By now, most Americans see that everything Bush and his allies tell us about Iraq are attempts to control the debate, rather than good faith efforts at relaying information. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that this week's talk...
By now, most Americans see that everything Bush and his allies tell us about Iraq are attempts to control the debate, rather than good faith efforts at relaying information. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that this week's talk of a "surge" in U.S. forces in Baghdad is another such attempt at spin. The cover story in Time, for example, tells us that Bush's big "surge" would in fact just be more of the same cruel tinkering with troop rotations that we associate with Don "stop gap" Rumsfeld. 20,000 more soldiers in Iraq would really mean that 20,000 less soldiers had been allowed to leave Iraq when their tour was over. "Sorry, buddy. No going home to the wife and kids. President Bush has just made you part of his surge." No wonder soldiers serving in Iraq are against the surge.
But besides covering the American public in more White House spin, what is all this "surge" talk doing to the debate on Iraq?
The answer lies in a word that nobody is discussing: temporary.
"Surge," in other words, shorthand for the actual idea being discussed: a temporary increase in troop numbers in Iraq. And the fact that this "temporary" has been omitted is evidence that the time frame for Bush's latest proposal is already controlling the debate--and with problematic ends.
In the following press clippings, notice the ever present "temporary" used before "surge." From the AP:
BAGHDAD, Iraq - Many of the American soldiers trying to quell sectarian killings in Baghdad don't appear to be looking for reinforcements. They say the temporary surge in troop levels some people are calling for is a bad idea.
From Fox News:
WASHINGTON — A leading Democrat hinted Thursday that a compromise is near for a temporary surge of U.S. troops in Iraq.
Sen. Hillary Clinton said Monday she would not support a temporary surge in the number of American troops in Iraq unless it was part of a broader long-term plan to stabilize the region.
"Surge," we can see, is really just a way of referencing a larger conversation about time frames in Iraq.
The "Surge" Debate Is All About Time Frames
The most telling exchange between Harry Reid and George Stephanopoulos during a December 17, 2006 interview on ABC'S This Week With George Stephanopoulos (transcript from Lexis Nexis, emphasis mine):
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: If the president calls for adding more troops to Baghdad, adding more troops to Iraq, will you oppose it?
SEN. REID: If it's for a surge, that is, for two or three months and it's part of a program to get us out of there, as indicated, by this time next year, then, sure, I'll go along with it. But if it's put 45,000 more troops in there -- you know, we've lost in Nevada about 30 troops killed, scores have been wounded. We're now approaching 3,000 dead Americans, costing the American people 2.5-3 billion dollars a week. This is a war that we have to change course. The president has to do that.
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: You say you'd support it if it's temporary. I guess the question is how do you know that it's going to be temporary? I mean, even if that condition is set, even if the president says we'd like them to come home in two or three months, there's no way you're going to know that they're going to be able to come home, is there?
SEN. REID: If the commanders on the ground said this is just for a short period of time, we'll go along with that. But if you put more troops in there, keep in mind, I repeat, the situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating. Those aren't my words. Those are the words of some of the finest patriots we have in this country, Democrats and Republicans, the Iraq Study Group.
Notice how Reid mentions a "surge" and Stephanopoulos then follows up with a question about its "temporary" nature--not about the "surge."
In the end, the big "surge" frame from the White House is really an attempt to convince the country that the problems--and the solutions--in Iraq are temporary, as opposed to long term. We are trying to cure a hiccup, we are supposed to believe, not a train wreck. All we need is to send in a few more soldiers to quiet things down in Iraq, then everyone can get down to the business of peaceful, Jeffersonian democracy. And if you don't believe that a temporary surge is worth it to allow the Iraqis to get down with democracy, then you're probably a liberal who doesn't believe in Jeffersonian principles anyway--or at least this is what the neo-cons pushing the "temporary" surge would have us believe.
And here we get to the second half of the story: the "temporary surge" talk is not just spin on Iraq, but yet another smear campaign against Democrats. The White House may have no clue how to make things better in Iraq, but they are endlessly creative when it comes to finding ways to attack the Democrats.
In the end, all this "temporary surge" talk has led us to believe that the President and his allies (e.g., John McCain and Joe Lieberman) have started to consider Iraq in a time frame other than the long haul. In fact, they have not.
The White House thinking on Iraq is not short-term thinking. It is long term thinking. Despite the optimism of senior Senators, such as Harry Reid (D-NV) and Carl Levin (D-MI) George Bush does not see a temporary surge as a part of a political plan to bring soldiers home. George Bush only sees Iraq in terms of permanence.
In George Bush's world, America is in Iraq. Period. It never ends.
There's no "W" in" temporary."
Reframing: [Permanence] is [Buildings]
So far, attempts by progressives to control the "surge" debate have take the form of saying that a "surge" is really an "escalation." It is true that Americans should focus on that word escalation for a host of reasons, not the least of which is its historic association with the escalation in Vietnam.
But a second and crucial strategy for progressives is (1) see that the "surge" debate is really about time frames and (2) control the debate by talking about permanence.
How do we do this? One way is to shift the central metaphor from "surges" or "waves" to "structures" or "buildings."
When we talk about a "surge" in Iraq, we are really using this metaphor:
[escalation] is [a wave]
Surges are in fact waves. They rise up, sweep through, and then recede. They are momentary swells that clear away whatever is in their path. In their most extreme, surges take the form of destructive tsunamis, but they are mostly benign.
U.S. troop escalation in Iraq, if it is allowed to happen, will be talked about as a wave that sweeps through Iraq to clean out the violence. Once the wave has passed, the troops will then return the situation to a state of "stability"--the return of the calm sea.
To reframe, progressives can think about the problems in Iraq in terms of "buildings" or "structures":
[U.S. occupation] is [a building]
Once we have switched over to the logic of this "building" metaphor, we can begin to talk in terms of permanent and unstable structures. The problem is that George Bush's policy in Iraq is unstable--the violence and chaos is a product of what he has built. "Heaping more troops" on top of the situation will only make things worse--will only bring about a more dramatic and deadly collapse.
In fact, the danger we face from an escalation in Iraq is a horrific and violent "collapse" of the situation on the ground, leaving soldiers trapped inside.
Iraq, in this sense, is much like the World Trade Center towers the minutes before they fell to the ground, and our soldiers are like the selfless, brave firefighters who rushed in to rescue the victims. The escalation would be tantamount to sending soldiers into the burning building seconds before it collapsed--a rescue inevitably cut short by tragedy beyond words.
At a certain point in time, it is much smarter to leave a burning building than to rush inside.
Talking about "Collapse" and the Region
The "surge" talk, in the end, is really an attempt by the neo-conservatives to spin their long-term, permanent plans for Iraq in terms of "temporary" proposals. And the best solution is to reframe the debate on the dangers our soldiers face if we send more and more of them into the burning building of the Iraqi situation--a situation very near total collapse.
But this brings us to the nagging problem of what will be the consequences of that "collapse." Many Democrats and Republicans alike are repeating the idea that what happens after the collapse will make the current violence look tame by comparison.
Remember, again, what happened after the World Trade Towers came down. What a horrible site that was. But in the end, wise decisions about rescue also entialed knowing when enough was enough--realizing that sending in more fire fighters would only result in more deaths, not more rescues. And after the collapse, from a safe distance, the rescue workers were able to resume their work.
The region may suffer some temporary set backs from a shift in policy. But those set backs will be a product of events already in motion, of structures that are already weak and on the verge of collapse. And if they do collapse, American forces are best suited to once again serve in the capacity of rescue--but only if we resist sending our soldiers back into a burning building.
© 2007 Jeffrey Feldman, Frameshop