15 - 21 August 2002
Issue No. 599
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Power preacherUS President George W Bush's 24 June speech setting out his administration's Middle East policy appeared to some as positive and balanced. However, linguistic analysis reveals an altogether different meaning, writes Gerda Mansour*
The long-awaited speech by US President George W Bush on his new Middle East policy was delivered on 24 June, and, because so much seemed to depend on it, analysts have since pored over it to distil its message to the Arab world. While official statements in the Middle East described it as positive and balanced, many political commentators described it as plain disastrous.
Tempted to look at the speech from a linguistic perspective to see how it could have achieved such contradictory reactions, I was immediately struck by its schizoid style. It is almost as if two speeches had been woven into one, or two personas were speaking in the same speech.
The first speech is that of a preacher talking about doing things "for the sake of all humanity", expressing his understanding of the suffering of both sides in the conflict, and setting himself up as a prophet with a "vision [of] two states, living side by side in peace and security". These passages in the speech abound with highly emotionally charged vocabulary, clichés and pious platitudes, such as "we can overcome the darkness with the light of hope" which are in themselves worth studying.
However, here I intend to focus on larger chunks of text, for in fact the 'preacher' paragraphs constitute only the beginning (paragraphs one-three) and the end of the speech (24-28), even if they look none the worse for being stuck together. They belong to another dimension of discourse altogether, and are entirely unrelated to matters such as foreign policy issues. It will not escape the reader that the last paragraph ends with a quotation from the Bible: "The Bible says, 'I have set before you life and death; therefore, choose life.' The time has arrived for everyone in this conflict to choose peace, and hope, and life" (28). Wrapped around the main text, the function of these paragraphs is to act as a sugar-coating for the bitter pill contained in the central part of the speech. It is futile to try and extract anything more from them.
The speech's other persona is that of an authoritarian, paternalistic figure, a teacher addressing the naughty boys in his class with stern reprimands, orders, demands and threats interlaced with promises, while giving the good boys reassurance, friendly advice and recommendations. One may argue that, in real life, preacher and teacher are similar types and have a lot in common, but in this particular speech the main distinction lies in the reality content of what is being said. While at least on the surface the teacher persona is concerned with specific practical issues, the preacher only dishes out generalities and pious sentiments. There is also a power aspect absent in the preacher passages.
It seems that those who consider the speech to be balanced, containing much that was positive, have focused only on the preacher paragraphs, reading in the remainder of the speech only those passages containing promises, never mind how vaguely these are formulated or how many conditions hedge them in. We have even been told that Arafat was advised to 'look at the positive side [of the speech] and concentrate on that'.
And there is a further point that should be made in this context. Bush's speech, though addressing a foreign- policy issue, was written for home consumption. In the Anglo-Saxon media, the problem of bias has been virtually abolished by a neat trick: as long as newspaper articles or TV coverage mention something concerning the two parties in a conflict, that is considered sufficient for a "balanced" account of events.
In other words, Western reporters can happily concentrate on reporting the emotional impact of Palestinian "suicide bombings" in Israel as long as they also mention the number of Palestinians killed in the West Bank or Gaza. They are not obliged to present these deaths as human suffering, nor to give any further details. In this sense, Bush's speech can be said to be even-handed in form, though not in content, on the basis of the following utterances, which display deliberately parallel constructions: "It is untenable for Israeli citizens to live in terror. It is untenable for Palestinians to live in squalor and occupation" (two), "I can understand the deep anger and anguish of the Israeli people" (24), "I can understand the deep anger and despair of the Palestinian people" (25).
To have said that the president "understands" the two sides, whatever that may mean, and that the present situation is "untenable" for both is all that is required of him to come across as "balanced" and unbiased by the standards of the American media.
