Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Latest Rhetorical Skirmish

I first heard it on the BBC (courtesy of KALW) while preparing breakfast this morning:

Mr Putin told senior security officials from around the world that nations were "witnessing an almost uncontained hyper use of force in international relations".

"One state, the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way," he said, speaking through a translator.

"This is very dangerous. Nobody feels secure anymore because nobody can hide behind international law.

"This is nourishing an arms race with the desire of countries to get nuclear weapons."

Apparently, Putin has decided not to mince words at the Munich security summit. However, from a rhetorical point of view, this may simply indicate that Putin realized that he had an opportunity to preach from the moral high ground; so he took it. For a change the world was not picking on the many problematic stories that keep coming out of Russia. It was not that the problems had been resolved but that they had taken a back seat to the demonization of the United States: Having heard what the American electorate said in November, the rest of the world is now giving voice to its own cautionary (if not strong) opinions; and Putin knows international politics well enough to see the value in joining the chorus.

The news, thus, is not in the remarks themselves but in the reactions they prompted. The BBC reported two reactions from our Senate from Lieberman and McCain, respectively. They reduced the Lieberman reaction to a single word: provocative. Lieberman may be gradually learning the value of looking before he leaps! McCain's "leap," on the other hand, is revealing in several respects:

Moscow must understand that it cannot enjoy a genuine partnership with the West so long as its actions at home and abroad conflict fundamentally with the core values of the Euro-Atlantic democracies. In today's multi-polar world there is no place for needless confrontation.

Begin with the first three words: These come straight out of the Bush playbook. Sometimes it seems as if the only rhetorical device Bush has mastered is "ya gotta understand," particularly when he is fielding questions that cannot be answered by reading from a script. In the faith-based camp this is about a strong a rhetorical bludgeon as you are likely to encounter: The connotation is that true understanding can only be received through one's faith, and anyone who disagrees must suffer a failure of faith and is therefore obliged to realign his/her understanding. The pundits have analyzed this aspect of the Bush world-view to death; but McCain has not yet warranted much scrutiny, even if "faith" is the first word in the title of his own memoir. Fortunately, there are some sources, such as Media Matters, that are willing to scrutinize McCain; and they tend to be good about reading between the lines of such rhetorical devices. The bottom line is that McCain has decided to fight "needless confrontation" with more needless confrontation; and, if this does not fly very well in the arena of domestic politics, the consequences in the international arena can be much more dire.

My point in this analysis is, once again, to seek out the metanarrative: Putin had the opportunity to criticize the United States for its behavior in the global arena, took the opportunity, and scored some points. McCain, on the other hand, reacted by biting Putin's finger, rather that looking at where he was pointing (a metaphor I picked up from Warren McCulloch). This scored no points and, in terms of how well he may "play" as a presidential candidate, may land him in the penalty box. Now, let's just let the game continue!

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