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Changing the discourse of American foreign policy? Identity construction in Barack Obama’s Middle Eastern policy

Fermor, Benjamin (2019) Changing the discourse of American foreign policy? Identity construction in Barack Obama’s Middle Eastern policy. PhD thesis, University of Leeds.

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Abstract

This thesis considers the discursive (re)production of American foreign policy throughout Barack Obama’s tenure as US president. Focussing on the official discourse of US relations with the Middle East and North Africa from 2009 to 2016, the thesis analyses official constructions of identities and threats in foreign and security policy discourse. The thesis addresses two research questions: (1) How did the discursive structures of US foreign policy change between 2009 and 2016? and (2) How did official constructions of identity and threat change over the same period? In order to investigate these structures and constructions, it employs a rigourous computer-aided discourse analysis methodology to study a corpus of approximately 4,700 texts, comprised of speeches and remarks taken from the Obama White House archive. The analysis finds that Obama initially constructed a narrative of progress to make sense of the Middle East and the ‘Muslim World’. This involved the idea of the East as temporally behind the West, as well as the construction of two co-constitutive Muslim/Arab Others. The first sympathetic Other was associated with ‘ordinary people’ and ethically linked to the American self. Meanwhile, a second ‘oppressive’ Other was associated with irresponsible leaders and governments, and ethically distanced from both the self and the sympathetic Other. After the Arab Spring, the Orientalist tropes underlying this discourse became more apparent, as Obama deployed colonial oppositions of civilisation and barbarism to ostracise the Libyan and Syrian regimes, and galvanise the international community into action. Finally, in response to the rise of ISIL, this colonial opposition became starker again as the nihilistic, barbaric ‘cancer’ of ISIL was framed as a threat to Western culture and civilisation. Between these two ethical poles, the ordinary/sympathetic Muslim/Arab Other was constructed as risky due to its tendency towards pre-Western tribalism and sectarianism, and its vulnerability to extremist narratives. The thesis makes linked theoretical and empirical contributions to three International Relations literatures. Empirically, this study is original in demonstrating the progression of official constructions of identity and threat, and the related changes to the discursive structures of US foreign policy over President Obama’s eight years in office. Second, the thesis makes a theoretical contribution by highlighting the president’s strategic agency in affecting discursive changes that were conducive to selling a limited and multilateralist foreign policy. Finally, the thesis makes a contribution to post-colonial and critical security studies literatures by detailing how the official construction of identity and threat continued to create (neo)colonial logics of civilising interventions in the Middle East.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: US foreign policy; Obama; discourse; Orientalism; Middle East; Arab Spring; identity; security; terrorism
Academic Units: The University of Leeds > Faculty of Education, Social Sciences and Law (Leeds) > School of Politics & International Studies (POLIS) (Leeds)
Depositing User: Ben Fermor
Date Deposited: 18 Mar 2020 16:14
Last Modified: 18 Mar 2020 16:14
URI: http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/id/eprint/26257

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