By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Surge protector

Search Google News for temporary surge Iraq and you’ll get some 1,660 results. The idea of bolstering American forces with an additional 30,000 or so troops for a short period of time has become popular enough that even U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the incoming Senate majority leader, briefly endorsed it.

But what is really on the table? Last Friday, a segment on the NPR program “On the Media” strongly suggested that the press has misunderstood the term “surge,” with its connotation of a temporary increase. In fact, it appears that the “surge” the Bush administration is reportedly considering consists of a long-term increase in troop strength, temporary only in the sense that the Bush presidency will end at some point.

The transcript has finally been posted, and it’s revealing. Take a look at this exchange between Frederick Kagan, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of the “surge” proposal now being considered by the White House, and “OTM” co-host Brooke Gladstone:

Kagan: The media has been using the term “surge” very loosely. And I think that’s actually a bit of a problem, because there have been various ideas floated for very short-term troops surges of relatively small numbers of troops. And I think that that would be a big mistake, and it’s not what we’re calling for.

We’re actually calling for an increase of troop strength in Iraq of about 35,000 combat troops; 20,000 of those would go into Baghdad. So I think a part of the problem that we have is that people are not being sufficiently precise about which proposal they’re discussing when they talk in terms of a troop surge.

Gladstone: So when Harry Reid, the incoming Senate majority leader, refers to a surge, he’s talking about two or three months; you’re talking about anywhere between 18 to 24.

Kagan: Yes, exactly. It’s really important to keep that distinction in mind. The idea of a two-to three-month surge is not meaningful. And the enemy expects to do that sort of thing. They expect us to come in briefly and leave. Doing that kind of thing plays right into the enemy’s hands.

As Gladstone and her other guest, Foreign Affairs magazine editor Gideon Rose, speculate, the use of the word “surge” is more a matter of marketing than it is policy, although Kagan assures Gladstone that he’s not part of any such marketing effort.

Rose puts it this way: “The problem is that the real version of this involves a sustained, increase in troops and a long presence in Iraq. And there’s no appetite in Washington for any policy like that. I mean, when Kagan talks about a sustained surge, he’s really talking about a long-term escalation.”

That’s something the media need to keep in mind. Because when reporters allow themselves to be deceived, they end up as conduits for deceiving the public as well.

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  1. Anonymous

    good post dan. in the nixon years they all called it what it was — escalation. at least the debate was based on an honest word.

  2. neil

    Kagan is disingenuous when he claims the media uses the term “surge” loosely. He is the one who is using the term carelessly. Most people understand the word to mean temporary as in, a surge of water–a wave that rushes in, then recedes.He uses the word in the executive summary to his Powerpoint presentation (strategy via bullet point–easier for people who can’t read to understand), with no indication that he is using it differently than what it is commonly understood to mean. That is, he is using it to describe a sustained rather than a temporary event, and does not make that clear. In fact the first time he mentions “this surge” is in the Q&A section, on Slide 46, without ever defining the term first. That’s careless.It’s to his advantage if people misunderstand his use of the term. If he wanted to be honest he would say “escalation”, but then his proposal would go nowhere. As it is it will not fly with the American public. However this is not to say our Dear Leader will not push for it. Read the last four bullets in the summary. This proposed escalation will continue until the end of George Bush’s term, conveniently procrastinating the problem of exiting Iraq to his successor. It’s no wonder he might find this option attractive.Powerpoint is evil by the way — it dummies down complex ideas. It encourages the use of jargon and terse, imprecise language. It makes you stupid.

  3. Dan Kennedy

    Neil: Kagan wasn’t imprecise in his interview with “On the Media,” which is getting wider play than his PowerPoint. How do you reconcile that?

  4. Anonymous

    Kagan also elaborated these ideas on On Point last week (12/18) during a “spirited” debate with retired general William Odom. This show is well worth listening to (Tom Ashbrook’s repeated interruptions and unnecessary clarifications notwithstanding). It’s a modern revelation to hear the military address so cogently the human toll involved in war, while so many academics speak in such cavalier terms of the risks they impose on others.

  5. Anonymous

    Republicans seem to be masters of euphemism and misdirection. I first noticed it during the Reagan administration, when they invented “revenue enhancement” as a substitute for “tax increases.” They invented “regime change” for “overthrow a foreign government.” And now they are using “surge” instead of “escalation.”What is amazing is that the news media seems to fall into line with the Republicans’ euphemisms, and it doesn’t take much time for them to do so.–raj

  6. neil

    At my last company management distributed a Powerpoint slide with the supposed plan for the next fiscal year. It was a dense, busy mess, all little boxes, arrows and notes, crammed onto one slide. I sent mail saying okay, now that they’ve sent the overview of the plan, how about sending the actual plan. It turns out the Powerpoint slide was the actual plan. The goal had changed from conveying information, to making sure everything fit on one slide.Something similar has happened here. Kagan’s source document is his Powerpoint presentation. It looks like an overview, but is in fact his actual plan. “Surge” as a tactic is not mentioned until the structurally lazy “Questions and Answers” section at the end. In which most of his questions are answered by assertions.His own document is the source of the imprecision he mentions in the interview. He throws the term around without ever defining it–implying in some contexts the usual short-term meaning (“extremists ‘surge’ with more suicide bombings…”, “enemy ‘surge’ attacks”, Al-Qaida in Iraq “surges in for a final maximum fight”), then using it in another context (“this surge”–meaning his proposed escalation) and expecting everybody to realize that suddenly he has changed its meaning to some longer-term effort. And their failure to realize this is somehow their imprecision, not his.In the interview he distances himself from the muddle of his own document. Gladstone should have pinned him down on this. He keeps using “sustain” in the interview, but deflects responsibility for what he wrote. He wants it both ways. He won’t outright say that “surge” is the wrong term for his plan, for two reasons. One, it would be an admission that he himself used the term carelessly. Two, the administration has clutched at his plan as at a straw, since it sounds like something new, giving him, at least for the moment, think-tank cred beyond his dreams, and if he made the correction in favor of plain speaking (“I propose an escalation”), poof, no more straw. He dissembles in the interview, going only halfway to actual candor, saying that he really means a longer-term effort, without ever correcting his own sloppy use of the term in the first place, in his own plan. The result is he ends up defending the absurd concept of a “sustained surge”.

  7. Anonymous

    Reporters are not equipped to decide if who is telling the truth or who is not, report the facts. If they have information that does not jive with the source of the information, then report that as well. In this day and age, reporters decide what is the truth, mainly form their own personal viewpoints, without the facts, report all the news and let the edcuated readers deicde what is the truth.

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