Critical Essay #3: How Bush’s “Ultimatum to Iraq” Speech acts as evidence to the legitimacy of the rally phenomenon

The Iraq War is one of the most controversial military and foreign policy legacies of George W. Bush’s Presidency. Along with Vietnam, it also remains to be one of the most unpopular wars on record. At its lowest point of popularity, 64% of Americans disapproved of the war in October of 2006 (CNN). And in 2014, it was reported that 54% of Americans identified with the notion that intervening in Iraq was a mistake (Gallup). Interestingly enough a majority of the American public overwhelmingly supported the war in its initial onset. At its peak of popularity, 76% of Americans supported military intervention in Iraq during the beginning phases of war in March of 2003(Gallup). How is such a drastic change possible? It can be argued that “the rally phenomenon” where “in the aftermath of major foreign policy actions undertaken by the US government, people rally behind the President”, played a major role in such high approval initially for the war(Iyengar). A case could be made that the rally phenomenon is more the less a result of the rhetoric George W. Bush used in his “Ultimatum to Iraq Speech”. On the night Bush made this address, approval for the concept of the war jumped from the high 50s up to 66% approval(Gallup). Later that week, the number reached up to 76% as combat operations commenced. The numbers are hard to ignore: the speech made a difference in public perception. Why though? By objectively examining the mechanical and rhetorical construction of this speech, one is capable of fully uncovering the reason why the rally effect has such legitimacy as a concept. It is fair to say that the reason 76% of the American people supported military intervention in Iraq lies in Bush’s words.

Video of Speech:

Text of Speech:

On March 17. 2003 when Bush delivered his “Ultimatum to Iraq” America’s wounds from 9/11 were two years fresh. Fear of another terrorist attack and the stability of the Middle East were still of prime concern. A poll conducted in January 2003, two months before the war began, shed light on the fact that 50% public viewed an invasion of Iraq to be part of the ‘War on Terrorism” (Gallup). It is clear throughout the speech that Bush caters to such an understanding and uses it as the primary premise of grounds for American involvement in Iraq. For example Bush makes the claim early on in his speech that:

“The regime (in control of Iraq) has a history of reckless aggression in the Middle East. It has a deep hatred of America and our friends. And it has aided, trained and harbored terrorists, including operatives of al Qaeda.”

By connecting Iraq and Al-Qaeda, though from a contemporary standpoint is questionable, Bush was able to appeal to American emotions on security concerns of terrorism in the post 9/11 era. He establishes Iraq as a threat by saying that they have strong relationships with terror organizations. Yet he does not end his argument there. He continues on saying:

“The danger is clear: using chemical, biological or, one day, nuclear weapons, obtained with the help of Iraq, the terrorists could fulfill their stated ambitions and kill thousands or hundreds of thousands of innocent people in our country, or any other.”

The assertion (whether accurate or not) that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction is historically viewed as the foundation for the United States’ argument to invade Iraq. What should be taken into account when analyzing this speech from the perspective of that time, is that this linkage of a terrorist threat and Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was extremely persuasive to the American people. In March 24-25 2003, only a few days after this speech, 79% of the American public claimed to be worried about a terrorist attack on the United States (Gallup). Paranoia was at its peak. The mere assertion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction wasn’t simply the problem, the problem the Bush Administration claimed was that such weapons had the potential to fall into the hands of terrorists and threaten American lives.

To further his point, Bush dedicated a great deal of his speech to the notion of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. He characterized how the United States had just legal authority to insure such alleged weapons were destroyed, even if meant dismantling the Hussein regime by force. He begins this effort by addressing how in the past peaceful measures to address the issue have failed.

“The Iraqi regime has used diplomacy as a ploy to gain time and advantage. It has uniformly defied Security Council resolutions demanding full disarmament. Over the years, U.N. weapon inspectors have been threatened by Iraqi officials, electronically bugged, and systematically deceived. Peaceful efforts to disarm the Iraqi regime have failed again and again — because we are not dealing with peaceful men. “

Bush further breathes legitimacy into his argument, by giving such information the “seal of approval” from not only the United States Intelligence apparatus, but the intelligence organizations of other nations.

“Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised. This regime has already used weapons of mass destruction against Iraq’s neighbors and against Iraq’s people.”

By sanctioning the validity of such intelligence with the US government’s approval, Bush is in essence officially saying that such information is not speculation, it is fact. In hindsight, the validity of this information may be debated. However, to the American people watching this address in 2003, the President saying that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction per intelligence collected by the CIA was most likely enough to convince them of its truth.

With legitimacy established, Bush moves into the legal reasons why the United States may forcefully disarm Iraq, should Saddam Hussein not comply with this ultimatum. He once again makes the case for national security. 

“The United States of America has the sovereign authority to use force in assuring its own national security. That duty falls to me, as Commander-in-Chief, by the oath I have sworn, by the oath I will keep.

Recognizing the threat to our country, the United States Congress voted overwhelmingly last year to support the use of force against Iraq.”

In this statement, Bush affirms the United States existential right to protect her security in accordance with her authority as a sovereign nation. He also affirms that such actions have cleared the Constitutional internal processes that allow them to be legal under United States law. Following such an argument, he then moves on to appeal as to why this action is justifiable under International Law.

“In the case of Iraq, the Security Council did act, in the early 1990s. Under Resolutions 678 and 687 – both still in effect – the United States and our allies are authorized to use force in ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. This is not a question of authority, it is a question of will.

Last September, I went to the U.N. General Assembly and urged the nations of the world to unite and bring an end to this danger. On November 8, the Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1441, finding Iraq in material breach of its obligations, and vowing serious consequences if Iraq did not fully and immediately disarm.

Today, no nation can possibly claim that Iraq has disarmed. And it will not disarm so long as Saddam Hussein holds power. For the last four-and-a-half months, the United States and our allies have worked within the Security Council to enforce that Council’s long-standing demands. Yet, some permanent members of the Security Council have publicly announced they will veto any resolution that compels the disarmament of Iraq. These governments share our assessment of the danger, but not our resolve to meet it. Many nations, however, do have the resolve and fortitude to act against this threat to peace, and a broad coalition is now gathering to enforce the just demands of the world. The United Nations Security Council has not lived up to its responsibilities, so we will rise to ours.”

Though the speech continues and explores deeper philosophical themes, and also includes an appeal to the Iraqi military and people, Bush’s major arguments to persuade the American people end with his justification of the use of military force under International Law.

It is apparent, upon rhetorical analysis, that this speech was effective in persuading the American people to lend their support to the war. In terms of popularity, President Bush reached an approval rating of 71% after he delivered this famous address, his second highest instance of approval following 9/11 (Gallup). It is also clear from this speech that the rally phenomenon is not only real, but effective. The carefully constructed rhetoric of this speech galvanized the American public into supporting a war that would later become one of the most unpopular in US history. It gives merit to that fact that it is words, just as much as action, that have the ability to sway American public opinion in one direction or the other.


Works Cited

“Full Text: Bush’s Speech.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 17 Mar. 2003. Web. 28 Oct. 2014.

“George W. Bush – Ultimatum to Saddam Hussein.” YouTube. YouTube, 19 June 2011. Web. 28 Oct. 2014.

“Iraq.” Gallup.Com. Gallup, Inc., n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2014.

Iyengar, Shanto. Media Politics: A Citizen’s Guide. New York: W.W. Norton, 2011. Print.

Newport, Frank. “Seventy-Two Percent of Americans Support War Against Iraq.” Seventy-Two Percent of Americans Support War Against Iraq. Gallup, Inc., 24 Mar. 2003. Web. 26 Oct. 2014.

“Poll: Support for Iraq War at All-time Low.” CNN. Cable News Network, 17 Oct. 2006. Web. 28 Oct. 2014.

“Presidential Approval Ratings — George W. Bush.” Gallup.Com. Gallup, Inc., n.d. Web. 26 Oct. 2014.

“Terrorism in the United States.” Gallup.Com. Gallup, Inc., n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2014.

“War on Terrorism.” Gallup.Com. Gallup, Inc., n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2014.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *