evoking
 visions of World War II concentration camps. (1995)

Nowhere is the link between recounting atrocities and American intervention more pronounced than in Clinton's Kosovo rhetoric. This dynamic is best captured by the president's references to the Rakac incident. In January 1999, the bodies of forty-five men were found in a field near the village of Rakac in Kosovo. The men, all of them Albanian-Muslim Kosovars, had been shot point-blank, presumably by the local Serbian militia. President Clinton, who, at the time, was still pursuing a Bosnia-style peaceful resolution in Kosovo, reacted in harsh words but avoided the details of the atrocity, which he called the "massacre of civilians by Serb security forces ... a deliberate and indiscriminate act of murder designed to sow fear among the people of Kosovo" (1999a). Two months later, as the peace talks broke down and war was imminent, Clinton revisited the Rakac incident:
 We should remember what happened in the village of Rakac back
 in January--innocent men, women, and children taken from their
 homes to a gully, forced to kneel in the dirt, sprayed with
 gunfire--not because of anything they had done, but because of
 who they were. (1999b)

The contrast in these passages is telling. Although "massacre" and "indiscriminate act of murder" are serious accusations, they are abstractions, in stark contrast to the detailed account of individual suffering in Clinton's second reference to Rakac. Emphasizing the enemy's unique cruelty as one that voluntarily shoots at kneeling innocents and, as the president suggests elsewhere, indulges in raping the other side's women (Stables 2003), leaves America no choice other than intervention. Clinton then intensifies his rhetoric of atrocities, in constructing the Serbian adversary through the Holocaust analogy:
 When President Milosevic started the war in Bosnia seven years
 ago, the world did not act quickly enough to stop him. Let's
 not forget what happened. Innocent people were herded into
 concentration camps.... Now, this was a genocide in the heart
 of Europe. It did not happen in 1945; it was going on in 1995.

Clinton's rhetoric demarcates the civil from the barbaric; the rational from the irrational; and, most importantly, it denounces the intolerable. As American warplanes descended on Belgrade, Clinton proclaimed: "Ending this tragedy is a moral imperative" (1999d).

Closer to Home: Armed Intervention and the Rhetoric of Atrocities in Panama and Haiti

The markings of the rhetoric of atrocities were already present in the relatively minor Panama crisis. In Panama, the American interest was clear: Panama's strongman, General Manuel Noriega, had an impending arrest warrant in Florida on the grounds of drug trafficking. Furthermore, his regime had ignored election outcomes which would have put them out of office. President Bush's initial expectation following the election was for a peaceful resolution: "I call on General Noriega to respect the voice of the people" (1989a). As the general's refusal to succumb persisted, Noriega himself, and his human rights record, began factoring in the president's remarks: "Noriega answered the cry of his people with beatings and killings" (1989b).

By introducing anecdotal accounts of Noriega's cruelty into his rhetoric, President Bush could cast a military intervention in Panama in terms that exceeded the pragmatic. If Americans were not keen on sending their soldiers to resolve another country's internal politics or even to do the work of law enforcement in the war on drugs, the president needed to turn to Americans' identity as proponents of good in their battle against evil. (5) Enter the rhetoric of atrocities:
 Last Friday, Noriega declared his military dictatorship to be in a
 state of war with the United States and publicly threatened the
 lives of Americans in Panama. The very next day, forces under his
 command shot and killed an unarmed American serviceman; wounded
 another; arrested and brutally beat a third American serviceman;
 and then brutally interrogated his wife, threatening her with
 sexual abuse. (1989c)

Through the narrative of the brutalized soldier and his sexually harassed wife, Bush repurposed the war for his audience, the American people. Whereas dictators and criminals are, by and large, abhorrent, they are by no means unheard of or intolerable on the global scene. When these regimes are discussed through stories of horrific individual-level abuses, such as torture or rape, the conflict turns from being a war between nations or administrations to a war between diametric moral forces: the civilized and the depraved. Not only do Noriega and his henchmen not listen to the voice of reason, not only have they broken America's legal code, they have violated the mores of civilized society. The story of the Panama invasion had thus been recast into a battle against irrational savagery.

