President Obama’s Speech on Syria

This past week President Obama gave a speech on the situation in Syria.  The speech was very serious in its tone and he spoke bluntly with many literal phrases.  However, it also contained a moderate amount of metaphors.

Past presidential speeches have contained journey metaphors as President Obama described present and future policies.  This time the journey metaphors were few and far between perhaps indicating that the future of the situation in Syria is completely unknown.  As diplomatic and military options seem to change every day, there is less certainty about U.S. government plans and policies.

Nonetheless, the speech contains several metaphors worth noting.  In one case, President Obama describes a light military strike as being a pinprick.  This is an interesting comparison of something that causes a small amount of pain to military bombing.  I am not sure what the opposite of a pinprick would be in this case.

“Let me make something clear: The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.”

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The speech also contained a variety of fascinating examples of another common rhetorical device used by politicians talking about war – using personification to describe countries as people.  Here are a few examples.

We often speak of countries standing up or standing against military actions of other countries.  Here President Obama talks about responding to Syria’s use of chemical weapons.

“And a failure to stand against the use of chemical weapons would weaken prohibitions against other weapons of mass destruction and embolden Assad’s ally, Iran…”

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A country is also described as being a strong person.

“I believe our democracy is stronger when the president acts with the support of Congress, and I believe that America acts more effectively abroad when we stand together.

In a slightly different use of personification, body parts of people in the government are described metaphorically as being collective parts of the government or the military.  Technically this is an example of what is called synecdoche, described more fully in an earlier post. A common example of synecdoche used in war discussions, boots on the ground is again repeated here.

“This is especially true after a decade that put more and more war-making power in the hands of the president, and more and more burdens on the shoulders of our troops, while sidelining the people’s representatives from the critical decisions about when we use force.”

“My answer is simple. I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria.”

Later in the speech, President Obama repeats the metaphors of heavy burdens on world leaders.

“The burdens of leadership are often heavy, but the world’s a better place because we have borne them.”

People can also be described as being pushed or pulled in a certain direction, although their bodies, of course, are not literally being pushed or pulled.

“The Russian government has indicated a willingness to join with the international community in pushing Assad to give up his chemical weapons.”

Governments and groups of people can also be described as having a posture or a body position indicating a certain political view.

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“Meanwhile, I’ve ordered our military to maintain their current posture, to keep the pressure on Assad and to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails. And tonight I give thanks again to our military and their families for their incredible strength and sacrifices.”





Finally, in a classic political metaphor of personification, the United States is compared to being a policeman, as if other countries around the world are committing crimes and need to be arrested.

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“And several people wrote to me, we should not be the world’s policeman.”


Stay tuned for more interesting metaphors in the discussion of the situation in Syria.


Next time:  Back to School – Metaphors of Education