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“Must”

[ 7 ] May 31, 2010 |

It’s interesting to me that “must” is so big in the tag clouds of both the Bush and Obama NSS. “Must” implies a lack of freedom; it’s much different than “may” or “can.” It seems odd that the world’s sole superpower, hegemon, unipolar state etc. thinks strategically in terms of “must” rather than “can”. Recall your Thucydides:

The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

The logic is quite clear; the powerful have freedom to pursue whatever ends they wish, while the weak are constrained by the whims of the strong. Both NSSs, however, use the language of constraint rather than the language of freedom. The most powerful state that the world has ever known feels deeply constrained by the exigencies of the international system.

One response to this would be that “must” is there simply for political effect, and is intended simply to foreclose alternatives that “may” or “can” would leave open. I think that there’s considerable truth to this, but I don’t think it’s the whole story. Rather, I suspect that both the policymakers in the Bush and the Obama regime feel the artificial, self-imposed constraint of “must” as a genuine imperative. I suspect that psychologically, institutionally, and politically the imperative of “must” becomes real for policymakers, such that even the most powerful actors in the most powerful state that the world has ever known subjectively “suffer what they must,” rather than “do what they can.” It’s worth noting that the above quote was part of the patient Athenian explanation that they had no choice but to burn Melos to the ground and put its inhabitants to the sword.

I find this a bit of a scary thought.

Comments (7)

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  1. Incontinentia Buttocks says:

    “Must” appears to have started growing after the Cold War. I created Wordles for both Clinton’s national security strategy and George H.W. Bush’s 1990 National Security Strategy. “Must” shows up more prominently in Clinton’s national security strategy, than in Poppy Bush’s.
    .

  2. DrDick says:

    Very nicely put and deeply disturbing.

  3. DocAmazing says:

    As you point out, “must” is rhetorically used as an excuse–circumstances prevented any choice. Like most excuses, it’s frequently, if not usually, bullshit.

  4. BigHank53 says:

    It’s a word that also shows up in domestic-violence situations: “I had to do it.”

    It’s a way of weaseling out of responsibility. Like Mustafa al-Yazid’s three daughters, for example.

  5. jon says:

    Frequency in a tag cloud is not an exhaustive analysis or indicative of anything. Interesting, sure. A few instances of how all those ‘must’s were used in disturbing ways would be more helpful. The assumption that terms are being dictated to a weaker party does not really follow.

  6. [...] big word in both the Bush and Obama National Security Strategies: “Must”, Robert Farley (Asst Prof, Patterson School), Lawyers Guns and Money, 31 May [...]

  7. [...] “Must” Misuse of government power, particularly in times of stress, has brought suffering to humanity in all ages about which we have authentic history. Some of the world's noblest and finest men have suffered ignominy and death for no crime–unless unorthodoxy is a crime. Even enlightened Athens had its victims such as Socrates. Because of the same kind of bigotry, Jesus, the great Dissenter, was put to death on a wooden cross. The flames of inquisitions all over the world have warned that men endowed with unlimited government power, even earnest men, consecrated to a cause, are dangerous. — Hugo L. Black (1886-1971) Associate Justice, U. S. Supreme Court [...]

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