In Haiti, as in Panama, the president's rhetorical choices were conditioned by a need to change a public climate averse to suffering casualties, so as to gain congressional approval for military intervention (Kuypers 1997). The crisis had been protracted ever since the ouster of the Aristide government in 1991 up until its final resolution in 1994. Once more at issue was the local military's rejection of a democratically elected government. Both U.S. presidents involved, Bush and Clinton, exerted significant efforts to avoid military intervention. In Clinton's words:
 The Haitian crisis challenges our country's principles and
 interests. We must maintain our commitment to work for its
 peaceful resolution. Let me say to the Haitian people: I
 am determined to help you restore the democracy you sacrificed
 so much to attain. (1993b)

Clinton's rhetoric on Haiti shifted as the Cedras regime ignored the ultimatums set by Washington and America's credibility came into question (Olson 2004). Underscoring the issues of restoring democracy and the humanitarian refugee crisis was the rhetoric of atrocities that began appearing in the president's messages. As military action was first considered the president proclaimed: "Supporters of President Aristide, and many other Haitians, are being killed and mutilated" (1994b). By the second time the decision to use force was made, the specifics of atrocities were more concrete, involving all the elements of the rhetoric of atrocities: rape, torture, and the victimization of children. "Resistors were beaten and murdered. The dictators launched a horrible intimidation campaign of rape, torture, and mutilation. People starved; children died" (1994e). The conclusion, then, was inevitable: "The dictators rejected all of our efforts, and their reign of terror, a campaign of murder, rape, and mutilation, gets worse with every passing day. Now we must act" (1994f). By September's end, as American forces were on their way to invade Haiti, Cedras and his people ceded their control.

In both Panama and Haiti, America's self-interest in the crisis was obvious, due to their geographic proximity, but still the president turned to the same rhetorical trope that was central to conducting a wide-scale war halfway around the globe. As uncomfortable as Americans are with drugs overrunning their neighborhoods or refugees flooding their shores, two different presidents turned to evocative narratives of horrific abuses so as to enlist the vivid imagery of diametric moral contrast between America and the enemy at hand.

Nonintervention and the Absence of a Narrative of Atrocities: Iraq, Rwanda, and Sudan

Inasmuch as American presidents turn to narrative accounts of atrocities when they are about to commit troops internationally, the absence of such accounts foretells inaction. The president may condemn atrocities in the harshest of terms, but the depictions of rape, torture, and assaults on children are absent when the president has no intention of putting the troops in harm's way. This trend was apparent in the aftermath of the first Gulf War. As the same Saddam Hussein exacted vengeance on the Shiite and Kurdish populations in Iraq, President Bush was disinclined to send back the troops. The extent of the horrors taking place may well have been clear to the president (Power 2002), but nevertheless he chose to use abstract terms and refrain from all narrative depictions of what was transpiring in Kurdistan and southern Iraq:
 This sort of behavior will continue to set Iraq apart from the
 community of civilized nations. I call upon Iraq's leaders to
 halt these attacks immediately and to allow international
 organizations to go to work inside Iraq to alleviate the suffering
 and to ensure that humanitarian aid reaches needy civilians.
 (Bush 1991c)

Similarly, the 1994 genocide in Rwanda was restricted to a "humanitarian crisis" or "mass killings" in Clinton's lexicon (1994a), even as Tutsi militias, with tacit approval of the Rwandan government, were engaged in a multitude of atrocities. These acts included killing entire families, torturing their victims, and raping Hutu women of all ages (Power 2002; Skjelsbaek 2001). By any standard, President Clinton's rhetoric was passionate on the matter, but he was all the same noncommittal: "The horrors of civil war and mass killings of civilians in Rwanda, since the tragic deaths of the Rwandan and Burundian Presidents three weeks ago, have shocked and appalled the world community" (1994a).

To understand the language of the Rwandan nonintervention, we need to understand the backlash that the previous African intervention, in Somalia, had created. Somalia was essentially a humanitarian mission that escalated into urban warfare with Somali warlords. Following the devastating Blackhawk Down incident, the United States ultimately left Somalia, seeking better guidelines for future interventions. These guidelines, PDD-25, formulated by Richard Clarke at the State Department, listed stringent criteria for American military involvement, among them the ascertainment that "participation advances U.S. interests and both the unique and general risks to American personnel have been weighed and are considered acceptable" (White House Office of the Press Secretary 1994). Guided by these criteria, Washington restricted its action in Rwanda to aiding the refugees that escaped the country, without committing forces to stop the atrocities. On the rhetorical front, the president avoided narrative accounts of the horrors altogether, as he assured his audience: "Let me be clear about this. Any deployment of United States troops inside Rwanda would be for the immediate and the sole purpose of humanitarian relief, not for peacekeeping" (1994c).

A decade later, President George W. Bush followed a similar course of inaction in Sudan, even as he condemned the Sudanese militia's action:
 At this hour, the world is witnessing terrible suffering and
 horrible crimes in the Darfur region of Sudan, crimes my
 government has concluded are genocide. The United States
 played a key role in efforts to broker a cease-fire, and we're
 providing humanitarian assistance to the Sudanese people. (2004c)

Genocide is an abstraction, as are the president's accounts of "one of the worst humanitarian tragedies of our time, responsible for the deaths of two million people over two decades" (2004a). The president finally turned to the recounting of atrocities in Darfur, only once a peace accord had been struck:
 The Janjaweed continued to attack the camps and rape women who
 ventured outside the fences for food and firewood. The
 government took no effective action to disarm the militias.
 And the rebels sometimes attacked food convoys and aid workers.
 (Bush 2006)

This account was accompanied, in the following sentence, by a reassurance that clearly implied there was no need for further action: "With the peace agreement signed on Friday, Darfur has a chance to begin anew."

The rhetoric of nonintervention plays down those elements which could engage the audience experientially or emotionally. In a tragedy replete with dramatic personal stories of the horrors of torture and rape inflicted on the women, children, and men of Darfur, (6) the president chose for years to avoid such accounts. President Clinton and both Presidents Bush had turned to the evocative narrative when justifying American military intervention; their avoidance of recounting individual-level atrocities spoke volumes of their intended policy. This rhetorical abstinence further establishes the notion discussed so far: a commitment to intervene in global crises is expressed by presidential rhetoric that provides potent narrative accounts of horrific abuses inflicted by the prospective enemy on vulnerable individuals.

Understanding the Rhetoric of Atrocities: George W. Bush and the Rape Rooms of Iraq

In order to persuade Congress and the public of the necessity to invade Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein, President George W. Bush had to rhetorically construct a crisis first. Over the course of a year, the president would build the case that Saddam Hussein posed an imminent threat to America in the age of global terrorism. In his 2002 State of the Union address, known as the Axis of Evil speech, the president labeled three countries, Iran, North Korea, and Iraq, as "evil." Iraq's evil, however, was expressed not only by its present bad intents but also by its past conduct: "This is a regime that has already used poison gas to murder thousands of its own citizens--leaving the bodies of mothers huddled over their dead children" (2002a). From what we know now, the die had already been cast at this point (7): America would go to war in Iraq. The narrative of mothers and children gassed to death by Saddam marks the rhetorical underpinning of this foregone conclusion. Likewise, the certainty of war should be apparent when President Bush escalated his rhetoric against Iraq in September of 2002. As the military preparations began, so did the global and domestic persuasion campaign marked by the rhetoric of atrocities:
 The regime has long-standing and continuing ties to terrorist
 organizations. And there are al Qaeda terrorists inside Iraq.
 The regime is seeking a nuclear bomb, and with fissile
 material, could build one within a year. Iraq has already used
 weapons of mass death against other countries and against her
 own citizens. The Iraqi regime practices the rape of women
 as a method of intimidation; and the torture of dissenters and
 their children. (2002b)

Bush's first two arguments mark the nominal rationale for war: Saddam Hussein is somehow affiliated with the terrorists who attacked America and he is attempting to obtain the deadliest of weapons, to be used, perhaps against Americans, as he had in the past against the Kurds. The final argument, concerning the "practice of rape as a method of intimidation," was the exclamation mark of the argument. There are no direct consequences for Americans stemming from the interrogation techniques of the Iraqi secret service. Nevertheless, the torture chambers, where these interrogations took place, and the dissidents' "female relatives [who] are raped in their presence," would become a staple in the vilification of Iraq and the justification of war (2003a).

The workings of the rhetoric of atrocities are encapsulated in Bush's usage of "rape rooms," a term which was first introduced into the president's rhetoric as the attack on Iraq became fair accompli. In a televised message to the nation, as he was serving Saddam with a forty-eight-hour ultimatum, the president turned to the Iraqi people, promising them "a free Iraq, [where] there will be no more wars of aggression against your neighbors, no more poison factories, no more executions of dissidents, no more torture chambers and rape rooms" (2003b). Months of detailed narrative accounts by the president, other administration officials, and an echoing press had conditioned the American audience to interpret the phrase "rape rooms" as an embodiment of the evil that was Saddam Hussein's Iraq. In this case, the term itself was to tap into the narrative of horrific abuses as told by the president in previous remarks. The rape rooms' mention captured an entire construct of an enemy that does not adhere to the principles of civilization as we know it. These unique torture chambers mark the apex of state-sponsored savagery, in which the apparatus of modern government subjects helpless innocents to the basest acts of inhumanity.

