Yael Wissner-Levy
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The rhetoric of morality

By forcing Congress to decide on whether to attack in Syria, Obama's expanded the American tradition of wrapping war in values

Something happened to US President Barack Obama’s speechmaking when he gave his statement on Syria, and handed the decision over to the legislative branch.

As the world watched as he made what will either be deemed a cowardly or bravely democratic decision, what was clear was his extra fine morally-inclined rhetoric.

Presidents, historically, moralize their rhetoric when trying to establish legitimacy for their action. They draw upon American values as a basis for a foreign, or domestic, policy decision.

Obama’s speech was lined with these values- this time to justify that the decision he decided not to make (a decision in itself) – which excluded him from taking the blame, should the attack turn out to be a catastrophe on the ground.

Emphasizing the constitutional bond between decision-making and the people, Obama lingered on the value “that our power is rooted not just in our military might, but in our example as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people…”

Does Syria constitute a credible threat to the American system of values? Is what Secretary of State Kerry called a ‘moral obscenity,’ in Syria is horrid enough in the name of American values that the US should attack?

Saturday’s speech merely bought Obama time, as in weeks leading up to it the President had made it clear that the US intended to strike.

Stalling the outcome- the proposed ‘limited strike’- as Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel called it when they testified in front of the Senate Committee, does just that. It pushes away the notion of war, wraps it up tight in American values and interests, and sends it off far from the West’s consciousness.

Iraq and Kosovo have been deeply ingrained in Americans’ consciousness as reasons not to intervene, as many will argue resulted in outcomes that proved to be undesirable for the US military, and for the local population. Moreover Kosovo made it obvious that wars waged in the name of values invariably turned out to be more controversial than wars waged for interests.

Kosovo, which achieved its objectives without a single NATO combat fatality, actually turned out to be the war which raised unintended questions of moralizing the use of violence. NATO officials were reluctant to call their action ‘war’. Then President Clinton explained US intervention by saying that “ending this tragedy is a moral imperative. It is also important to America’s national interest.” But the uncomfortable moral complexity was clear: it did not avert the humanitarian disaster, and more so, was criticized to be a “spectator sport” for the American people- it was a media event that took place on television screens and not on the battlefield.

Iraq is another case in mind. President George W. Bush justified the war in Iraq for years with the same moral arguments- that the love for freedom was universal. He frequently tied morals to religion, stressing that “freedom is the Almighty’s gift to every man and woman in this world.” Yet the rhetoric which had worked at the start of the Iraq War, as TV images showed Americans at home the millions of Iraqis raising their fingers in victory, proved vacuous as deaths of the US soldiers started to pile up. While the West needed to secure hearts and minds to win wars, its opponents were fighting to survive in their own existential battles.

Here too, war was virtual, enlisting Western society only remotely, and morality in war simply became rhetoric. As General Sherman famously declared during the American Civil War, “War is Hell.”

So what was different this time? Obama took his moralized rhetoric a step further than his precedents. By employing his democratically-inclined policy, by letting Congress decide, he upped the moralization factor in his rhetoric, but merely delayed the pending strike. When the US does strike, will it really make a difference that he soothed the war talk by sprinkling it with ideals, morals, and values? His rhetoric may not be in-your-face war talk this time, but it certainly is not shying away from moralizing violence. The rhetoric is just allowing the US to take its time, and plant the seeds.

Obama’s rationalization using American ideals and values about a possible upcoming attack on Syria is merely a manifestation of the West’s attempt to humanize the concept of war.

About the Author
Yael Wissner-Levy is a former speechwriter for Israeli politicians and business leaders, and currently the Vice President, Communications at Lemonade. .