The U.S. House of Representatives today began debating a non-binding
resolution opposing President Bush's decision to send more troops to Iraq.
Democrats pushing the measure deserve support and thanks. The House action
raises important questions about the ideas behind the debate and the ways those
ideas have been framed.
Bush announced his policy of sending over 20,000 more troops to Iraq in
early 2007 when most of the country was calling for a withdrawal of troops. The
administration called the buildup of troops in the proposal a
It is interesting to note that in today's coverage of the debate, the Washington Post
uses the word "surge" only once – and that in a paraphrase of
Republican John Boehner's defense of Bush's order. The term used in this case
In its coverage, the New York Times does not use Bush's
term at all. The term "surge" is missing from its coverage of the
House action. And, the link provided by the Times to the resolution itself is
titled, "The Concurrent Resolution on the President's Escalation
Plan." Escalation is a more accurate description of Bush's plan.
But its use – and the diminished use of surge – did not happen without
a disciplined and focused effort by progressives.
This represents an important victory for those who oppose Bush's deployment
of more troops to Iraq. And it illustrates nicely why ideas matter – and how
frames affect contests of ideas.
The word "surge" indicates a relatively small short-term increase
in force that has an effect and naturally goes back to its previous level. In
military parlance, a "surge force" is the opposite of a "base
force": troops come in to do a job that can be done quickly, and then
leave. They are not "based."
That was not the Bush plan. Only one major combat unit was to be sent that
was not scheduled to go. Other units were to go earlier and leave later —
indefinitely later, since there was no end date or condition. Frederick Kagan
of the American Enterprise Institute, a theorist of the "surge" and
retired Army General Jack Keane wrote in the Washington Post that the
"surge" must be large and lasting — at least 18 months and 30,000
troops. The new commander in Iraq, General Petraeus, upon taking up his post
said that the troop increase would have to last years to be effective in
Then, Bryan Bender, writing in the Boston Globe on February 2, 2007,
reported that the 21,000 combat troops Bush was asking for would need an extra
28,000 support troops to keep them in the field. The total then became almost
50,000 additional troops to be kept there for years.
Words have meanings; they express ideas and ideas are important. The word
"surge" came with the idea of a relatively small short-term increase
in force that would be effective. Such previous troop increases had been
ineffective and the joint chiefs saw no reason that this one would be effective
either. The actual proposal called a "surge" was the opposite of what
the word meant. In short, the very use of the word "surge" was a lie.
People all over the country noticed the "surge" framing
immediately, and quickly — and accurately — reframed the President's proposal
as an "escalation." Escalation is a strategy employed by an
apparently superior power that is losing when it was expected to win. It is the
strategy of raising the level of force and, hence, of violence, bringing in
more troops, deepening one's commitment to a strategy already in place, raising
the bar for what is to count as "success" and for the removal of troops.
As Nobel-prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman observed, this is the same
strategy as that used by a gambler who has been losing and hopes to beat the
house by continually raising the stakes. In escalation, when the prospect of
losing is "unacceptable," de-escalation is unlikely. The deeper the
commitment of troops, the harder it is to get those troops out.
The word "escalation" is, of course, charged. It has echoes of
Vietnam, where sending more and more troops led to a greater and greater
disaster. Those who used the word about Iraq did so for good reason. First,
they knew that previous "surges" had no noticeable effect. Second,
they knew that most of the troops would be employed in Baghdad, interposing
them between the Sunnis there and the Shiites that were in the process of
driving out all Sunnis as part of a civil war. The American presence could well
raise, not lower, the level of civil war violence and result in the killing of
more of our troops. Third, sending more troops would make it hard to remove our
troops before the 2008 election. The Democrats, who took over Congress on the
pledge to extricate our troops, would then look ineffectual. Having the power
of the purse over continued spending on the Iraq occupation, the Democrats in
Congress would have taken on the responsibility for the continued use of
troops. Fourth, "escalation" suggests by the allusion to Vietnam that
sending more troops won't work and will only lead to more coffins coming home.
And fifth, escalation is a policy matter: the militarization of foreign policy,
namely, use force and keep using more force. It is a continuation of
neoconservative policy and a direct challenge to the Democratic mandate to get
our troops out. "Escalation" is the word that tells the truth about
the policy, the politics, and the inevitable negative effect of the policy.
