Politics & Policy

The Ultimate Ultimatum Speech

Aristotle & W.

President George W. Bush has been delivering ultimatum speeches to Saddam Hussein for at least six months. Back on September 12, 2002, he told world leaders at the United Nations that the Iraqi regime is a “grave and gathering threat,” and that “we cannot stand by and do nothing while dangers gather.”

Last night the president delivered his final ultimatum to Saddam & Sons: either get out of Dodge within 48 hours or face a hanging posse.

The speech was a textbook example of Aristotle’s “three modes of persuasion”: ethos, logos, and pathos. In his famous treatise on rhetoric, the Greek philosopher emphasized a leader’s need to convey ethos, or credibility, from the moment he starts to speak. Bush did so in several ways. He used simple declarative sentences, the kind of straight talk that assures listeners that all his cards are on the table. The message is: “I’m not luring you into a trick. I’m not seducing you with a diversion. I’m not finessing the meaning of the word ‘is.’ My purpose is to tell you what I think as clearly and succinctly as possible, because I want you to trust me. Only if you trust me can we have a meeting of the minds.”

Bush reinforced his credibility by reminding listeners of the duty and authority a president has. As commander-in-chief, he is obligated to live by the oath of office he took on January 20, 2001. That means he is bound by the Constitution to do what is necessary to defend our nation and protect American lives and property.

Another way the president buttressed his credibility was by not overreaching. It would have been tempting to promise the stars to doubtful Americans and dubious allies. But Bush wisely resisted trying to get a cheap down payment on future goodwill.

More intangibly, the president telegraphed ethos by his sober bearing. One commentator called his expression “grim.” Is this surprising? After the world wars of the last century, after September 11, aren’t Americans painfully aware of the sacrifices demanded by Mars? The president may have seemed grim, but he did not seem agitated — it is an important distinction. Bush seemed at peace with his decision to go to war. There was a confidence in his voice, a moral strength in his manner. He believes that he is doing the right thing for Americans and the community of law-abiding nations, whether they agree with him or not. That kind of confidence is what listeners seek in a crisis.

Important as ethos is, credibility alone is not enough to persuade a tough audience. Aristotle pointed out that a leader must also convey logos, or right reason, if he is to convince people to follow them. The president’s speech last night was an invitation to a candid world: “Come, let us reason together.”

Bush needed to dispel the notion that launching a preemptive war against Saddam was reckless, illegal, or immoral. He recalled a dozen years during which various U.N. resolutions gave the U.S. and community of nations the authority to hold Iraq to account. Resolution 1441, unanimously passed last November, was the capstone of these efforts. To no avail. In its dealings with Saddam, the world has been patient to a fault. It has tried diplomacy; tried weapons inspections; tried moral suasion. But “our good faith has not been returned,” Bush said. “Peaceful efforts have failed again and again because we are not dealing with peaceful men.”

Saddam, the president argued, has harbored and trained terrorists. He has developed weapons of mass destruction. He has used weapons of mass destruction, not once or twice, but many times against many thousands of people. He has fostered hatred for America. Ergo: The status quo will only permit Saddam to refine his weapons and bide his time. He or a surrogate will surely strike when the opportunity presents itself. Isn’t it irresponsible to dither when we have the chance to stop Saddam now? Isn’t it immoral to let another 9/11 take place on American soil — this time with VX or sarin or nuclear weapons?

The removal of one man from power today will save thousands of lives tomorrow. The unmistakable historical analogy is with Hitler.

The presence of logos is crucial in a speech, according to Aristotle. We are reasoning creatures. But to close the sale, the leader must also rely on pathos, and that means making an emotional connection with the audience.

Bush connected emotionally by the tautness of his delivery. It was of a piece with the atmosphere surrounding the speech. Last night was charged with tension. War ultimatums usually are. Contributing to the tension is our collective memory of past ultimatums — at the beginning of World Wars I and II, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and prior to the Persian Gulf War. Also, just before to the president’s speech last night there was talk of the Department of Homeland Security raising the threat level to Code Orange, which it did.

Listeners probably detected three places in the speech where Bush seemed to allow his emotions to surface. One was when he said, with defiance, “We will not be intimidated by thugs and killers.”

Another was when he uttered the “a” word, “appease.” It was as if he were saying, “You French: Do any of you remember 1933?”

Emotion also seemed to surface when the president addressed the Iraqi people directly. He repeated what he has said on numerous occasions during the past few months: he has no quarrel with ordinary Iraqi citizens; they especially have been the victims of a murderous tyrant; they deserve our help. So he pled with them, saying in effect: “Your day has come. Don’t fight for this evildoer. Don’t lay down your life for a dying regime. If you are a soldier, we will give you every opportunity to surrender with honor. If you are a noncombatant, we will do everything in our power to shepherd you through the current crisis and help you build a new Iraq that is free and democratic. Trust what I am saying. Look at America’s track record. We’ve helped nations with which we’ve been at war before, Germany and Japan and now Afghanistan. The American cause is about liberation, not occupation.”

It is a fact of statecraft. On the eve of war, a leader needs to mobilize not just the troops but the language. Using the building blocks of persuasion, Bush’s speech justified war, served the Iraqi regime notice, and apprised a candid world.

Now our commander-in-chief must turn his attention to the next major speech, which he will deliver once the war begins. His speechwriters do not have much time to compose it.

Gleaves Whitney worked for former Michigan governor John Engler eleven years, serving as his chief speechwriter. He is editing a book on the wartime speeches of American presidents, to be published by Rowman & Littlefield later this year.


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