If Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and his US counterpart, George W Bush, were to face-off in a “Bad Things Said” contest at the end of their presidencies, declaring a winner would be a close call.
Bush’s belligerent speeches set the tone for war. The description of Israel as a “stinking corpse” by the Iranian president spiked tensions in the region.
Reckless language by world leaders has a critical role in weakening international peace and security. Listeners discount domestic rhetorical excesses, but erroneous perception of rhetoric from beyond their borders can spawn panic and have unforeseen consequences. It is naïve, however, to take all threatening sounding speech at face value. Cultural peculiarities and unique political environments fashion the way statesmen talk.
Ahmadinejad’s remark, “In Iran we don’t have homosexuals like in your country,” sounds loony but the sentiment may click with his home audience. These rhetorical styles are rooted in history, custom and religion.
In the West speech is seen primarily as a source of information but in the Middle East it is also fulfils the purpose of building relations. Scholars describe the misreading of cultural differences as “rhetorical ethnocentrism,” which is the tendency to view dissimilar rhetoric through one’s own lens.
There are certain philosophical underpinnings to these differences. The Western code is a “search for truth” but in the Middle East and other societies there are some “established truths.” In a “search for truth” scenario, a speech involves facts and figures, which leads to conclusions.
In an “established truth” setting, a speaker has a conclusion. “The rhetoric is rooted in a common truth and the speakers will negotiate the particulars to the truth,” says William Starosta, a rhetoric expert at Howard University. One such truth in the Middle East is that the Muslim lands are splintered by Israel.
However, to view charged political rhetoric as a regional forte is an oversight. Bush’s “axis of evil” branding arrested the diplomatic options of his administration and will also make Barack Obama’s task of justifying a policy of engagement with Iran more difficult.
During the election campaign, Obama rearticulated his own irresponsible remarks about launching military strikes into Pakistan to kill Osama Bin Laden to “if Pakistan is unable or unwilling to act then we should take them out.” When rebuked, he retaliated that his opponent John McCain had "threatened extinction for North Korea and sung songs about bombing Iran.”
Usually, the western media finds it easier to distinguish pure rhetoric from a real threat when it comes from a source at home. “They know Sarah Palin’s ‘palling around with terrorists’ is just political posturing,” says Gary Sick, who teaches international affairs at Columbia University. It is harder to make that distinction when the rhetoric comes from international adversaries across borders.
In 2005, Ahmadinejad’s remarks that Israel should be “wiped off the map” created hysteria that Iran was on the brink of nuking Israel. Four years on, only a modest effort has been made by politicians, pundits and the media to present a coherent assessment of the Iranian threat, or the historical context and precedent of anti-Israeli rhetoric.
(Betwa Sharma is at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism)