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The Two Words That Can Bring Our Troops Home

05/25/2011 12:15 pm ET

To Bring Troops Home, Change Master Narrative From "Surge" To "Civil War"

Media pundits take note: the big scoop coming out of President Bush's speech, last night, is not what he said, but what he was very, very careful not to say. Desperate to find a way out of the White House without taking Iraq with him, Bush avoided the only two words powerful enough to change the Iraq debate for good and convince the American public to bring our troops home right away:

civil war

While there is no "magic phrase" that will suddenly convince President Bush to stop holding the U.S. military hostage to his failed policy, "civil war" is as close as it gets. Why? The key is to see that "civil war" not only describe the reality in Iraq--the truth about what is happening on the ground--but it also provides a new master narrative: a story so powerful and clear that it finally sweeps away the cynical story Bush has used for over five years to spin the occupation of Iraq. Unless there is a new master narrative--Bush's story will control the debate and keep our soldiers trapped in Iraq. The key to bringing our troops home is not just to use the phrase "civil war," but to bring it up to the headlines and keep it there until every American soldier has come home safely to his or her family.

One Year Ago: "Civil War" Dominated The Headlines

The White House effort to make sure the "civil war" narrative did not take over the Iraq debate took shape in 2006 when the U.S. policy in Iraq was still being run by Donald Rumsfeld and Peter Pace. On August 3, 2006, Rumsfeld, Pace and Bush's other top man in Iraq, General John Abizaid, came to Congress to testify about the situation. As apparent in this CBS article describing the testimony, the phrase "civil war" took over the proceeding:

"Iraq could move toward civil war" if the violence is not contained,
Gen. John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, told the
Senate Armed Services Committee.

"I believe that the sectarian violence is probably as bad as I have seen it," he said, adding that the top priority in Iraq is to secure the capital, where factional violence has surged in recent weeks despite efforts by the new Iraqi government to stop the fighting.

Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the panel, "We do have the possibility of that devolving into civil war." He added that this need not happen and stressed that ultimately it depends on the Iraqis more than on the U.S. military.

"Shiite and Sunni are going to have to love their children more
than they hate each other," Pace said, before the tensions can be
overcome. "The weight of that must be on the Iraqi people and the Iraqi
government."

The statements by Abizaid and Pace must have struck like a silver stake in the heart of the White House. White House press secretary Tony Snow did his best to dodge and parry, but it was too late--the "civil war" phrase was taking over the Iraq debate:

Q Does the President agree with General Abizaid's assessment today,
that Iraq is in danger of civil war because of the recent sectarian
violence?

MR. SNOW: I think what he said -- I think he specifically avoided
"civil war." I think he said he was worried about sectarian violence,
and also reiterated something we've talked about on a number of
occasions, which is the importance of security Baghdad -- which is why,
pursuant to General Casey's recommendations, you're going to see a
little more of a troop presence in Baghdad, to try to suppress some of
those. Obviously, sectarian violence is a concern.

Q I think he did say that he thought civil war was a possibility.

MR. SNOW: Okay. Well, I don't think the President is going to quibble with his generals on their characterizations. I think the more important thing that General Abizaid -- at least based on what I saw -- was saying that, again, it's very important that we go ahead and go in and secure Baghdad as one of the key things, because that is where people are tying to create broader sectarian strife with pretty largeand visible acts of violence.

(White House Press gaggle, Aug 3, 2006)

Snow's dodge was not very effective against Abizaid's powerful phrase "civil war." The story that new phrase told was so convincing that even the mainstream media could see it. More importantly, Abizaid's use of "civil war" made it very clear to the American public why it was wrong to keep U.S. troops in Iraq so much as one day longer. Here was a stone-faced top U.S. general--a general fluent in Arabic--telling us in plain language that U.S. troops could not help Iraqis build a democracy because the Iraqis refused to stop killing each other.

