Thursday, 6 September 2007

The 'surge' effect (part 1)

The 'surge' effect: how one word shaped the politically-charged national debate on Iraq in the United States.

How did "surge" become the de facto term for "troop increase"? Why is that semantic change politically significant? To answer those and other related questions, one must explore the origins and effects of the "surge" — a part of the "new way forward" for "success" in Iraq and the "war on terror". The use of the term "surge" in place of "troop increase" is a way for the George W. Bush administration and its political allies to give a more positive spin on what is really an increase in American troops deployed to a dreary arena of war — Iraq. The common use of "surge", and its entrance into the mainstream media (and even this blog), displays parallels to what happened with the phrase "war on terror" in the months after 9/11.

Finding the exact origin of "surge" is tougher than it sounds. It seems that the word first had prominent usage in mid-December 2006. In early January 2007, the phrase gained even more popularity. Speculation about President Bush announcing a plan for an increase of American troops in Iraq reached its peak around January 9th, and a day later the president finally announced his plan for a "new way forward" that had been months in the making. However, he did not once use the word "surge" in his Address to the Nation that day. The "surge option" as we know it was first discussed in a New York Times article by David Cloud on November 21st, two days after an article reported Sen. John McCain's (R-AZ) hope for a "short-term surge" (he had been pushing for a similar strategy since August). Articles prior to that, notably Thomas Ricks' November 20th scoop, often spoke of a "short-term" troop increase to be recommended to the White House by military experts.

The godfather of the so-called surge option is neoconservative Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, a think-tank close to the White House. When interviewed on On the Media about the allegation that the White House is taking advantage of the contradictory "surge", he said that his plan entitles a sustained surge of sorts, a long-term effort — not the kind of action people take the word to mean; he blames the media for being misleading and using the term "loosely". Was the "surge" an invention of the media, not a political tool of the White House? The answer is unclear, but what is known is that the Bush administration definitely took advantage of the word and its connotations.

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