The next few weeks are going to be critical for the debate on the future of the war in Iraq, and for the future of Iraq itself. Because everyone knows this, the spin doctors are sharpening their tools and trotting out their market-tested phraseology in an attempt to frame the debate before it even begins. While I will be addressing other phases of the situation in upcoming articles, today I want to focus only on the perceptions that are being filtered out to the public, and how effective their influence currently is. We've all been told how important "framing the issue" is, so I want to examine the framing so far.
Is the "surge" working? Is the "escalation" a failure?
First up is what is being sold as an overall view of progress (or lack thereof) of President Bush's "surge." A few intrepid journalists, some savvy Democratic politicians, and almost all the lefty bloggers still treat the term "surge" with derision (I refuse to ever use the term without surrounding it by quote marks, because it's easier than typing "the so-called 'surge' " every time I use it). But the alternate -- "escalation" -- (complete with Vietnam overtones) never really caught on. Bush's terminology has largely won the day. Most mainstream media stories, and most politicians (even some Democrats) use the term surge (without any emphasis, or verbal "quote marks") almost every time the subject comes up, so this has to be judged a win for the White House spin machine.
Their latest improvement on this basic theme is: "The surge is working." Bill Maher had the best commentary on this phrase, from a video clip posted at Huffington Post:
That's right, apparently the surge IS working. Not the actual surge -- but the phrase, "The surge is working." That seems to be working, proving once again that Americans will believe anything if you repeat it enough.
Fact-checking the "surge" isn't all that easy, but the Associated Press has provided the best numbers I've seen yet on the situation in Iraq. But numbers don't tell the whole story, as both sides in the debate will tell you. The White House has been beating the drum of "al Anbar province is getting better because we turned the tribal leaders away from Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and they're now working with us against the terrorists." Not much is said about the fact that we may be arming Sunnis, which would put America in the position of backing both sides in the civil war (which we've certainly done before in the region). Sunni sheiks have turned against AQI, but that doesn't mean they've made their peace with the central government. I've written before about this trend towards warlordism in Iraq, and its possible consequences.
Both sides in the "surge" debate are strongly arguing their positions. From the right: "The surge is working. Even Democrats are saying so." From the left: "It's 'whack-a-mole' -- some areas may be better, but that just means other areas are worse. More Iraqis are dying, so how can this be 'success'?" Neither "frame" has ultimately won in the court of public opinion (yet) but so far, the Republican view is winning more mainstream journalists over, so at this point they have to be seen as being out front on this issue.
This may change in September. What the Democrats should use to counter this is straight from the recently-released National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq:
"The IC [Intelligence Community] assesses that the Iraqi Government will become more precarious over the next six to 12 months because of criticism by other members of the major Shiite coalition [the Unified Iraqi Alliance, UIA], Grayd Ayatollah Sistani, and other Sunni and Kurdish parties."
This is what Democrats should be rallying behind to counter "the surge is working" -- "the political process in Iraq is moving BACKWARD." Which means that, according to the CIA and every other intelligence agency of the United States government, the "surge" could continue for another 6 to 12 months, hundreds more American soldiers could die, and all for -- what? A crumbling Iraqi government? That's the sort of equation Americans can understand instantly, and it astonishes me that the Democrats aren't forcefully making this argument.
Fresh spin from the White House
Last week I ran a bumpersticker contest. One of my favorite entries was:
"Now it IS like Viet Nam?"
President Bush ran this argument up the flagpole last week, speaking to (of course) a friendly audience (the Veterans of Foreign Wars) -- "even if we all disagree about how we got into Vietnam, of course we can all agree that we got out too soon, and that doing so emboldened Osama Bin Laden." Or something. I must admit, it was kind of hard to follow his logic.
Thankfully, other than those who have already drunk the neo-con Kool Aid, nobody agreed. This theory was resoundingly ridiculed, most forcefully by actual historians. Don't expect Bush to be talking about Vietnam much in the future, as this ten-ton rhetorical rock sinks below the waves of spin.
Not to be outdone, Senator Mitch McConnell trotted out the newest phrase from the right-wing Spin-o-matic. Here he is on yesterday's Fox News Sunday.
Well, Senator Warner called me Friday afternoon to underscore that he still supports the president, that he is not in favor of a surrender date.
. . .
Well, I think we're going to find out what General Petraeus has to say, in fact, in September rather than trying to prejudge what he may recommend, but I do think there's a good chance that in September we'll go in a different direction.
I don't think that means an arbitrary surrender date, but I think it's entirely possible that the president will lay out a strategy that takes us into a different place, which hopefully, at the end of the day, ends up with some American troops forward deployed in the Middle East at the end of this draw down that many of us are anticipating over a period of time.
So there you have it: the new phrase that will be used as a blunt instrument against congressional Democrats next month: "surrender date." Since this term is brand new, it's impossible to say whether it will catch on with the general public or not. Stay tuned....