The central part of the speech has three main components: (one) demands and threats addressed to the Palestinians and other Arab countries; (two) vague promises undertaken by the US, and (three) advice and recommendations addressed to Israel. In linguistics such kinds of utterances are referred to as "speech acts". A speech act is distinct from a proposition in that it belongs to the interpersonal function of language -- what the speaker intends to do with language, what kind of inter-personal activity is implied. It is generally understood that presidential speeches are carefully crafted by a team of speech writers who know the business of language and therefore carefully evaluate the possible audience reaction to every word and phrase. It is therefore interesting (and for some people amusing) to have a close look at the tools. How can language be manipulated to convey a certain meaning and not another? And in connection with the above-mentioned speech acts, what are the elements that achieve this particular communicative function?
First, there is a whole laundry list of concrete demands and threats in the speech addressed either to the Palestinians and to the Palestinian Authority (PA), or to other Arab countries, and preceded by rhetorical encouragements. Thus, Bush says, "I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror. I call upon them to build a practising democracy" (4). "Leaders not compromised by terror" contains a hidden threat against Arafat and the PA and is therefore a thinly disguised call for insurrection. Other threats are: "This is unacceptable" (11); "the United States will not support the establishment of a Palestinian state" (11); and "a Palestinian state will never be created by terror" (six). To negate a future happening is one of the worst threats.
Then we come to the speech's more concrete demands: "reform must be more than cosmetic change" (six); "The security system must have clear lines of authority" (11). Or demands addressed to other Arab countries: "Every nation actually committed to peace must block the shipment of Iranian supplies to these groups, and oppose regimes that promote terror, like Iraq" (14). "Syria must choose the right side in the war on terror by closing terrorist camps and expelling terrorist organisations" (14).
In all speaker-audience relations relative power plays an important role, particularly in the formulation of threats and demands. In fact, the weaker party is usually barred from making direct threats or demands. In this situation we are dealing with a speaker who is the president of the most powerful state on earth. His range of possibilities of how to express himself is limited only by his own desire as to how he wants to appear to the public and what aspect of his position he wants to stress.
Naked power is best conveyed by linking "must" to a specific action -- it gives no room for negotiation. "Must" belongs to the class of "modal verbs", so called because they modulate and modify the meaning of connected verbs. Other verbs in this class are "will", "should" and "need", each important devices for expressing power relations or neutrality. "Will" is usually used to express an action or event taking place in the future, but when applied to another person (you/he will do such and such) its function becomes compulsory like "must", namely to convey a non-negotiable demand. Examples from the speech include "Every leader actually committed to peace will end incitement to violence in official media, and publicly denounce homicide bombings" (14) and "Every nation actually committed to peace will stop the flow of money, equipment and recruits to terrorist groups" (14).
Second, the speech employs promises. Straightforward promises can be defined as those that do not contain any hedging or are not tied to conditions. There are a few promises of this type in the speech; however, they contain certain stylistic devices that render them very vague: "The United States, along with the European Union and Arab states, will work with Palestinian leaders to create a new constitutional framework" (eight); "the United States, along with others in the international community will help the Palestinians organise and monitor fair, multi-party local elections" (eight); "The United States, the international donor community and the World Bank stand ready to work with Palestinians on a major project of economic reform and development" (nine).
The first thing that strikes the reader is that in every one of these promises the subject is compound -- not "I, the president, undertake", which might be considered binding, but "The United States along with the EU and Arab countries", or "the international donor community". This way it can always be pointed out that some other party didn't keep its side of the bargain. The substance of these promises is contained in verbal phrases of the type "help organise" and "stand ready to work with". The only utterance that might pass as a slightly more concrete promise is "increase our humanitarian assistance" (10). When it comes to vital issues concerning the Palestinians, there are no promises, just postponed negotiations "between the parties" dangled in front of them: "The final borders, the capital and other aspects of this state's sovereignty will be negotiated between the parties, as part of a final settlement" (13).
