They ‘vanished into the sands’: Productions of Self and Other during the ‘War on Terror’

by Jacob Antoine

The US had a turbulent entry into the twenty-first century. The attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001 catapulted the Bush administration into crisis mode. Describing the enemy was an essential task in developing a coherent response to the emergency that would come to be known as the ‘War on Terror’. I will interrogate the rhetorical strategies used by George W. Bush to generate support for US invasions of Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003). I argue the way in which Bush produced binary identities enabled him to delegate sets of narratives and values to different actors; this was a reiteration of imperial power dynamics and an exercise in legitimising and preserving US hegemony. To evaluate these narratives, first, I situate this article in the academic literature on discourse in the ‘War on Terror’. Second, I outline Foucauldian discourse analysis and Orientalism as the epistemological context to my analysis. Third, I argue that the narrative assigned to the Other entailed reductive assessments of the enemy’s perceived barbarity and tyrannical nature, while the people they govern are defined without agency. Fourth, I suggest Bush manufactured the Self in terms of US values and benevolence. This culminated in the normative interaction between the Self and Other which was essentially a narrative of rescue.

Historians have frequently used discourse analysis to describe and analyse the ‘War on Terror’. English professor Sandra Silberstein offered a compelling analysis of the evolution of the ‘War on Terror’ narrative as it started to be produced as an act of war, as opposed to one of criminality. She gave particular emphasis to assessing the president’s capacity to influence the symbolic terrains of nationhood by interrogating Bush speeches in the aftermath of 9/11. Contemporary philosopher Arshin Adib-Moghaddam looked primarily on the interaction between imperial discourse informed by Orientalist thinking and torture practices of the US military. Other studies have conducted gendered and Orientalist analyses simultaneously, finding instances where Muslim women have been produced as agents by US discourse. This was limited, however, to when there was perceived intelligence, military, or law enforcement utility to their agency. Studies typically found (re)identification of subjects (terrorists, dictators, oppressed masses, saviour militaries, democratic supporters at home, and international allies) was central to discourses due to their function in preserving relational power structures and symbolic national border demarcation.

The international studies scholar Maryam Khalid’s extensive work assessed the implications of identity production on the symbolic boundaries of the nation. She finds performances of hypermasculinity necessitated performances of femininity. Nurturing but militarised mothers offered this domestically, but the repressed subjects in Iraq and Afghanistan functioned as the feminised groups that enabled saviour narratives. Discourse around Afghanistan was de-historicised and de-contextualised in order for these narratives to maintain a façade of credibility. This detachment and simplification will be evident in the rhetorical strategies assessed later.

Drawing on philosopher Michel Foucault’s archaeological analysis model, I will treat discourse as a ‘monument’, rather than allegory or a window into a hidden-from-the-surface ideology. Functionally, this is not an attempt at elucidating Bush’s motives, intent, or worldview but rather describing the temporally specific discourse. These particular speeches evidence cases of truth production that constitute an expression of power. Discourse forms part of a strategy of struggle in power relations. In this light, I view the Bush speeches not just as a strategy in preserving US hegemony over the Middle East, but also strengthening the presidential office and reinforcing relations with allies. They augmented other expressions of US power; military and economic coercive capacity, for instance. 

These understandings give rise to questions like, how has power affected the kinds of truths that have been produced by political actors? And, how has truth production involved identification of groups with differing ability to exercise power? Orientalism is a system of knowledge that describes the relationship of power, discourse, and identity in interactions between the Occident and the Orient. Through (re)naming, essentialising, homogenising, and describing, the Orient was produced as backward, incapable of self-government, having unrecognisable sensuality, and ahistorical. Binaries were instrumental in creating both distance and solidarity between subject and agent, East and West, colonised and coloniser, coloured and white, Other and Self. My analysis will be situated in this paradigm by exploring the ways in which Orientalist narratives are evident in Bush speeches, and how identities are produced in order to legitimise his ‘War on Terror’.

Terrorist organisations and governments of states in which they operate constituted the enemy group when Bush said, ‘We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them’. Establishing that there is ‘no neutral ground’, Bush prescribed regimented positions that onlooking states must align themselves with. These statements came in the month from the beginning of the ‘War on Terror’, a time in which identifying an enemy is essential to convince a constituency a war is necessary. Bush predicted few states will resist the gravitational effect of US hegemony for they will be taking a ‘lonely path’ should they do so. In the infamous State of the Union Speech in early 2002, Bush expressed a reductive analysis of problematic states thus undoing a growing diplomatic thaw with his targets, Iran in particular. In a moment when the nation required villains to legitimise their status of global order enforcer, Iran ‘exports terror’ and Iraq ‘support[s] terror’ which earned them qualification into the ‘axis of evil’, while North Korea was homogenised into this group for seeking ‘weapons of mass destruction, while starving its citizens’. The differences in each states’ relationship to terrorism, however, was ignored. Such rhetoric conflated the three states with non-state terrorist organisations and demarcated the enemy. Furthermore, Bush worked hard to compartmentalise the perceived perpetrators of terrorism from the people they govern. They were described as having discrete and oppositional qualities and should be addressed separately. Dealing with the former first, Bush identified them as the enemy in the ‘War on Terror’ and were produced as barbarous and tyrannical. 

