by George Lakoff
The U.S. House of Representatives today began debating a non-binding
resolution opposing President Bushs 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
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 "surge."
It is interesting to note that in todays coverage of the
debate, the Washington Post uses the word "surge" only
once and that in a paraphrase of Republican John Boehners
defense of Bushs order. The term used in this case was "troop-surge."
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
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 counterinsurgency.
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 Presidents 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 ones 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 wont 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
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 less."
- 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 week.
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 soleaving 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.