Abizaid's use of that phrase spoke to a mounting struggle between the top military commanders on the ground in Iraq and the White House. The generals, it seemed, saw their 2006 Congressional testimony as a chance to break with the White House PR spin and call the situation what it really was--a "civil war"--and to use the high-profile hearings to make the case directly to the American people: U.S. troops could do nothing but suffer and die in Iraq so long as they remained trapped in the surging violence waged by Iraqis on themselves. And on August 3, 2006--in front of Congress and the entire American public, the struggle finally came to a head: Abizaid use of the phrase "civil war" in the hearings was nothing less than a framing coup d'etat from the top soldier in Iraq. And it worked. The "civil war" story swept through the media at lightening speed: so long as Iraqis refused to back away from their civil war,
U.S. soldiers were sitting ducks caught in the crossfire. And once Americans realized that it was civil war crossfire killing our soldiers--not shady terrorists looking for ways to sneak into the United States--Bush and Cheney's "war on terror" house of cards began to crumble.

Murtha Made It Happen

Well up until the Abizaid moment, Bush and Cheney always knew that as long as they talked about fighting terrorists in Iraq, the public and the Democratic Congress would never be able to
effectively claim that it was in our best interests to bring the troops home now. But by early 2006, one voice in Congress has risen up to take down that logic and replace it with a new, even more persuasive master narrative.

By January 12, 2006 when John Murtha published a piece on The Huffington Post ("Situation In Iraq Is Civil War"), he had already done change the master narrative on Iraq than anyone since the invasion of Iraq in 2003:

According to the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition, the definition of a civil war is a "war between political factions or regions within the same country." That is exactly what is going on in Iraq, not a global war on terrorism, as the President continues to portray it.

93percent of those fighting in Iraq are Iraqis. A very small percentage of the fighting is being done by foreign fighters. Our troops are caught in between the fighting. 80 percent of Iraqis want us out of there and 45 percent think it is justified to kill American troops.

Iraqis went to the polls in droves on December 15th and rejected the secular, pro-democracy candidates and those who the Administration in Washington propped up. Preliminary vote results indicate that Iyad Allawi, the pro-American Prime Minister, received about 8 percent of the vote and Ahmad Chalabi, Iraq's current Oil Minister and close associate of the U.S. Iraq war planners, received less than 1 percent. According to General Vines, the top operational commander in Iraq, "the vote is reported to be primarily along sectarian lines, which is not particularly heartening." The new government he said "must be a government by and for Iraqis, not sects."

The ethnic and religious strife in Iraq has been going on, not for decades or centuries, but for millennia. These particular explosive hatreds and tensions will be there if our troops leave in six months, six years or six decades. It is time to re-deploy our troops and to re-focus our attention on the real threats posed by global terrorism.

These four, simple paragraphs framed the Iraq war in entirely new terms and everyone saw it, particularly the startling statistic that "93 percent of those fighting in Iraq are Iraqis." Young American soldiers--the most idealistic citizens we have--were enlisting to go fight terrorism and protect the 'homeland' in response to George W. Bush's call, and they were being killed in a centuries old civil war that had been accidentally let out of the bottle by Rumsfeld's botched post-invasion phase. Most importantly, Murtha's "civil war" narrative stated in plain language that this was not a war that anyone could win. No matter how long our troops stayed in Iraq, nothing would change except the death toll.

Murtha's January 12, 2006 article was posted in response to his ongoing struggle to make "civil war" the dominant frame of the Iraq debate--a struggle that the White House knew it had to win. Two days earlier in his January 10, 2006 Radio Address, Bush had tried to deflect the "civil war" frame by saying, effectively, that it was just what the terrorists wanted us to happen, but that it had not happened yet:

After the fall of Saddam, Zarqawi went underground and declared his allegiance to Osama bin Laden, who called him the "Prince of al Qaida in Iraq" and instructed terrorists around the world to "listen to him and obey him." Zarqawi personally beheaded American hostages and other civilians in Iraq; he masterminded the destruction of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad; and he was responsible for the assassination of an American diplomat in Jordan and the bombing of hotels in Amman. His goals in Iraq were clear: He wanted to stop the rise of democracy, drive
coalition forces out, incite a civil war, and turn that country into a safe haven from which al Qaida could launch new attacks on America and other free nations. Instead, Zarqawi died in the free and democratic Iraq that he fought so hard to prevent, and the world is better off because this violent man will never kill again.

