Friday, December 4, 2009

Al Qaeda, Cancer, and the Obama Doctrine of Preemption

I have seen surprisingly little discussion in the print, televisual, and networked media of President Obama's rhetorical decision to characterize the Al Qaeda threat in Pakistan and Afghanistan in terms of the metaphor of cancer, which he introduced just past the half-way point of the speech:

"We're in Afghanistan to prevent a cancer from once again spreading through that country. But this same cancer has also taken root in the border region of Pakistan. That's why we need a strategy that works on both sides of the border."

This metaphor is troubling for any number of reasons. It participates in the long human history of characterizing one's enemies as threats to the health of one's own nation or state--such terms as vermin, parasites, and plagues have historically been employed to unite a nation against its enemies and to make it easier for soldiers to kill other humans. This kind of dehumanization is often coupled with racism or xenophobia, as was the case in Nazi Germany, in Vietnam, and in recent and ongoing military campaigns against Islamic nations. In characterizing Al Qaeda and the Taliban as cancers, Obama sadly opens the door for increased Islamophobia.

The cancer metaphor is also of concern for the way in which it medicalizes the threat of terrorism in order to naturalize or take for granted the need to eradicate it. I mean, who would simply let a cancer spread or metastasize if we could contain it through radiation, chemotherapy, or surgical removal? Choosing to characterize the threat as a cancer presumes one set of approaches to the problem and precludes many others. For example, it undercuts the possibility of seeing either Al Qaeda or the Taliban as having any legitimate concerns and it rules out the possibility of making an argument about the culpability of the US or the West in the development of these different, but at this point interrelated, organizations.

It is perhaps ironic in light of the current administration's focus on health care reform at home that Obama chooses to justify his deployment of additional troops as a form of preventive health care aimed at saving not only lives but billions of dollars in future medical expenses. Painting himself as the good physician, Obama sees no choice but to remove this cancerous invader in order to prevent it from spreading even further. Indeed it might not be going too far to say that the discourse of health care reform serves in some non-trivial sense as a premediation of Obama’s Afghanistan strategy.

Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of Obama's cancer metaphor, however, is that it seeks to provide rhetorical cover for the disturbing fact, pointed out by The American Conservative, that the Obama Administration has endorsed and continues to perpetuate the Bush Doctrine of preemptive warfare, which the Bush-Cheney administration used to justify the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, a military action that initiated the war that Obama has only intensified in the past year. Although rhetorically different from its manifestation during the Bush-Cheney Administration, premediation will continue to furnish the dominant media logic of the Obama Doctrine of preemptive military care.

1 comment:

Justin Remeselnik said...

I share your concern regarding the cancer metaphor. Obama generally avoids the Manichean good vs. evil dichotomies that were so prevalent under Bush Jr. I suspect that what Obama is trying to do is extend an olive branch (of sorts) to the neocons who continually lambaste him as too dovish on foreign policy.In spite of the troop escalation (which I have serious reservations about) and the more aggressive rhetoric, he is still being critiqued by the right for not sending even more troops. (He was also critiqued by Fox News for not using the word "win" in his speech.) In other words, if the goal of his "cancer" rhetoric is to appease the hawks, it doesn't seem to be working.