Bush produced the enemy as barbaric by referring to Iraq as a ‘regime’, led by ‘thugs’ and ‘assassins’. Criminality was fostered in the Middle East, he argues, which was a ‘place of tyranny and despair and anger’. This trope of Arabs as outlaws who occupy territory where war was pervasive obstructed humanising discourse and acknowledgement of diversity. Bush imbued the terrorists with animalistic qualities, they ‘burrow deeper into caves’, further divorcing the Other from humanity. A case of a US soldier’s decapitation in Iraq demonstrated, for Bush, ‘contempt for all the rules of warfare’ which illustrated fundamental value-dissonance between the two civilisations – one governed by rules based on ethics and humanity versus another by medieval practices and cruelty. This was beyond the ‘bounds of civilized behaviour’ which further indicated this as a point of civilizational contact wherein the civilised/uncivilised binary aligns with the West/Rest. The speech was delivered at a US Army War College, perhaps Bush highlighted such differences to minimise the potential for young soldiers to express moral objections when deployed and being asked to kill.

This barbarity is, for Bush, experienced most acutely by the common people who live under governments in Iraq and Afghanistan that exercise rule with unforgiving tyranny. As ‘enemies of reform’ Bush suggested dogmatic stagnation defines the Other. By bringing attention to the ‘tortured children’ and ‘mother huddled over dead children’ under Saddam Hussein’s administration, Bush suggested archaic and violent tools of social control were commonplace in Iraq. Knowing the homogenising nature of Bush rhetoric, this should be seen as a racializing strategy. Khalid’s work is also helpful in unpacking these characterisations. Forming a national family unit, the children and mothers are vulnerable and subjected to violence. Therefore, they are not just racialized, but also feminised in relation to the masculinised, tyrannical government that inflicts violence and oppresses. The masculinist construction of governments in Iraq and Afghanistan is central to the position the US builds for itself. 

Now to the representation of the people of Iraq and Afghanistan who, to Bush, were constituted in a discrete and oppositional relationship to their respective governments. 

The first key elements to their characterisation was a depersonalized, homogeneous group who are subject to (not agents of) change. Through his statement ‘mothers and daughters of Afghanistan were captives in their own homes’, Bush projected a prohibitive lack of agency onto Afghanistan in feminized terms. In doing so at a State of the Union speech, where his audience is expansive, Bush draws attention to the moral imperative for the US to escalate their military engagements. The narrative of manipulation of the common people by a malevolent administration is further demonstrated in parallels he draws between the ‘War on Terror’ and the Cold War when the US helped Germans ‘resist the designs of the Soviet Union’. At the 2004 State of the Union, Iraqis were reduced to nothing when Bush said, ‘thousands of men and women and children vanished into the sands’. The metaphor of a nondescript group of people dissolving into the earth, in the region defined by conflict,  reveals visceral degradation of individuality. Bush prohibited any capacity for narratives to be authored by Iraqis by producing them as universally oppressed and invisible to history. Functionally, it also provided the moral platform Americans needed to legitimise the Iraq invasion. It came as support for the War was in decline: three different polls (Pew, CBS/New York Times, CNN Gallup) asking whether the US did the right thing in invading Iraq found a 10-15% drop in support in the previous twelve months. This left Bush scrambling to reaffirm characterisations of Iraqis to justify the invasion.

The second projection Bush made onto Iraqis and Afghans was of a group that exercises a degree of agency and vision, but with substantial guidance from the West. Ostensibly, the second motif might even contradict the first, but this is undermined by the military and commercial utility that contextualised the instances where it is demonstrated. There were ‘brave’ Iraqis who were ‘staying in the fight’ against terror. The ‘patriots’ were the ones who were securing ‘freedom’. They constituted the ‘Good Muslim’ character type who, according to literature scholar Susan Jeffords, were produced as such due to their receptivity to Western tutelage. The Iraqis who were ‘translating the great works of democracy into Arabic’ also illustrated the necessity of Western guidance; Iraq would be incapable of democratic governance were it not furnished with Occidental political theory. Bush asserted he had ‘trust’ in the Iraqi people shortly before highlighting a ‘stable environment’ for ‘businesses’ and ‘jobs’ as the things they want most. This reduced the agency Iraqis could exercise as proportionate to the economic utility they demonstrated. 

Constructing the Other in this way necessitated certain productions of the Self to make sense relationally. Bush constructed the agenda of the US as a champion of liberty and democracy. The afternoon of 9/11 Bush said the US was the ‘brightest beacon for freedom’ and that nothing could keep this ‘light from shining’, establishing the US as a world leader in perpetuity. Repeating ‘we’ to collocate ‘freedom and democracy’ attaches the US to those ideals in binary contrast with the Other who was inseparable from ‘bitterness and terror’. Entrenching the US’ relationship to power was the invocation of religious imperatives for liberty spreading, ‘freedom is not America’s gift to the world; freedom is the Almighty God’s gift to every man and woman in this world’. In concert with the light motif, this legitimised the US identity as a custodian of divinity. It also gives rise to a ‘responsibility’ to ‘fight freedom’s fight’. Contextualising policy objectives with religious character functioned to generate support from pious citizens; it was more difficult to challenge gifts granted by God than state policy. 

