Friday, January 12, 2007

Goodbye to "surge," hello to "augmentation"

It’s a pity that George Orwell can’t be with us to witness the latest White House word play.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Capitol Hill yesterday to defend her boss’ decision to dispatch 21,500 additional troops to Iraq. While insisting that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his fellow Shiites were on board with the Bush plan (a dubious claim, by the way), she introduced the latest in Bush administration terminology:

“They know that the augmentation of American forces is part of that plan.”

She then attempted to elaborate: “Now, as to the question of ‘escalation,’ I think that I don’t see it, and the president doesn’t see it, as an escalation. What he sees – ’’

Republican Senator Chuck Hagel then felt compelled to interrupt, probably because, at this point, most Americans aren’t particularly impressed with how President Bush sees things. He asked her, with some astonishment, “Putting 22,000 new troops, more troops in, is not an escalation?”

To which Rice replied, “Well, I think, Senator, escalation is not just a matter of how many numbers you put in. Escalation is also a question of, are you changing the strategic goal of what you’re trying to do?…I would call it, Senator, an augmentation that allows the Iraqis to deal with this very serious problem that they have in Baghdad.”

So there it is. At least in Decider circles, surge is out and augmentation is in. This battle over words may seem trivial, but it is not. Language is powerful. Whoever captures the language has the power to frame an issue. Which is why the Bush camp has now unveiled augmentation, a word that sounds more benign than escalation, which still carries the stench of a certain lost war in the jungle.

The Bush administration has long understood the importance of word play, which is why, among many examples, it has long sought to redefine the privatization of Social Security as a push for “personal accounts” (because the word personal has a more positive connotation). Similarly, the urge to push the friendlier word surge (a burst of electrical power) stemmed from a war council desire to cushion the blow of a new troop hike.

Orwell, the British journalist/commentator/novelist, understood this impulse more than six decades ago. In his famous essay “Politics and the English Language,” he argued that because our leaders often have little interest in candor, “political language has to consist largely of euphemism.” He also wrote: “Politics otself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred….When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.”

Well, the general atmosphere is bad today, and language is suffering. Back in mid-November, Bush administration sources told The New York Times that any decision to hike the number of troops would be dubbed “the surge option.” By the end of that month, most of the Washington press corps had adopted the government’s preferred term. And on Christmas Day, The Wall Street Journal confirmed the Times account, reporting that “White House aides and senior Pentagon commanders have chosen an unusual term to describe the addition of the extra troops…”

Interestingly, the word was first used in the press as the word is supposed to be used: to signify (in the words of my Wesbster’s dictionary) “a short, sudden rush.” NBC News on Nov. 21 referred to a “short-term surge.” ABC News one day later referred to a “temporary surge.” But, as the weeks passed, the adjectives were dropped – and not just by the mainstream media. A Dec. 27 headline on the liberal Huffington Post website announced: “White House Pushes for Iraq Surge.”

Even though there were no empirical indications, prior to Bush’s speech on Wednesday night, that the troop hike would be short in duration, the Bush war team’s preferred word continued to surge through the information pipeline.

A few commentators tried to object; on Jan. 5, CNN’s Bill Schneider pointed out that “Surge sounds temporary….Escalation sounds long-term,” and five days later, on the eve of Bush’s speech, conservative columnist Tony Blankley pointed out in The Washington Times: “The troops would surely be in theatre for an idefinite period. The words escalation, reinforcement of higher sustained troop levels would all be honest. The word surge is deceptive.”

Yet even after it was clear, from Bush’s speech, that the new troops would be incrementally added over a period of months, and with a no exit timeline – in other words, the exact opposite of “a short, sudden rush” – some in the media have persisted in using surge. The U.S. News and World Report website headlined this: “Democrats Seek to Block Surge Funding.” The website headlined, “Leading Edge of Troop Surge Has Arrived in Baghdad.” They have been joined, of course, by a number of Bush allies, including South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who used the word on a cable news show following the president’s address.

Escalation clearly has some Vietnam baggage, and it’s undeniable that Democrats are using it in order to equate Bush with another Texas president who became politically isolated in the wake of an unpopular war. But it’s also undeniable that the dictionary definition of escalation (“to increase in intensity, magnitude”) clearly trumps surge as an accurate depicter of the Bush troop push. Which is why the latter word may not survive over time, even though it fits so nicely in a headline.

No wonder Condoleezza Rice introduced augmentation. Fearing the loss of surge, the Bush war team apparently felt that it needed a backup. The problem, however, is that most Americans no longer seem inclined to back or believe the Bush team, no matter what words it chooses to use. Rather, they would probably prefer to believe George Orwell, who in his essay famously warned, “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.”