The president has set a limit on the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. For now.
That's how escalation works. Ceilings become floors. Gradually.
A few times since last fall, the Obama team has floated rising numbers for how many additional U.S. soldiers will be sent to Afghanistan. Now, deployment of 21,000 more is a done deal, with a new total cap of 68,000 U.S. troops in that country.
But "escalation" isn't mere jargon. And it doesn't just refer to what's happening outside the United States.
"Escalation" is a word for a methodical process of acclimating people at home to the idea of more military intervention abroad -- nothing too sudden, just a step-by-step process of turning even more war into media wallpaper -- nothing too abrupt or jarring, while thousands more soldiers and billions more dollars funnel into what Martin Luther King Jr. called a "demonic suction tube," complete with massive violence, mayhem, terror and killing on a grander scale than ever.
As war policies unfold, the news accounts and dominant media discourse rarely disrupt the trajectory of events. From high places, the authorized extent of candor is a matter of timing.
Lots of recent spin from Washington has promoted the assumption that President Obama wants to stick with the current limit on deployments to Afghanistan. Soon after pushing supplemental war funds through Congress, he's hardly eager to proclaim that 68,000 American troops in Afghanistan may not be enough after all.
But no amount of spin can change the fact that the U.S. military situation in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate. It would be astonishing if plans for add-on deployments weren't already far along at the Pentagon.
Meanwhile, the White House is reenacting a macabre ritual -- a repetition compulsion of the warfare state -- carefully timing and titrating each dose of public information to ease the process of escalation. The basic technique is far from new.
In the spring and early summer of 1965, President Lyndon Johnson decided to send 100,000 additional U.S. troops to Vietnam, more than doubling the number there. But at a July 28 news conference, he announced that he'd decided to send an additional 50,000 soldiers.
Why did President Johnson say 50,000 instead of 100,000? Because he was heeding the advice from something called a "Special National Security Estimate" -- a secret document, issued days earlier about the already-approved new deployment, urging that "in order to mitigate somewhat the crisis atmosphere that would result from this major U.S. action . . . announcements about it be made piecemeal with no more high-level emphasis than necessary."
Forty-four years later, something similar is underway with deployments of U.S. troops to Afghanistan.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Tuesday that no limit has been set. Speaking to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, he sounded an open-ended note: "There is not a ceiling on troop levels in Afghanistan."
Mullen's comment was scarcely reported in U.S. media outlets. It has become old news without ever being news in the first place.
The war planners in Washington are bound to proceed carefully on the home front. News of further escalation will come "piecemeal" -- "with no more high-level emphasis than necessary."