It took my good friend Norman Horowitz to use the word "reinforcement" instead of "surge" in his Huffington piece this week, to remind me of the power of words. Twenty or so years ago, a staunch conservative with whom I was working on a project advised me that to "name" an issue is to frame the issue, and ultimately to own it. That's why Barack Obama is having such a hard time answering questions about our recent successes in Iraq.
Suppose President Bush had said, back in 2006, that he was sending an additional 50,000 troops to Iraq to reinforce our military and that he hoped that the "reinforcement" would enable us to make great progress against Al Qaeda and end the insurgency. Framing the issue in those terms probably would have avoided the controversy about the "surge". But the word "reinforcement" implies that we had failed to send enough troops to Iraq in the first place, and the Bush administration never admits failure, error or even mistakes. Therefore, despite the fact that Don Rumsfeld, who had set the size of the army we sent to battle, had already been fired, Bush was not about to use a negative word like "reinforcement". "Surge", on the other hand, that's active, vigorous, manly, thrusting, that's a winner's word, and it could be used to hide a major shift in the U.S. strategy in Iraq.
General David Petraeus, who had just been named U.S. commander in Iraq, was about to move American troops from large fixed bases to smaller combat outposts in the midst of Baghdad's most dangerous areas. Previously, we had been slow to respond to guerilla terrorist attacks, now we would be in position to react quickly and effectively. After four years of ever-growing violence, Petraeus was going to tamp down the conflict but he needed more men to do it. To avoid the embarrassment of the word "reinforcement", the administration christened the additional troops "the surge". And of course, cloaking "reinforcement" as something new, a "surge", got the Democrats all worked up and induced 46 Senators (not including Barack Obama) to vote against it.
By now, it is apparent to most Americans that the "reinforcement" has considerably improved our chances for some sort of success in Iraq. It has stabilized the situation there, and is giving the Iraqis another chance to make peace with each other. Belittlingly the effectiveness of that "reinforcement" seems to me both stupid and petty. It's about time for Barack Obama to publicly accept the fact that the "reinforcement" has at least temporarily succeeded. It might be smart for him to proclaim that the "reinforcement" has indeed worked, and to forget the word "surge" forever.