Justifications for the Iraq War as Incoherent Discourses

discourse

This is the beginning to an academic article I’ll be submitting later this weekend.

Queer theorist David Halperin argues that disputing the lies of homophobia is pointless. His argument is not that homophobic discourses are irrefutable, but on the contrary, that they are endlessly disputable because they are based on series’ of mutually contradictory double binds. Halperin uses the legal debate over homosexuality as an “immutable characteristic” to illustrate such a double bind whereby if homosexuality is inborn, it justifies medical and legal discrimination on the basis of biological difference, or alternately, if homosexuality is a choice, then medical practitioners and politicians can restrict and punish homosexual behavior as a matter of volition.[1] Theoretically describing this discursive problematic, Halperin draws on the work of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s “Epistemology of the Closet” to argue that since “homophobic discourses contain no fixed propositional content,” they “operate strategically by means of logical contradictions” whose infinite substitutability empowers those discourses while simultaneously incapacitating queers through incoherence.[2] For Halperin, following Sedgwick, the consequence is that homophobic lies are easily falsifiable when taken one at a time, but refuting them one by one “does nothing the strategic function of discourses that operate precisely by deploying a series of mutually contradictory premises in such a way that anyone of them can be substituted for any other as different circumstances may require, without changing the final outcome of the argument.”[3]

The Bush Administration’s case for the Iraq War, with its many divergent justifications, expresses a discursive incoherence similar to homophobia. President Bush’s ex post facto justification for the war was quite vague, “that the Iraqi people are much better off without Saddam,” yet as policy analysts Daalder and Lindsey argue, the wide berth of this justification relies on the “basic but highly salient fact that there would not have been a war without his argument that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction posed an unacceptable threat that was both immediate and serious.”[4] Restoring clarity to the Bush Administration’s initial claims about WMDs seems hardly probable, however, given the incoherence of the discourse through which the justifications for war were presented. As public policy professor James P Pfiffner points out, administration officials made WMDs a moving target, with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz claiming that the verifiable presence of WMDs was not the paramount issue for policymakers while Secretary of Defense Collin Powell was asserting its centrality.[5] Pfiffner concludes that even while President Bush made “few untrue statements” and accepted some widely shared claims, his statements were also systematically misleading, gave false impressions, and defied the better judgment of others.[6]

Sentimentality aided the Bush Administration’s incoherent war on public opinion. The Bush Administration pitched the war as the perfect plan to fill the emotional void left by the September Eleventh attacks. President Bush associated Iraq with 9/11, expanding the targets of the War on Terror to an “axis of evil” – Iraq, Iran, and North Korea – during his State of the Union Address in 2002. And during the one-year commemoration of the attacks at Ground Zero, he formally announced his intentions to attack Iraq. Rhetorically ‘sticking’ the attack in New York to Iraq, he made a promise: “What our enemies have begun, we will finish.”[7] With this full-scale media blitz, the Bush Administration amplified the emotional resonance between the 9/11 and his campaign against Iraq, leading supporters to offer over-the-top acclamations, such as “turn Baghdad into a parking lot. You know, blow up the bridges, blow up the factories. Just level it,” or “I’m kind of excited to be here now. Someday we’ll tell our children that we were in Washington when the war started.”[8]

The strong emotional charge underwriting these words was not isolated to the Bush Administration – the administration was tapping into the basic structure of paranoid fantasies that, in Elaine Scarry’s words, attempts to connect “disembodied beliefs with the force and power of the material world” through the “massive opening of human bodies.”[9] In recent decades, foreign policy hawks have repeated a phrase that reveals the “structure of feeling” behind their desire for war.[10] One version of this narrative goes like this: “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.”[11] The consequence of this violent sentiment is clear: war hawks construct fantasies that bring together pleasure and violence to stoke the population.

Feminist scholar Sara Ahmed theorizes how the incoherent discourses, such as those that justified the Iraq War, can be unified through emotion.[12] Following Derrida, Ahmed explains that emotion can fill the disjunction between signification and context. Through repetition, words can detach from the context in which they emerge, leaving emotions as symbolic traces of their lost context. Appearing as personal, ahistorical, or natural fact, these emotions accumulate cultural value through associations with words that generate material histories that remain concealed. In the case of Bush Administration defenses of the Iraq War, grief and aggression stood in for coherent discourses, demonstrating how state violence can use affective force to make politics with contradictory statements. Such discursive formations frustrate rhetorical attempts to restore clarity to politics. As we will see with some critics of the Iraq War, rhetorical challenges to state violence can often fail to mobilize an effective political response.


[1] Halperin, David. (1997). Saint Foucault: Toward a Gay Hagiography. New York: Oxford University Press. (p. 33).

[2] Ibid. (p. 33-34). Also see Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. (1990). Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley and Los Angeles: California University Press.

[3] Ibid. (p. 38).

[4] Daalder, Ivo H., and James M. Lindsay. 2003. American Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy. Washington, DC: Brookings. (p. 167).

[5] Pfiffner, J. P. (2004). “Did President Bush Mislead the Country in His Arguments for War with Iraq?.” Presidential Studies Quarterly, 34: 25-46. (p. 43).

[6] Ibid. (p. 44).

[7] Beach, Michael, and Damon Johnston. (2002). “Bush Sets scene for Attack on Iraq – 9/11 Ground Zero Tribute.” Daily Telegraph. September 13. http://www.lexisnexis.com/hottopics/lnacademic/?. As Sara Ahmed argues, emotional attachments are not made through literal connections but figurative or metaphorical ones that produce histories of contact, impression, association, and blockage that give affective transference ‘stickiness.’ See pages 89-95 of Ahmed, Sara. (2004). The Cultural Politics of Emotion. New York: Routledge.

[8] Washington Post. (2003). “Anguish, Emotion Mark First Day On Home Front; As War Begins, Travelers Fret and Mothers Agonize.” March 21. http://www.lexisnexis.com/hottopics/lnacademic/?.

[9] Scarry, Elaine. (1985). Body in Pain: The Unmaking and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford University Press. (p. 129).

[10] Culture, according to Raymond Williams, does not have an idealist essence, such as a ‘spirit of the age.’ Rather, culture follows a definite structure whose operations are articulated “in the most delicate and least tangible parts of our activities” Raymond Williams. (1961). The Long Revolution, Second Edition. Ontario: Broadview Press. (p. 63-66); and Raymond Williams. (1977). “Structures of Feeling,” In Marxism and Literature, 128-135. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[11] Goldberg, Jonah. (2002). “Baghdad Delenda Est, Part Two.” National Review. April 23. http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=YTFhZGQ4Y2IyZmNlY2QyNDkwZTlkZjFkYjZiNWY0YzU=.

[12] Op. cit. Ahmed (p. 91-92).

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