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To Surge or Not To Surge?


Much of the GOP's success in being able to put over its most venal policies can be attributed to its skill with PR spin, packaging ideas as something they are not.  And that is largely dependent on the use of language, twisting and turning it to more flattering angles that will obscure the worst aspects of their proposals.  One of the most frustrating aspects of reading traditional media is the unquestioned willingness to perpetuate this bastardization of language for political purposes, and untangling that linguistic mess has fueled many a liberal blog post.

And so we visit the term "surge," which is currently being adopted to describe the upcoming troop increase in Iraq that Bush is expected to announce tonight. From the LA Times:

What infuriates critics of the war, including many liberal Democrats, is that they see "surge" as a manipulative and deceptive word. It implies a relatively short-term increase in the U.S. military commitment, they say, when the White House intends to keep the additional troops in Iraq much longer, perhaps for several years.

Even worse, critics say, the news media have uncritically accepted the word and thus contributed to deceiving the public.

"I've noticed a complete acceptance on the part of most of the MSM [mainstream media] (and Congress) to accept the White House nomenclature," blogger Nicole Belle wrote in a complaint posted on

"After six years of this, I think we all know that he who frames the debate and chooses the vocabulary wins from the beginning. Let's be sure to not accept the White House framing, no matter how wimped out the MSM is."

As the Washington Post pointed out this morning, the word "surge"  doesn't appear in the Department of Defense’s official Dictionary of Military Terms, but the word escalation certainly does:

The very vagueness of "surge" might make it the politically perfect word for what is likely to be a controversial policy. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the new House speaker, framed her apparent opposition to sending more troops to Iraq by using a more freighted substitute: "escalation."

Meanwhile, as Brad DeLong reminds us:

Keane-Kagan-Kristol "surge" plan proposed last fall said that we needed not 20,000 but 50,000 additional combat troops were needed to break the vicious circle of insurgency in Iraq. 50,000 is a "surge." 20,000 is more like a "wave":

Kagan and Kristol: Time for a Heavier Footprint: [A]s long as the Sunni Arab insurgency continues… the Shiite community [will not] abandon the [militia and death squad] forces it sees as essential for its self-defense. And as long as the Shiite militias.. victimize Sunni Arabs… Sunni Arab insurgent leaders [will stay away from]… the negotiating table…. The question of troop levels in Iraq is fundamental.… [S]erious people… concede we need more troops…. [S]urging 50,000… will strain a strained military further. But… we can do it–if we think success in Iraq is a national priority…

Keane, Kagan, and Kristol appear to have scrubbed the American Enterprise Institute website of their original 50,000 number.

Nevertheless, I am astonished that I cannot find a single mainstream news reporter who finds the cutback of the proposed "surge" from 50,000 to 20,000 worth mentioning, even in passing, except for Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times.


Since then, Robin Wright and Peter Baker have forgotten–or remembered but tried hard to make their readers forget–the size the "surge" was originally supposed to be. And others like Michael Abramowitz, Sally Quinn, Richard Cohen, Howard Kurtz, Jonathan Weisman, Bill Brubaker, Joel Achenbach, Joshua Partlow, Shailagh Murray, Al Kamen, Ann Scott Tyson, George F. Will, Jim Hoagland, Rick Atkinson, Dana Priest, David Ignatius, Robert D. Novak, and a host of wire service reporters have all managed to write about the forthcoming surge of troops into Iraq without finding space to mention that the original "surge" of 50,000 has been cut back to a much smaller "wave" of 20,000. Now I wouldn't have expected everyone writing over the past nine days to notice the cutback from surge to wave. But somebody should have. That's 0-for-19 of those drawing paychecks from the Washington Post.

Short term memory loss.  Another pernicious journalisming problem. 


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Jane Hamsher

Jane Hamsher

Jane is the founder of Her work has also appeared on the Huffington Post, Alternet and The American Prospect. She’s the author of the best selling book Killer Instinct and has produced such films Natural Born Killers and Permanent Midnight. She lives in Washington DC.
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