Southern Politics

The first time you view the 35-minute long ‘Muslim Pirates and Ayatollahs’ speech by U.S. Representative Louie Gohmert on March 3rd it is easy to suspect that it is a spoof.    If he were still with us, performance artist Andy Kaufman couldn’t have delivered a better send-up of the stereotypic cornpone Texas politician obviously out of his depth as he rattles on about complex foreign policy issues.  Amusement eventually fades to dismay, however, with the realization that Gohmert’s act is no act.  After all, C-SPAN regularly broadcasts rank nonsense but never spoofs.

Having recovered from the shock that this is actually a Member of the U.S. House of Representatives speaking and that these are actually his thoughts about foreign policy, the second thing you notice is the puzzling nature of his speech.  The First District Republican sometimes returns to a narrative about U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East after an excursus on a high school history lesson or a trip down memory lane but at other times he simply abandons the digression to its own fate to strike off down another path.

Force yourself to view the ‘Muslim Pirates and Ayatollahs’ speech a second time, however, and a deeper structure is revealed.  Gohmert references each of the seven rationes belli, the traditional American rhetorical justifications for going to war, identified in the first chapter of Richard E. Rubenstein’s excellent 2010 book Reasons to Kill: Why Americans Choose War.  That the conservative politician would have identified at least a few of the reasons identified by the liberal professor is entirely probable.  Gohmert congratulates himself on his own extensive reading of American history and surely would have picked up a few along the way.  That he managed to hit each one is remarkable.

Professor Rubenstein’s first justification is Self Defense, which in practice has meant the defense of American institutions, values and persons outside U.S. sovereign territory. Representative Gohmert rails that the recent killing of four captive Americans on board their yacht by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean was an “act of war against America.”  He likes the phrase ‘act of war,” deploying it nine times during the speech.

Professor Rubenstein’s second justification is that of an Evil Enemy, an aggressor who must be defeated.  Representative Gohmert explains that “these Muslims” believe that they can “go straight to paradise” by killing innocent Christians.  The Barbary Pirates of the early 19th century, the Iranian Revolutionaries in 1979-1980 and the Somali pirates of today all intend the destruction of America.  Ransom money and the overthrow of an American supported royal tyrant, it seems, are merely means to that end.

Professor Rubenstein’s third justification is that there are Unacceptable Consequences of Appeasement, including weakness and humiliation.  Representative Gohmert worries about weakness and appears to think that anything less than an ultimatum followed up by punitive action sends the wrong message.  Rubenstein explains that this justification is usually accompanied by the claim that negotiations with such an enemy are pointless.  That is precisely Gohmert’s message: “When you are dealing with pirates, with religious fanatics … you don’t placate them, you don’t try to negotiate with them.”

Professor Rubenstein’s fourth justification is that waging war is a Patriotic Duty because it forges national unity in the struggle to advance superior American values and interests.  Representative Gohmert does not lean heavily on national unity but he does emphasize that America is superior to other nations.  America represents hope in the world, he explains.  Pity he did not tell us what our neighbors Canada and Mexico represent to the world.

Professor Rubenstein’s fifth justification is that America has a Humanitarian Duty to wage war.  Representative Gohmert likes this one, illustrating it with an embarrassingly paternalistic anecdote about his encounter with an old man of “great wisdom” but uncertain educational achievement from “West Africa” who warns him that while the election of Barack Obama was initially cheered by Africans, they now worry he is much too weak in the face of the Muslim threat.  Although Gohmert names eleven European, Middle Eastern and Asian countries, he consigns his storyteller to an entire region rather than to a specific nation.  Sub-Saharan Africa remains a blank place on the world map for many Americans.  Maybe the Congressman felt that nothing would be lost by mirroring their ignorance.

Professor Rubenstein’s sixth justification is that America exhibits Unique Virtue and therefore has a moral right to wage war as a disinterested liberator. Representative Gohmert is convinced that America has expended “blood and treasure,” another of his favorite phrases, purely in the name of freedom.  Here the Texas Republican succeeds in naming several specific European countries.  Unfortunately that intellectual triumph is tempered by what might be a claim that the U.S. Army that liberated Poland from German occupation in the Second World War.  Determining precisely what the Congressman meant to convey at this point in the speech is difficult.  While military historians sometimes disagree, the consensus that the Soviet Red Army was responsible for that feat is as close to universal as one can find.  More importantly, international relations experts share another consensus scholarum that idealism was probably not the sole or even primary motivation for American decisions to initiate hostilities.

Professor Rubenstein’s last justification is that waging war is a Last Resort because the enemy refuses to negotiate in good faith.  Representative Gohmert believes that Muslims negotiate to gauge American weakness rather than to resolve disputes.  Our problems in the Middle East are attributable, he believes, to the failure of the Carter administration to launch some sort of attack during the 1979 Hostage Crisis.  The Obama administration’s emphasis on diplomacy reflects a comparable weakness.  The absurd implicit assumption is that Washington invariably negotiates in good faith.  More importantly, poor Gohmert perceives a Muslim world that is undifferentiated by political philosophy, religious sect or nationality.  By ignoring differences between nationalists and Islamists, between Sunni and Shi’a, and between Somalis and Iranians, the Congressman offers a cartoon universe of simple opposites that would sanction a general war against the Islamic Other.

Of course, the seven point parallel between the ‘Muslim Pirates and Ayatollahs’ speech and the first chapter of Reasons to Kill: Why Americans Choose War is not proof that Representative Gohmert read the book.  Perhaps one of his Congressional staffers read it.  Perhaps it is nothing more than coincidence.  Whatever is the case, the Congressman would do well to read all of its chapters.  Therein he might learn that the content of the bellicose rhetoric used in the past to persuade Americans to fight often had little relationship to which wars were launched, how they were prosecuted, and their long term consequences.  Those who can remember events during the first term of second Bush administration will note the serial and fraudulent reasons offered for the invasion of Iraq.  They would also take note of the terrible cost of that decision.

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John Hickman

John Hickman

John Hickman is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, where he teaches courses on war crimes, comparative politics, and research methods. He holds both a PH.D. in political science from the University of Iowa and a J.D. from Washington University, St. Louis. Hickman is the author of the 2013 Florida University Press book Selling Guantanamo.