Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

George Lakoff Headshot

Escalating Truth

Posted: Updated:

The U.S. House of Representatives today began debating a non-binding resolution opposing President Bush's decision to send more troops to Iraq. Democrats pushing the measure deserve support and thanks. The House action raises important questions about the ideas behind the debate and the ways those ideas have been framed.

Bush announced his policy of sending over 20,000 more troops to Iraq in early 2007 when most of the country was calling for a withdrawal of troops. The administration called the buildup of troops in the proposal a "surge."

It is interesting to note that in coverage of the debate, the Washington Post uses the word "surge" only once - and that in a paraphrase of Republican John Boehner's defense of Bush's order. The term used in this case was "troop-surge."

In its coverage, the New York Times does not use Bush's term at all. The term "surge" is missing from its coverage of the House action. And, the link provided by the Times to the resolution itself is titled, "The Concurrent Resolution on the President's Escalation Plan." Escalation is a more accurate description of Bush's plan. But its use - and the diminished use of surge - did not happen without a disciplined and focused effort by progressives.

This represents an important victory for those who oppose Bush's deployment of more troops to Iraq. And it illustrates nicely why ideas matter - and how frames affect contests of ideas.

The word "surge" indicates a relatively small short-term increase in force that has an effect and naturally goes back to its previous level. In military parlance, a "surge force" is the opposite of a "base force": troops come in to do a job that can be done quickly, and then leave. They are not "based."

That was not the Bush plan. Only one major combat unit was to be sent that was not scheduled to go. Other units were to go earlier and leave later -- indefinitely later, since there was no end date or condition. Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, a theorist of the "surge" and retired Army General Jack Keane wrote in the Washington Post that the "surge" must be large and lasting -- at least 18 months and 30,000 troops. The new commander in Iraq, General Petraeus, upon taking up his post said that the troop increase would have to last years to be effective in counterinsurgency.

Then, Bryan Bender, writing in the Boston Globe on February 2, 2007, reported that the 21,000 combat troops Bush was asking for would need an extra 28,000 support troops to keep them in the field. The total then became almost 50,000 additional troops to be kept there for years.

Words have meanings; they express ideas and ideas are important. The word "surge" came with the idea of a relatively small short-term increase in force that would be effective. Such previous troop increases had been ineffective and the joint chiefs saw no reason that this one would be effective either. The actual proposal called a "surge" was the opposite of what the word meant. In short, the very use of the word "surge" was a lie.

People all over the country noticed the "surge" framing immediately, and quickly -- and accurately -- reframed the President's proposal as an "escalation." Escalation is a strategy employed by an apparently superior power that is losing when it was expected to win. It is the strategy of raising the level of force and, hence, of violence, bringing in more troops, deepening one's commitment to a strategy already in place, raising the bar for what is to count as "success" and for the removal of troops.

As Nobel-prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman observed, this is the same strategy as that used by a gambler who has been losing and hopes to beat the house by continually raising the stakes. In escalation, when the prospect of losing is "unacceptable," de-escalation is unlikely. The deeper the commitment of troops, the harder it is to get those troops out.

The word "escalation" is, of course, charged. It has echoes of Vietnam, where sending more and more troops led to a greater and greater disaster. Those who used the word about Iraq did so for good reason. First, they knew that previous "surges" had no noticeable effect. Second, they knew that most of the troops would be employed in Baghdad, interposing them between the Sunnis there and the Shiites that were in the process of driving out all Sunnis as part of a civil war. The American presence could well raise, not lower, the level of civil war violence and result in the killing of more of our troops. Third, sending more troops would make it hard to remove our troops before the 2008 election. The Democrats, who took over Congress on the pledge to extricate our troops, would then look ineffectual. Having the power of the purse over continued spending on the Iraq occupation, the Democrats in Congress would have taken on the responsibility for the continued use of troops. Fourth, "escalation" suggests by the allusion to Vietnam that sending more troops won't work and will only lead to more coffins coming home. And fifth, escalation is a policy matter: the militarization of foreign policy, namely, use force and keep using more force. It is a continuation of neoconservative policy and a direct challenge to the Democratic mandate to get our troops out. "Escalation" is the word that tells the truth about the policy, the politics, and the inevitable negative effect of the policy.