The remaining promises are of the time- honoured carrot-and-stick type. They demonstrate that promises are closely linked to conditions introduced by "if": "If Palestinians embrace democracy, they can count on American support for the creation of a provisional state of Palestine". (12); "Ultimately, Israelis and Palestinians must address the core issues that divide them if there is to be a real peace" (20). Even though clauses introduced by "when" have a temporal meaning pointing to the future, as they are employed here they likewise imply that a condition has to be fulfiled before something else can occur: "And when the Palestinian people have new leaders, the United States of America will support the creation of a Palestinian state" (five).
In fact, along with the choice of modal verbs, the syntactic choice of predominantly conditional clauses is one of the most striking aspects of this speech. While the subject of these conditional clauses is invariably the Palestinians or the PA, there are again examples which dilute the responsibility for the realisation of the promise by introducing a compound subject: "If the Palestinian people actively pursue these goals, America and the world will actively support their efforts" (four). In fact, there is little substance in this promise, despite the "will actively" introduced, and this tendency is also shown in the following example: "If they energetically take the path of reform, the rewards can come quickly" (12). Modified by "can" these unspecified "rewards" are merely a distant possibility.
Further examples follow the classical two-sided structure of conditional/main clause, but instead of being introduced by "if" or "when", they are linked by "until", "as", or "with". In each case they express a condition to be fulfilled by the Palestinians before anything else can occur: "And the United States will not support the establishment of a Palestinian state until its leaders engage in a sustained fight against the terrorists" (11).
Third, in the following passages the American desire to appear even-handed by also addressing Israel is satisfied, although instead of demands and threats we have a list of recommendations and persuasive arguments. For instance, "A stable, peaceful Palestinian state is necessary to achieve the security that Israel longs for. So I challenge Israel to take concrete steps to support the emergence of a viable, credible Palestinian state" (16). While "necessary" is semantically akin to "must", it is totally neutral as regards power relations. "Must" is the strongest modal expressing external compulsion and implying power on the part of the speaker. It occurs four times in the paragraphs addressed to Israel, but only once does it have the force of a command -- "settlement activity in the occupied territories must stop" (17).
However, even here "must" is modified by what precedes it, namely: "Consistent with the recommendations of the Mitchell Committee", which neutralises and weakens it. On two further occasions "must" occurs in a passive construction: "The Palestinian economy must be allowed to develop" (18). Passivity adds another dimension to the interpretation. The agent who gives permission is unmentioned: who is going to compel the unmentioned agent to give permission and how?
Lastly, in a number of cases the subject is "we", for instance: "We must also resolve questions concerning Jerusalem, the plight and future of Palestinian refugees, and a final peace" (21). Who is this "we"? Furthermore, when used in the first person "must" entirely loses its aspect of power and becomes a mere expression of intention. Also in: "As we make progress towards security, Israeli forces need to withdraw" (17). This time "we" seems to link the US to a process constituting a condition (one can easily replace "as" by "if", which proves that the function of this clause is likewise conditional).
How are we meant to interpret this? At any rate, the reality content in the subsequent main clause is weakened by the modal "need" -- in other words, withdrawal is no more than advisable. And in paragraph (18) we have "Israel should release frozen Palestinian revenues". "Should" expresses a conditional obligation, more in the line of a moral lesson and neutral as regards to power. Similarly: "As new Palestinian institutions and new leaders emerge, I expect Israel to respond and work toward a final status agreement" (23). This expectation on the part of the president of the United States is neither based on facts, nor does he in any way suggest that he will use his power to make this happen.
All in all, linguistic analysis of this speech shows that all the available stylistic tools to express power and make demands are aimed at only one side in the conflict, while the other side merely receives some cautiously worded advice. Promises are of the carrot-and-stick type and contain little that is concrete and even less that can be called binding. Naked power expressed in the central section is then carefully wrapped in pious sentiments and Biblical quotation, giving what is at the formal level alone what is a perfectly "balanced" speech.
* The writer is a lecturer in sociolinguistics, formerly at Cairo University, and Macguarie University, Sydney.
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