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Originally published January 10, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 10, 2007 at 12:34 AM

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War of words: "Surge" stirs its own Iraq debate

Battle lines have been drawn over what Bush plans for troops in Iraq. When it comes to "surge," some war critics see spin.

Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — Is it a "surge?" Is it an "escalation?" Is it harmless semantics? Is it disingenuous spin?

One thing is clear: Using the word "surge" to describe President Bush's forthcoming plan for reshaping U.S. efforts in Iraq has ignited a political brouhaha.

The plan, which Bush is scheduled to unveil tonight, is widely expected to include a proposal for increasing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, an increase that has been widely referred to by Pentagon officials and others as a "surge."

That's how the furor began, raging over the Internet, in complaints to reporters and in the blogosphere. News organizations have been drawn into the fray.

What infuriates war critics, including many liberal Democrats, is that they see "surge" as a manipulative and deceptive word. It implies a relatively short-term increase in the U.S. military commitment, they say, when the White House intends to keep the additional troops in Iraq much longer, perhaps for several years.

Even worse, critics say, the news media have uncritically accepted the word and thus contributed to deceiving the public. (The Seattle Times stopped using the term to describe the issue two weeks ago.)

Bush speech tonight


President Bush will address the nation at 6 p.m. PST to discuss his plan for the war in Iraq. The major networks and cable news channels are expected to broadcast the speech.

"I've noticed a complete acceptance on the part of most of the MSM [mainstream media] [and Congress] to accept the White House nomenclature," blogger Nicole Belle wrote in a complaint posted on crooksandliars.com. "After six years of this, I think we all know that he who frames the debate and chooses the vocabulary wins from the beginning. Let's be sure to not accept the White House framing, no matter how wimped out the MSM is."

Some profess to see Machiavellian intrigue by White House political guru Karl Rove.

"It seems like it comes from Karl Rove ... renaming things, reframing, making it sound acceptable," James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University, said Tuesday on National Public Radio's Diane Rehm Show when a listener called in to complain about the word.

"Please stop buying into the misleading nomenclature calling it a surge," said the caller, identified as Mike from Monkton, Md. "Misleading the public by misnaming things might be acceptable in politics, though I find it treasonous, but it's time for the Fourth Estate to do its job."

Bush's Iraq plan


President Bush is expected to call for up to 20,000 additional U.S. troops and more than $1 billion to shore up Iraq's economy and create jobs, contingent on Iraqi government promises to build its military and crack down on sectarian tensions. Bush also will push his plan to Congress and the public by:

Going to Fort Benning in Georgia on Thursday to talk to Army troops.

Sending Cabinet members, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to explain the plan to Congress during hearings that begin Thursday.

Seattle Times news services

The controversy has not been diminished by Bush and senior White House officials steering clear of "surge" themselves.

While critics blame pro-war spinmeisters, some military officials say "surge" long has been used in the armed forces to indicate a quick increase without necessarily suggesting short-term.

Choosing words to one's advantage is not new. Advertising copy writers do it all the time. So do political advocates, as in the struggle over the "estate tax" vs. the "death tax."

"These are theological disputes," said S. Robert Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University. "Each side is battling over every foot of ground, like Stalingrad."

The Wall Street Journal, on its Web site, discussed as early as Dec. 25 a "new war of words brewing over the Iraq War."

Initially, some Democratic members of Congress had suggested they might support Bush on a "surge."

By the end of last week, however, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California described the plan as an escalation, as did all Democrats making appearances on the Sunday talk shows.

Frederick Kagan, of the American Enterprise Institute, widely credited with helping sell the increase proposal to the White House, was quoted on the blog Media Nation as complaining that reporters were misrepresenting his ideas when they used the word "surge" to imply a short-term commitment.

"The media has been using the term 'surge' very loosely," Kagan was quoted as saying. "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. ... "

What Kagan wants is 25,000 or more additional troops, and not for a short time.

If all that seemed a bit confusing, White House press secretary Tony Snow had a solution Tuesday. Braced on surge vs. escalation, Snow said it was up to reporters:

"... You guys do words for a living," he said. "Rather than trying to ask Democratic or even Republican lawmakers what the proper descriptive term is, you figure it out."

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