The Democratic leadership has been using the word, naming the policy accurately and thus challenging the lie implicit in "surge." In previous years, before the Democrats became savvy about the importance of accurate framing, they might have just argued against the Bush "surge." What was the effect of getting savvy?

On the website of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, there is a record taken from a Google News Search of the use of the two words in the press during the week of January 10 - 17. The story, however, viewed the word use as a horserace, a simple competition of which word was used most:

"One method of testing was a Google search for the week of Jan 10-Jan 17, which yielded 18,118 stories with the word 'surge,' close to double the number that used the word 'escalate' or 'escalation,' (10,112). Two more neutral phrases were even less common. 'Troop increase' appeared in 9,177 stories, and 'troop buildup' in 3,868 stories.

A search of the same terms from Jan. 10-Jan. 17 within the more limited universe of LexisNexis (52 major newspapers and 35 news broadcasters) found similar results, but also a nuance.

Again, 'surge' appeared nearly twice as often as 'escalate', and (2,503 stories versus 1,296). And the neutral terms, 'troop buildup' (294 stories) and 'troop increase' (901 stories) were again used less."
- Project for Excellence in Journalism Website

The Project for Excellence in Journalism missed the significance. Though it announced "surge" as the "winner," the real story was being ignored. "Escalation" had 10,112 uses! "Surge" had only 18,118 -- relatively small considering that it was the official White House term, the one unquestioning journalists would feel safe using. The point is that "escalation" and its meaning got out there in the press -- enough to have a major effect, to blunt and offer a counterforce to the meaning of "surge," as well as to call attention to the real Bush policy. The Democratic leadership is still using "escalation," as it should. The idea is out there more than enough, and that is what matters.

The horserace mentality -- counting numbers of uses, not cognitive effects, is all too common in journalism today. A perfect example is centrist blogger and DLC President Bruce Reed, who has a column on Slate. Reed has no appreciation for the effect of ideas and little understanding of what words mean. He thinks, mistakenly, that "escalation" is just a fancy way of saying "send more troops" and that the Democratic leadership should abandon the term:

"Democrats' rechristening effort -- again, like the Bush plan itself -- would seem to be too little, too late. Time dedicated its first Friday cover to 'The Surge' -- a higher profile than escalation can hope for, no matter how often Democrats repeat it."

Notice that Reed mistakenly thinks that reframing is just "rechristening" when it is really about truth-telling and alerting the public to a policy that goes well beyond "more troops." The issue for Reed is the "higher profile" of a Time cover rather than the effect of the idea of escalation, discussed over 10,000 times in the press in a week.

As Reed points out, many of those uses of "surge" were "so-called surge":

"Some critics have started calling it the 'so-called surge.' Unfortunately, if surge is misleading, 'so-called surge' is even more so--leaving the unintended impression that perhaps Bush won't be increasing troops at all. (Then again, as Fred Kaplan has warned, that may be an entirely accurate description of Bush's plan: more troops than we can mobilize and fewer than we'd need to win.) Richard Cohen managed to cram everything into a single sentence: 'A so-called surge is a-coming, an escalation all decked out with an Orwellian-sounding name.'"

Reed gets the meaning of "so-called" wrong. "So-called" says that the following word does not fit reality, despite the attempt by someone in a position of authority to describe reality that way. "So-called" points up the attempt to deceive and rejects it, as Richard Cohen's sentence shows. As one would expect, the nature of the deception is different for hard-core neocons than for most people. Neocons like Kagan want the President to openly promote neocon policy: more force for an indefinitely long period, which appears to be his real policy. But those who want the troops to leave Iraq find the conservative use of the word not only deceptive, but immoral.

Reed thinks that the choice between words is all a matter of meaningless word play. But the issue is reality and our ability to convey it to the public -- the reality on the ground in Iraq, the reality of neoconservative foreign policy, and the reality of the political game played by the White House. Words matter because they express ideas, and ideas matter because they present a picture of what's real and what's right.

Conservative ideas and frames must be confronted and contested. Progressives cannot succeed if they treat frames as nothing more than word games, if they fail to understand that the use of a term like surge reinforces the conservative worldview. We are not playing games with words. We are fighting over ideas, and the moral world views that underlie those ideas.

Register To Vote