Tuesday, 18 September 2007

The 'surge' effect (part 3)

This is the final installment (for now) in the The 'surge' effect blog post series. This post focuses on the political effects of the term "surge". See also Part 1, which focuses on the origin of the "surge", and Part 2, which looks at the word's connotations.

In part, the press is to blame for the entrance of "surge" and "war on terror" into the mainstream. As the previously-mentioned CJR article says,

It’s the prerogative of any president and his spinners to play this kind of word game. But the press has a responsibility not to be taken in by it, to be able to separate out an explication of a thing from the sheen the administration places on it. The consequences are extreme. Look at the “war on terror.” The press, for the most part, absorbed this descriptive term and used it uncritically for the last five years. But, as Jacob Levenson wondered in the pages of CJR two years ago, “It’s reasonable to ask, for instance, that if the war on terror had been called the war on Islamic extremism, would the American public have supported the invasion of a country, like Iraq, with a secular government? Similarly, had it been called the war for global democracy, would the Patriot Act have become law? What if it hadn’t been called a war at all? Journalists, in other words, must resist employing political jargon — it tends to shortcut analysis in favor of mobilization.”
[The] “surge” has become, in the last few weeks, part of the public discourse on Iraq (i.e., as one anonymous Republican strategist told the New York Times, “They’re going to cast it as a choice between withdrawal and surge”). The word has the benefit of seeming active, strong, and quick - a surge is a lightening strike, over and done, the opposite of, say, a quagmire. The other advantage is the other words that “surge” replaces, like “escalation,” with its Vietnam-era connotation."

Since that article's publication in November, "surge" has appeared less and less within quotes as it enters the mainstream, like "war on terror" did years ago — and it has made a difference in the Iraq debate in the United States.

In January 2007, progressive blog Think Progress compiled a list of news articles, mapping out the use of "surge" in the mainstream media. What began in November 2006 as a description for a "temporary" elevation in American forces in Iraq eventually defined a long-term Iraq war strategy. As the article noted, the media "has continued to use the term "surge" even though its definition has fundamentally changed." But does the spin of "troop increase" to "surge" really make a difference in the eyes of the public? A CBS News poll dated around the time that the "surge" buzz peaked showed that 45 percent of Americans were in favor of the "surge" (aka troop increase), and 48 percent opposed. The same survey said that a mere 18 percent of the public were in favor of increasing the number of US troops in Iraq. From those numbers we can infer that just a simple change in wording can result in a difference of 27 percentage points, thus the prevalent use of the term "surge" does work in the White House's favor.

In the closing of his essay "Politics and the English Language", George Orwell writes, “Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” The Bush administration is using that political rhetoric to justify many of its policy decisions, especially when war is involved. Even though the "surge" isn't actually a surge, it will be continued to be used by the news media, political pundits, and some policy-makers, all to the benefit of the White House. Like "war on terror", "surge" is political language at its finest — for those who benefit from its use, that is. However, the labeling of the long-term battle against terrorism as a "war", associating that "war" with the one in Iraq, and the long-term troop escalation and operation in Iraq as a "surge" could all come back to bite the White House. The public might expect the "war" to end like any other and will be skeptical of open-ended plans (i.e., the fear instilled by declaring a war against terror will evaporate and impatience will replace it), and will want the "surge" to show fairly quick results. It is a surge, after all.

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