Bush also produced the US as a benevolent actor with ‘no desire to dominate, no ambitions of empire’. However, Khalid identified the dissemination of liberal internationalism as the point of convergence of US values and imperialism. This was because Bush established US values to be universal, ‘every human heart [has] the desire to live in freedom’. In turn, this justified exercising violence to realise this universality. The strength of the US to play this role stemmed from their willingness to ‘mentor a child’, ‘feed the hungry’, and ‘find shelter for the homeless’. Beyond charitable, this paternalistic rhetoric reinforced the dynamics of dominant Self over submissive Other. Bush thanked the ‘women’ who constituted an ‘army of compassion’ active in a charitable organisation called Operation Support Our Troops. In doing so, he militarised benevolence in gendered terms. This serves to construct the ‘War on Terror’ as a complete approach; that is, the feminised groups remain at home from where they bolstered the masculinised armed forces in their adventures in the Middle East. Masculinised actors necessitate femininity to be produced so the former can exist relationally. The ‘War on Terror’ was not just for the defence of US national security but functioned to preserve narratives of their (farcical) status as the protector of the oppressed and deliverer of goodwill. 

Having laboured to construct prohibitive binaries, compartmentalise the Other, and produce the Self in such positive light, Bush was able to build certain narratives about the normative interaction between the former and the latter. Primarily, they centred around the US as the deliverer of justice and freedom. Bush produced the transfer of these abstract concepts as tangible and one-directional thanks to the military who were ‘bringing hope to the oppressed’ while simultaneously ‘delivering justice to the violent’. Furthermore, justice became branded as ‘American justice’, thus (re)asserting US value centrism at the exclusion of justice as defined by Iraqis or Afghans. 

Bush’s vision of justice was not tarnished by the revelations of torture in Abu Ghraib, as it did ‘not represent the America that I know’. He went on to proclaim perpetrators would be ‘brought to justice’, thus establishing justice as a site or destination. This functions to present Abu Ghraib as simply a deviation from the clear path to justice, rather than a case that undermined the values central to the narrative of Self. Adib-Moghaddam referred to the practice of bio-power in Abu Ghraib being exercised according to an imperialist, clash of civilisations narrative. While Foucault addressed the ritualisation of the hanging in public view as legitimising violence of the state and simultaneously glorifying the criminal subject, the attention of the media and president in proliferating images of the victims in Abu Ghraib functioned to the same effect. It reproduced US power over anonymous bodies as substitutions for the homogenised groups they come from.

Finally, Bush authored a narrative in which the US rescued people living under perceived tyrannical government as an exercise in civilizational aggrandisement. For Bush, pervasive ‘fanaticism’ in the Middle East provided an imperative for the US to rectify this ‘tragedy of history’. He described the collective death of the Afghan nation only ‘coming to life again’ as the Taliban was removed from power. Beyond the metaphorical implications of the death of the nation (passive, without voice, from another time), Bush also aligned his ideological binaries with spatial regions. ‘Tyranny and murder’ define not only the Taliban, but the place they govern and the people who cohabit the region. The ‘realm of liberty’, in contrast, was constituted of the states with a functioning democracy. When the oppositional domains ‘clashed’ in Afghanistan, Bush produced the contest as a zero-sum game. This reductive narrative echoed Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilisations’ thesis wherein civilisation-consciousness and irrefutable cultural difference increase the likelihood of conflict between the ‘West versus the Rest’. Bush seemed to take up Huntington’s suggestions for Western foreign policy in maintaining military dominance over rival civilisations as well as supporting states and institutions that reflected Western values. In this light, producing rescue narratives legitimised behaviour that sought to preserve US dominance, while generating consensus for the cause presented as noble and responsible. Ultimately, such strategies failed to preserve the support generated in the early days of the ‘War on Terror’. After support peaked at 70-75% in early 2003, polls revealed a steady decline in approval until 2006 after which it plateaued at 30-45%.

Bush legitimised the ‘War on Terror’ by projecting essentialised narratives onto the Other and the Self. When the enemy Other was barbarous and tyrannical against the subservient but allied Other, rescue narratives were justified through religious imperatives, civilizational clashes, and perceived necessity of Western tutelage. All of these factors functioned to manufacture support domestically and globally for US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Bush’s exercise in knowledge production evidenced and augmented the power privilege the US experienced. The knowledge attached to the Self and Other were reiterations of imperial relations and functioned to preserve US hegemony.

Bibliography 

Primary sources

Bush, George W.. “Address to the Nation on the Terrorist Attacks,” 11 September 2001, American Presidency Project, available at https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/address-the-nation-the-terrorist-attacks.

Bush, George W.. “Address to the Nation Announcing Strikes Against Al Qaida Training Camps and Taliban Military Instillations in Afghanistan,” 7 October 2001, American Presidency Project, available at https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/address-the-nation-announcing-strikes-against-al-qaida-training-camps-and-taliban-military

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