The Democratic leadership has been using the word, naming the policy
accurately and thus challenging the lie implicit in "surge." In
previous years, before the Democrats became savvy about the importance of
accurate framing, they might have just argued against the Bush
"surge." What was the effect of getting savvy?
On the website of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, there is a
record taken from a Google News Search of the use of the two words
in the press during the week of January 10 – 17. The story, however, viewed the
word use as a horserace, a simple competition of which word was used most:
"One method of testing was a Google search for
the week of Jan 10-Jan 17, which yielded 18,118 stories with the word 'surge,'
close to double the number that used the word 'escalate' or 'escalation,'
(10,112). Two more neutral phrases were even less common. 'Troop increase'
appeared in 9,177 stories, and 'troop buildup' in 3,868 stories.
A search of the same terms from Jan. 10-Jan. 17
within the more limited universe of LexisNexis (52 major newspapers and 35 news
broadcasters) found similar results, but also a nuance.
Again, 'surge' appeared nearly twice as often as
'escalate', and (2,503 stories versus 1,296). And the neutral terms, 'troop
buildup' (294 stories) and 'troop increase' (901 stories) were again used
- Project for Excellence
in Journalism Website
The Project for Excellence in Journalism missed the significance. Though it
announced "surge" as the "winner," the real story was being
ignored. "Escalation" had 10,112 uses! "Surge" had only
18,118 — relatively small considering that it was the official White House
term, the one unquestioning journalists would feel safe using. The point is
that "escalation" and its meaning got out there in the press — enough
to have a major effect, to blunt and offer a counterforce to the meaning of
"surge," as well as to call attention to the real Bush policy. The
Democratic leadership is still using "escalation," as it should. The
idea is out there more than enough, and that is what matters.
The horserace mentality — counting numbers of uses, not cognitive effects,
is all too common in journalism today. A perfect example is centrist blogger
and DLC President Bruce Reed, who has a
column on Slate. Reed has no appreciation for the effect of ideas
and little understanding of what words mean. He thinks, mistakenly, that
"escalation" is just a fancy way of saying "send more
troops" and that the Democratic leadership should abandon the term:
"Democrats' rechristening effort — again, like
the Bush plan itself — would seem to be too little, too late. Time dedicated
its first Friday cover to 'The Surge' — a higher profile than escalation can
hope for, no matter how often Democrats repeat it."
Notice that Reed mistakenly thinks that reframing is just
"rechristening" when it is really about truth-telling and alerting
the public to a policy that goes well beyond "more troops." The issue
for Reed is the "higher profile" of a Time cover rather than the
effect of the idea of escalation, discussed over 10,000 times in the press in a
As Reed points out, many of those uses of "surge" were
"Some critics have started calling it the
'so-called surge.' Unfortunately, if surge is misleading, 'so-called surge' is
even more so—leaving the unintended impression that perhaps Bush won't be
increasing troops at all. (Then again, as Fred Kaplan has warned, that may be
an entirely accurate description of Bush's plan: more troops than we can
mobilize and fewer than we'd need to win.) Richard Cohen managed to cram
everything into a single sentence: 'A so-called surge is a-coming, an
escalation all decked out with an Orwellian-sounding name.'"
Reed gets the meaning of "so-called" wrong. "So-called"
says that the following word does not fit reality, despite the attempt by
someone in a position of authority to describe reality that way.
"So-called" points up the attempt to deceive and rejects it, as
Richard Cohen's sentence shows. As one would expect, the nature of the
deception is different for hard-core neocons than for most people. Neocons like
Kagan want the President to openly promote neocon policy: more force for an
indefinitely long period, which appears to be his real policy. But those who
want the troops to leave Iraq find the conservative use of the word not only
deceptive, but immoral.
Reed thinks that the choice between words is all a matter of meaningless
word play. But the issue is reality and our ability to convey it to the public
— the reality on the ground in Iraq, the reality of neoconservative foreign
policy, and the reality of the political game played by the White House. Words
matter because they express ideas, and ideas matter because they present a
picture of what's real and what's right.
Conservative ideas and frames must be confronted and contested. Progressives
cannot succeed if they treat frames as nothing more than word games, if they
fail to understand that the use of a term like surge reinforces the
conservative worldview. We are not playing games with words. We are fighting
over ideas, and the moral world views that underlie those ideas.