The meaningfulness of the rape rooms as a rhetorical device can be best appreciated by following the exact course of its usage. A week after the fighting in Iraq began, the phrase ceased to appear in the president's rhetorical repertoire and would not reemerge for almost five months. (8) In October, as attacks against American forces in Iraq escalated, the battle to sustain control over the country intensified, and a political scandal was emerging at home, (9) the president returned to the theme: "Iraq is free of the man who caused there to be mass graves. Iraq is free of rape rooms and torture chambers. Iraq is free of a brutal thug. America did the right thing" (2003c). In the six months that followed, the president would initiate the mention of rape rooms sixteen more times. And then, the term would be dropped from the president's rhetorical repertoire altogether.

The rape rooms' disappearance from Bush's comments coincided with the publication of the first pictures depicting American soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib, one of Saddam's old prisons. Following the broadcast of these images, the president initiated the mention of the rape rooms only once more. (10) From that point on, allusion to sexual abuse in Iraqi prisons could backfire; the audience could just as well consider the inhumanity of American forces in the rape rooms. Immediately thereafter, the president steered clear of prison references when establishing the savagery of the enemy. He referred to "mass graves" and Saddam who "destroyed Kurdish villages, ordered poison gas attacks on a Kurdish city, and violently repressed other religious and ethnic groups" (2005).


The Abu Ghraib scandal undermined the dichotomy that set the moral foundations for the intervention in Iraq. Whereas the horror that was captured in the imagery of the rape rooms put the United States clearly on the side of good and Saddam's Iraq as a land savaged by an evil regime, the question of savagery was blurred by the revelations of perverse cruelty employed on America's behalf. The dichotomy that the rape room was to embody needed explication now:
 What took place in that Iraqi prison was the wrongdoing of a few,
 and does not reflect the character of the more than 200,000
 military personnel who have served in Iraq since the beginning of
 Operation Iraqi Freedom. America is a compassionate country that
 believes in justice and in freedom. (2004b)

America had to reestablish the human rights argument of its occupation of Iraq. To be sure, the word "torturer" was still affixed to mentions of Saddam Hussein, especially on the president's campaign trail, but the poignancy and the specificity of stories of torture and rape had been removed after the scandal erupted.

The consequences of Abu Ghraib are indicative of the place the rhetoric of atrocities holds in justifying war in the post-Cold War era. When the tag "Communist" could no longer yield knee-jerk public support for military action, presidents had to pursue the rationale of a "New World Order," "Democratic Enlargement," or the "War on Terror." But the enemy in these organizing themes of foreign policy was uncertain and needed presidential construction. Through horrifying narratives of atrocities, presidents could resurrect earlier archetypes, namely that of the other as the primitive savage, a binary opposite to the goodness of America's cause. To assume this role in a credible way, America could not afford to be seen engaging in acts of similar savagery. In a protracted, frustrating conflict such as the war in Iraq, staying clear of such acts would be improbable, as indeed it was.

Another risk undertaken by a president who turns to the topoi of atrocities is the lack of closure. If Saddam was Hitler, why did Bush (41) let him stay in power? Knowing what we know now, would we have let Hitler retain the chancellorship if he were only to pull out of the Sudetenland? While the president was very careful to detail only those atrocities that took place in Kuwait, the cruelty he ascribed to Saddam and his people would require that they be overthrown and put on trial. Bush's failure to do so has been considered a failure of his foreign policy (Cole 1996). That the narrative of horrific abuses is absent in nonintervention expresses the degree to which presidential rhetoric is sensitive to this consequence.

"The motives accompanying the institutions of war are not the 'causes' of war," writes Mills (1940, 308-09), "but they do promote continued integrated participation and they vary from one war to the next." This article affirms the first part of Mills's argument and takes the other to task. In the post-Cold War era, intervention in foreign countries has been consistently justified by portraying the other not only as a savage killing machine but as a dangerous body. Focusing on horrific human rights abuses allows the president to construct the enemy as callous; it differentiates "our" brutality in the cause of good from "theirs"; and it increases the emotional appeal of the war by inviting empathetic response from the public. Human rights, as Mills would have it, is not necessarily the true cause of war, but as the nation gets closer to engaging in combat, its leaders turn to narrative, anecdotal accounts of atrocities as part of their justificatory rhetoric, providing evidence of the war's moral necessity.

