Obama’s Anti-War Speech (2002) – Ideological Criticism

Linked here is a transcript from a speech made by the, then, Senator of Illinois, Barack Obama. In the speech, Obama utilizes several rhetorical techniques to create a marxist ideological critique of the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq. He makes use of repetitious, memorable quotes to enhance his argument, as well as draws upon historical precedents to balance his claims. His use of language reflects the audience to which he is addressing his concerns as well. Given that the speech is political in nature, he delivers it with the rhetorical tactics of a politician. He is addressing a group of constituents and media representatives in the hopes of dissuading the American public from supporting the war.

The tenants of Marxist critique, outlined by scholars Roderick P. Hart and Suzanne M. Daughton, are comprised mainly of an analysis focusing on the justifications for marginalization by those in power. These justifications can take several forms and appeal to several fields, including religious, educational, political, financial, patriotic, and bureaucratic. Marxist ideological critics tend to be repetitious and tendentious. They identify material conditions and realities constructed by rhetors in power, focusing on the hierarchy of privileged and marginalized values and how these values maintain or deconstruct the status quo. In short, they ask a lot of hard-hitting questions. For these reasons, I believe Obama is creating a marxist ideological criticism in this speech, as he employs many of the tactics that fall into this realm of criticism.

Firstly, he reinforces ethos of the self by identifying his American roots and support for our armed forces. He is quick to point out that his speech doesn’t identify as anti-war, or that he isn’t against warfare overall. I would infer that he aims to avoid the taboo labels and illegitimacy that some anti-war rhetors possess. Further, because America is a warring nation, he feels the need to justify his opposition in a particular case.

Let me begin by saying that although this has been billed as an anti-war rally, I stand before you as someone who is not opposed to war in all circumstances. The Civil War was one of the bloodiest in history, and yet it was only through the crucible of the sword, the sacrifice of multitudes, that we could begin to perfect this union, and drive the scourge of slavery from our soil. I don’t oppose all wars.

This is a marxist tactic used to create a sense of identity and oneness with the rhetor’s audience, and Obama employs it frequently. The theme of “opposition” is used often throughout his speech, and he repeats the phrase “I don’t oppose all wars” three times within the first few minutes. A further sense of ethos is developed as he states,” I don’t oppose all wars. And I know that in this crowd today, there is no shortage of patriots, or of patriotism”, which serves to reinforce his support for the American armed forces.

The critique of power figures appears several minutes into the speech, when Obama begins to discuss his views on the Iraq war. What perplexed me was the avoidance of common political rhetoric or even diplomatic phrasing, when he labeled the Bush Administration’s actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. “What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war.” By attacking the intellectual justifications, or lack thereof, in the administration’s decision, he has created an image of an inept leadership bent on serving selfish and political interests outside the American public’s knowledge.

What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne. What I am opposed to is the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income — to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression. That’s what I’m opposed to. A dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.

After giving his audience a mixture of personal and justified criticisms of the administration, he continues on to offer his opinion on the perceived enemy, somewhat offering his opposition an olive branch.

I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power. He has repeatedly defied UN resolutions, thwarted UN inspection teams, developed chemical and biological weapons, and coveted nuclear capacity. He’s a bad guy. The world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him.

The aim of this statement is to reel in support from those who perceive the US government to have good intentions. Few would disagree with Obama’s assessment of Saddam Hussein, however he quickly turns his gaze back to the administration and how he would prefer to see the conflict resolved.

You want a fight, President Bush? Let’s fight to wean ourselves off Middle East oil, through an energy policy that doesn’t simply serve the interests of Exxon and Mobil.

He concludes by offering his own preference for armed retribution for the September 11th attacks. By doing this, he utilized his marxist criticism of the Bush Administration and conjured a rhetorical image of action that will lead to justice and peace.

We may have occasion in our lifetime to once again rise up in defense of our freedom, and pay the wages of war. But we ought not — we will not — travel down that hellish path blindly. Nor should we allow those who would march off and pay the ultimate sacrifice, who would prove the full measure of devotion with their blood, to make such an awful sacrifice in vain.


7 thoughts on “Obama’s Anti-War Speech (2002) – Ideological Criticism

  1. I also agree that Obama’s viewpoints lead to a very insightful Marxist Criticism. I found it interesting that Obama appears to promote at anti-War phenomena but emphasizes that he is not against warfare. I liked how in his speech the example that he used to show that he was pro warfare at times was the civil war. This was an interesting observation considering the content of the war. I also noticed the sense of repetition to bring his point across to the audience that he was trying to relate too. it must be hard to try and relate to the general public when he is so clearly not just an ordinary individual citizen. It definitely creates a sense of authority and credibility or ethos. However, it did strike me a bit odd that Obama was indirectly stating that he does not like “dumb” war. In my opinion this seems like an obvious viewpoint. He also tries to deflect his audience away from the task at hand and tries to get them too agree with him on other aspects such as the American hatred of Saddam Hussein. I feel that if he gets them to agree with him and his views on that aspect that the audience will be more willing to agree with him elsewhere, and in turn his argument can be seen as that much more effective. Overall, it was a very intriguing article to read and learn from.