Murtha's "civil war" frame was rising in the media and the best Bush could do was say that it was what the terrorists wanted. The contrast between Murtha's Huffington Post article and Bush's Radio Address was stunning. For the first time since the invasion of Iraq, someone had stepped up and provided a key phrase that was more powerful than the "war on terror" and had, as a result, stolen the ball from Bush's propaganda machine.

Three months later, the Washington Post reported that Murtha's effort had effectively changed the dynamic of American politics, as the 'majority of Americans' were now thinking about Iraq in terms of 'civil war,' albeit not with the same clarity as Murtha:

An overwhelming majority of Americans believe that fighting between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq will lead to civil war, and half say
the United States should begin withdrawing its forces from that violence-torn country, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The survey found that 80 percent believe that recent sectarian violence makes civil war in Iraq likely, and more than a third say such a conflict is "very likely" to occur. These expectations extend beyond party lines: More than seven in 10 Republicans and eight in 10 Democrats and political independents say they believe such a conflict is coming.

In the face of continuing violence, half -- 52 percent -- of those surveyed said the United States should begin withdrawing forces. One in six favors immediate withdrawal of all troops, however, while about one-third prefer a more gradual return.

(see full article here)

While the White House had done a good job spreading their story that civil war had not yet happened, the logic of civil war had taken over the debate.

That was March of 2006. In November, American voters overwhelmingly returned control of the House of Representatives to the Democratic Party and the senate by a nose. The number one issue: bring our troops home from Iraq.

After 2006 Elections: Powell Pushes "Civil War" Language

Following the 2006 elections, the struggle to keep "civil war" front and center inn the Iraq debate took on a new urgency as Colin Powell joined the debate. Speaking at a conference in the United Arab Emirates, Powell said that it was time for the U.S. State Department to start using the phrase "civil war" to describe what had become the reality on the ground in Iraq.

Not giving in to Murtha's logic entirely, Powell half believed that the civil war in Iraq was a centuries-old conflict that had been unleashed by Rumsfeld's incompetence, and half believed it was a centuries-old conflict sparked on by outside terrorists looking to cause trouble for U.S. forces. The impact of Powell's statement--for whatever reason he made it--was to give even more legitimacy to the "civil war" master narrative.

Three weeks later, the Iraq Study Group used the phrase "civil war" in their report. Two days after that, Bush cut Rumsfeld loose in a "hail-Mary" effort to regain control of the Iraq debate.

The new story Bush pushed--the "surge"--was a direct response to Murtha and Abizaid's "civil war" narrative. Bush's surge allowed him to refocus attention on the idea that the U.S. was preventing the terrorists from blocking progress. He found a new Secretary of State, Robert Gates, and a new general, David Petraeus, to back him in these assertions.

Days before Patraeus spoke to Congress, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki told reporters that the U.S. surge had prevented Iraq from descending into a "civil war," giving clear evidence that the Bush White House was still deeply concerned about fighting back the "civil war" frame. Petreaus in his formal statement did not use the phrase once, focusing all attention on the successes of the "surge."

When George W. Bush flickered onto America's TV screens last night, he continued to push the debate further and further from the phrase "civil war"--omitting it altogether, focusing instead on vague definitions of "success" and a cynical attempt to claim that returning troop levels to the already high levels of six months ago was somehow equivalent to bringing troops home.

Democrats Push Back, But Do Not Replace Master Narrative

If the Democrats had realized just how much the "civil war" phrase had changed the master narrative of the Iraq debate, they probably would have led with it in their pre-buttals and rebuttals to Bush's speech. But it seems that the Democrats have lost the momentum they once had as a result of the prominence of this phrase.

Oddly, the phrase "civil war" is in many of the proposals of the Presidential candidates--but it is buried instead of in the headlines where it should be.

Barack Obama uses this phrase in his first bullet point for his plan on Iraq--but his headline is the much more vague statement, "The Time To End This war Is Now." That phrase may be good rhetoric, but it does nothing to replace Bush's master narrative. Obama's press release after Bush's statement did not include the phrase "civil war" at all--exactly was hoping for.

In her statement following Bush's speech, Hillary Clinton, to her credit, stated explicitly that Bush's policy keeps our soldiers "stuck in the middle of a civil war." But she buries it in the last paragraph when it should be the headline.

