Rhetoric Watch: Bibi's "Red Line"

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (known affectionately as “Bibi”) went for a direct hit in a speech at the United Nations last month when he sternly advocated for a “red line” to be drawn on Iran’s nuclear program: a point after which the program would no longer be tolerated.

Whether Bibi’s speech bombed or not is still a matter of debate, as murky as the possibility of an Israel-Iran war in the Middle East. What is clear however, is the increasing presence of Bibi’s “red line” in the USA’s own presidential war of the words. As the Middle East heats up, so has the rhetoric of the “red line.”

It is often said that truth is the collateral damage of rhetoric, getting caught in the vicissitudes of speech and meaning and then limping—battered and bruised—into the emergency hospital of interpretation. In this light, let’s reconstruct and deconstruct Bibi’s “red line.”

Structuralism: What would Saussure say?

Bibi’s speech presents structuralists with multiple signifiers to work with: the linguistic signification in Bibi’s verbal lexemes and morphemes and, moreover, an actual physical sign in Bibi dropping a bomb (diagram) onto the UN General Assembly. Bibi’s verbal “red line” signifies the concept of an ultimatum on Iran, with Iran’s nuclear program (and its attached anxiety-inducing angsts) as signified object. Bibi’s visual bomb, however, takes it one step further. The proudly held diagram, which displayed a bright red line at “2nd Stage 90%” drawn in marker, signifies Bibi’s verbal signifier, which itself signifies what is most significant: Iran’s likelihood of nuclear proliferation.

Poststructuralism: Foucault might fume.

Do you find yourself asking the following: What the heck does all that mean anyway? Why did Bibi present the UN with lines at 70 percent and 90 percent and not 85 percent? How does any of this really reflect the truth of Iran’s nuclear situation? Or even what is truth? What is meaning? What is Bibi? If so, you would be in good company in the poststructuralists camp. Poststructurally speaking, you, dear reader, are the meaning-maker and your interpretation takes primacy over the signified. A decentered author, Bibi is no longer at the center of this rhetoric. His red lines unravel under the deconstruction of his assumptions and knowledge systems that only ever presented a false front of convincing truth. Alas, stable meaning follows the decentered author into a Barthesian grave. That said, under poststructuralist thinking, you wouldn’t believe that stable meaning was any more possible than a stable Middle East, anyhow.