Conventional Wisdom from the Punditocracy
There are three interesting themes from the pundit class which have sort of instantaneously emerged as conventional wisdom (I refuse to use the term "CW" because it just makes me look egotistical...).
The first of these is that Senator Warner is chomping at the bit to vote with the Democrats to end the war next month.
Um... I don't think so.
If you actually listen to what Warner is consistently saying, it's a lot tamer than that. He is calling for a symbolic troop drawdown, something on the order of 5,000 troops home for Christmas. He says he's doing this to put real pressure on Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki, by letting him know that we're not going to be in Iraq forever. But he explicitly states that he is merely making a suggestion to Bush, that he does not intend to vote for a firm withdrawal date, and that he defers to the Executive Branch's decision on the matter -- as he doesn't think Congress should be the ones to end the war. Warner, much like Senator McConnell above, seems to have some sort of delusional trust in Bush to "do the right thing" and start a drawdown of troops. Even though Bush has shown absolutely zero inclination to do so.
Now, Warner may indeed end up supporting the Democrats when it comes time to vote, but I will believe that when I see it. Because nothing he is saying now leads me to believe that that will be the case.
The second conventional wisdom (which seems both newly-hatched and widespread) is that Prime Minster Maliki should be printing up his résumé, because he's toast as leader of Iraq. Time magazine is even speculating about all the possible successors to Maliki. Now, I've been saying for months that Maliki's government is fragile and could crumble at any point, but I wonder what inside information the mainstream pundits have at this point to conclude that the game is already over for Maliki. Time will tell on this one, I guess, or maybe Time will tell....
The last bit of conventional wisdom passed around the Sunday morning talk shows is that April 2008 is when the troops are going to come home, and the "surge" will begin to end. This one was a simple bit of math, performed after Army Chief of Staff General Casey said recently that troop deployments will not be extended beyond their current 15 months. The "surge" started in January of this year, so add fifteen months, and you get next April. If this is true, the timetable will be approximately 5,000 soldiers per month leaving Iraq (the same schedule they used going in), until the 30,000 added with the "surge" has been drawn down.
While this is an interesting calculation, what interested me more was the fact that almost everyone citing this April date pretty much agreed that Congress wasn't going to be able to do anything about Iraq in the meantime. Bush will get another Friedman Unit or so, and we'll have the current 160,000 troops in Iraq until next April. That seems to be making a lot of stew from one oyster, in my opinion. I think the upcoming debate in Congress may have a little more effect on the situation than that, but we'll see.
The other shoe
Having been fairly successful with the "surge is working" theme, the White House is trying desperately to come up with a companion theme: "The political situation in Iraq is moving forward." This one is going to be a harder sell, for obvious reasons. Mostly because the American public can see with their own eyes that it isn't happening. And if the "Maliki is toast" idea gains traction, then it may be impossible for the White House to successfully convince people that simultaneously, things are turning up roses between Iraq's Sunnis, Shi'ites, and Kurds.
But they're certainly giving it the old college try. Vastly overshadowed in the news today by Alberto Gonzales' resignation is a story that seems to be an attempt by Bush to spin what was basically a photo-op in Iraq into "progress on the political front," after Maliki issued a statement of "unity" between Shi'ite, Sunni, and Kurdish political leaders. You can imagine the White House's disappointment at this news being buried by Gonzales, since they obviously worked so hard on pressuring Maliki to "give us SOMEthing before September." Maliki delivers a photo-op, and nobody even notices.
Of course, as the Gonzales news fades, it may get some traction. Watch for lots of repetition of "Maliki's bringing everyone in Iraq together" from the right-wing echo chamber in the next few weeks. Remember, when Bush reports on the 18 milestones in Iraq in September, he doesn't actually have to show he completed any of them, he just has to show progress. Which he gets to define. So watch for this progress to show up prominently in the upcoming report, as illusory as it may prove to be. But whether the general public buys the "Iraq is about to break out in a chorus of Kumbaya" line or not is another story.
Some may call me crass (or even worse names) for addressing just the "framing" or "spin" of these issues. I strongly disagree. Republicans have been winning these framing victories for years now, and the only way Democrats can counter this tactic is to co-opt the framing game. Democrats need to agree on one phrase to use in order to ridicule the other side's position -- and then repeat that phrase ad nauseum. "Ten words or less" should be the golden rule.
[I'm going to be focusing on many aspects of the Iraq war in the next few weeks, because September's going to be the acid test: will Bush hold enough congressional Republicans with him, or will they be defecting en masse to the Democratic position? Will the war in Iraq begin to end next month or won't it? But because there are so many facets to the issue of Iraq, I will attempt to deal with them one by one in shorter articles, rather than writing one massive all-encompassing summary of the situation. Because I don't want to flood Huffington Post with all of this, these articles will be running both here and on ChrisWeigant.com.]