John Edwards, in his 2-minute video response that aired directly after Bush's speech, uses the phrase "civil war" twice, staying that Bush's policy forces our troops to police a civil war. But the overall frame for the speech was not the "civil war" master narrative, but emphasized the idea that it was "time" to end the war.

Which Democratic candidates are still agressively pushing the "civil war" frame? Unfortunately, it is not the "top tier" candidates.

Democrats Should Follow Leadership Of Dodd, Biden On Iraq

Chris Dodd and Joe Biden are two very different Democratic candidates for President, but when it comes to leading the debate on Iraq--they both get it and deserve far more attention then they have managed to garner from the media.

In statement after statement since the Petraeus hearings, Dodd has repeatedly focused attention on the central problem of Bush's Iraq policy. From Dodd on September 12, 2007:

It is clear to me - especially after yesterday's testimony - that
half-measures aren't going to stop this President or end our
involvement in this civil war. I thought it was clear to Senators Obama and Clinton as well after they finally came around to supporting the Feingold-Reid measure and voting against a blank-check supplemental spending bill this spring. If 'enough was enough' then, why isn't it
after the bloodiest summer of the war?

And again from Dodd on September 13, 2007:

Even after his top General said that there has been no significant
political progress in Iraq and couldn't say if our involvement in Iraq's civil war has made the country safer, George Bush continues to
insist that we should stay the course

Dodd gets it, although he could make it even clearer by bringing "civil war" up to the headlines of his statements.

And then there is Joe Biden. Even if Biden's campaign has yet to issue a statement that uses the phrase "civil war," last night during his interview with Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews after the Bush speech, Biden explained in crystal clear terms exactly why the civil war in Iraq is the reason we need to bring U.S. troops home:

The last time I was with the President, I made the following point. "Mr. President,if the Lord Almighty came down, ssat on this conference table...if he sat on this conference table and said,'Mr. President, every Jihadi member in the worled is dead,'--Mr. President, you still have a massive civil war on your hand engaging over 100,000 American forces. And they're dying at a pretty clip rate.

(rush transcript)

Not since Murtha in January 2006 has anyone stated it in such clear terms. If what Biden said too Chris Matthews last night was the only thing on his Presidential campaign page, I suspect Biden would be doing much better in the polls.

TO BRING TROOPS HOME: FOCUS THE DEBATE ON "CIVIL WAR"

Beyond seeing yet again that our nation is led by a cynical and morally bankrupt President, Bush's speech should help Democrats realize that less than one year ago they controlled the Iraq debate with the phrase "civil war." That phrase was an accurate description of the situation on the ground, was endorsed by a wide range of top civilian and military officials, was widely used by the media, and was helping Americans understand clearly the difficult choices we had to make to bring our troops home. Today, all of that clarity and momentum has been swept away by Bush's relentless effort to displace "civil war" with "surge" and reassert his "terrorism" logic on the Iraq debate.

That must change right now.

Whether one believes U.S. troops should be redeployed right away, in three months or in six, everyone can agree that the longer George W. Bush controls the master narrative of the Iraq debate, the more soldiers will die caught in another country's century's old civil war.

To reset the master narrative of the Iraq debate, Democrats can do the following:

  1. Bring the phrase "civil war" into the headlines of their press releases on Iraq
  2. Make sure the phrase "civil war" is used in the first paragraph of every statement to the press about Iraq
  3. When responding to Bush about his Iraq policy, lead with a statement about the "civil war"
  4. Reach out to Republicans and military leaders who previously used the "civil war" narrative
  5. Use the phrase "civil war" as often as possible to focus Americans on truth about the situation in Iraq
  6. Contrast being "trapped" or "caught" in Iraq's "civil war" with "engaging" or "continuing" "top priority" national defense

Democrats can use these basic steps and the media will follow.

And most importantly: Recognize that American wants Congress to bring our soldiers out of the civil war in Iraq. They are trapped there, caught in the crossfire of a war that began long before they arrived, and that they cannot stop.

Democrats must retake the master narrative and then act on it to bring our soldiers home.

The alternative is to allow Bush to succeed in his year-long effort to cleanse the debate of the "civil war" narrative.

(cross posted from Frameshop)

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