  2. I think that Obama is an excellent wordsmith, and he’s able to convey his arguments well, contributing to his creation of effective terministic screens; this is easily seen in his 2002 anti-war speech. You identified Obama’s Marxist ideological criticism of the Bush Administration in 2002 very effectively. As you stated, Marxist criticism utilizes “hard-hitting questions” to get to the root of the problem in order to propose a utopian vision or perfected way that the problem should be resolved. Obama created this utopian vision in how he stated that he would deal with the “fight” by “weaning ourselves off Middle East oil,” which also led to the inherent assumption that America is at war in order to keep ties with Middle East oil strong through exerting their military power. You also pointed out that Obama’s rhetoric creates the assumption that the Bush Administration is “inept” and “too stupid” to deal with the situation at hand in an effective and rational way; I agree that Obama did this well, and he truly makes it hard for the audience to believe that a single decision made by the Bush Administration wasn’t idiotic. Keep up the good work; I look forward to reading your further analysis!


  3. This is a very effective critique! Your background information at the beginning regarding Marxist critique is concrete and extremely helpful to the untrained eye. Whoever writes Obama’s speech is quite smart, and Obama is quite good at presenting said speeches. The tactic that Obama utilized when he spoke of himself not being against war is very common for him. I see it all the time (and the Marxist critic would comment on this repetition). Obama definitely appeals to ethos in the first quote used, but he also appeals to logos when he speaks about the civil war. That is a paragraph packed with rhetorical technique. I would have liked to see more of your thoughts on the second quote you included in your critique. I had a bit of a hard time understanding why he put that in there. I like that at the end of his personal criticisms, he stated a plan of action. An effective end to the speech.


  4. This was very well written. What I found most interesting was Obama’s first priority was to establish he was not anti-war. This was a very effective rhetorical technique on his part. It allowed audience members with opposition to feel that he was on their side and to listen to him. Your analysis of Obama’s Marxist critique on the war was very good. The line I also found interesting was when Obama stated, “Let’s fight to wean ourselves off Middle East oil…” this made me wonder what his solution to this was. Whether he was thinking of drilling for more oil in the US; developing alternative energy sources; or if he even had a solution to this problem at the time. Maybe he did and I am just not informed of it; I just thought it was an interesting statement. Overall a very good explanation of this speech and an excellent example of Marxist critique.


  5. Hi Cole! What a well written and insightful critique! “What I am opposed to is a dumb war.” — I found this particular language to be surprisingly jarring considering the diplomacy with which he speaks now (lol). Anyway, claiming that the war is “dumb” and “rash” are obvious things to align with and set the binary that is crucial to idealogical criticism. Some war is rash, dumb, unnecessary, etc. some war is smart, tactical, patriotic, etc. Setting this binary helps establish credibility, an oh-so-important political value. As always, a wonderful critique Cole. Looking forward to your final project!


  6. Cole,
    I enjoyed reading you post about Obama’s speech in 2002 since I was only nine when this speech was given so I am reading it with fresh eyes. I like how clearly you connected the Marxist ideology with Obama’s speech, and you showed great control over the ideology just in your ability to paraphrase concisely. As you wrote about some of the main points in Obama’s speech, I liked how you described and analyzed each quote prior to the reference, but towards the end, there seems to be less of an analysis on each quote—it may have been unnecessary though because of the in depth connection in the first half. Furthermore, I would have loved to see your evaluation on this speech. You offer great analysis at the beginning of the post, but hearing your evaluation of Obama’s Marxist ideology would have really edified your post. Overall, great work! I’m excited to see how your final project turns out.


  7. Obama’s position on war is very reflective of the larger American population that is not necessarily anti-war, but aim to explore other, non-violent options first (something of which you and I have previously discussed). Obama’s questioning of the outside political and economic motives behind the Iraq war are truly reflective of a Marxist critique, which criticize propaganda and institutional motive. I think it is INCREDIBLY interesting hearing and reading Obama’s rhetoric after what we’ve come to know of the war today, which generated an incredible amount of revenue for specific industry sectors. However, at the time, and as you discussed, Bush and company’s main aim was “retribution” (propaganda), and others failed to see the potential repercussions of this very, very hasty call to action.


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