What is striking about the rhetoric of atrocities, in contradiction to Mills's claim, is the stability of its recurrence. Irrespective of president, enemy, or setting, the high degree of correspondence between the certainty of war and the inclination to recount atrocities persists--as does its mirror image, the turn to abstractions and statistics when trying to keep America out of a conflict. To that effect, narratives of horrific human rights abuses should be acknowledged as a rhetorical building block in the case for war.

The rhetoric of atrocities becomes imperative where imminent physical threat or ideological dominance cannot be employed as sufficiently justificatory discourse. If the weapons of mass destruction argument or the link to extremist Islam is weak, the Iraq War needs the tale of the rape rooms as further evidence of a moral calling to engage in battle. Similarly, the plight of Kosovo can hardly be justified in the language of national interest other than as a call on a deep-rooted commitment to the ethos of "never again," a belief that as sole superpower, America is obliged to intervene on behalf of persecuted peoples. As the narrative paradigm informs us, the elicitation of our cultural beliefs is best achieved through storytelling. Therefore, atrocities are not merely cited but recounted through particular incidents in which specific horrors were inflicted on individuals.

The pattern suggested here should be qualified lest it appear overly deterministic. Some situations may not require that presidents employ the rhetoric of human rights abuses, particularly when responding to a direct attack on American soil. The elicitation of atrocities may also vary somewhat with the president's rhetorical style or in accordance with international or domestic circumstances. As the war in Iraq endures and other crises arise, further inquiry into the practices and language of human rights rhetoric is warranted. These findings are significant both to scholars and to political stakeholders looking to build a case for military intervention or undermine it.

Lastly, a word about cynicism. This study seems to suggest that human rights is never an authentic concern of the president. Indeed, the stark contrast between rhetoric and action in the interventions pursued and those that were not suggests an inconsistency in the relationship between the state of human rights and America's proclivity to intervene. This is not to say that this never happens, as the cases of Somalia or Kosovo may demonstrate. Nevertheless, it seems the way in which presidents talk about human catastrophe is conditioned by the degree to which they are motivated, for whatever reason, to take military action.


Locating Relevant Presidential Comments

The presidential remarks studied for this article were based on speeches which included terms such as "rape," "torture," "massacre," "killing/killings," "genocide," and "atrocity/atrocities" and referred to particular conflicts (e.g., "torture" and "Kuwait").

Dates searched are as follows:

* First Gulf War (Kuwait): August 2, 1990 (Iraq's invasion of Kuwait) through February 28, 1991 for the first Gulf War (cease-fire).

* Bosnia: April 6, 1992 (following Bosnian independence referendum) through March 18, 1994 (signing of the Washington agreement); January 1 through November 21, 1995 (signing of the Dayton accord).

* Kosovo: January 1 through June 9, 1999 (end of Kosovo offensive).

* Panama: May 5 (elections) through December 31, 1989.

* Haiti: September 30, 1991 (military coup) through September 18, 1994 (Cedras regime cedes power).

* Kurdistan: March 1 through May 1, 1991.

* Rwanda: April 6, 1994 (downing of jet carrying Rwanda and Burundi presidents) through July 15, 1994 (approximate end of hostilities).

* Darfur: February 1, 2003 (latest outbreak of violence) through August 15, 2006.

* Iraq War: September 11, 2001 through December 9, 2005.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: I wish to thank Kathleen Hall Jamieson for her guidance and the anonymous reviewers for their invaluable input.


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(1.) The notion of binary opposition and binary discourse can be found in the writing of Burke (1969) and Derrida (1981). For a review of the literature on binary oppositions, see Coe et al. (2004).

(2.) The primitive savage is also male, allowing the usage of male pronouns.

(3.) See the Appendix for exact criteria.

(4.) The Panama invasion took place a year before the Gulf War.

(5.) A Gallup poll in October 1989 found 74 percent of Americans opposed a military invasion of Panama; by the time the invasion started, 66 percent believed it justified U.S. forces staying in Panama for a year if necessary.

(6.) See, for example, Kristof (2005).

(7.) See, for example, Woodward (2004).

(8.) Dates discussed here are based on searches of the phrase "rape room" and "Iraq AND rape" at

(9.) The federal investigation into the leaking of Valerie (Plame) Wilson's name began in September 2003.

(10.) Two more mentions were solicited.

Eran N. Ben-Porath is a Ph.D. candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania. His research interests are political communication and political journalism.
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Date:Jun 1, 2007
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