President Bush is dismissing calls for a troop withdrawal from Iraq, reportedly favoring instead a plan for troop increases. We consider the semantics of the “surge” debate with the American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick Kagan and Foreign Affairs Magazine editor Gideon Rose.
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. CORRESPONDENT: And now to the expected surge of U.S. troops in Iraq-- CORRESPONDENT: And in Iraq a surge of thousands of troops, as Ed was just talking about-- CORRESPONDENT: --temporary surge put in more troops.
CORRESPONDENT: --the so-called "surge of fresh troops." CORRESPONDENT: Secretary Gates hasn't said publicly where he stands on this idea of a "surge" option. CORRESPONDENT: Will the President overruled the chiefs if they're against a surge, if they're against an increase-- CORRESPONDENT: The word de jour is "surge." BROOKE GLADSTONE: Indeed, it was this week. Though the President says he won't make up his mind until early next year, he's apparently leaning toward beefing up the U.S. presence in Iraq, in what's being called the “surge” option.
Only about 11 percent of Americans support such a move, and it's reportedly facing resistance at the Pentagon, as well. The Iraq Study Group says it could get behind a short-term troop surge, if it were part of a longer-term withdrawal. And Senator Harry Reid has seconded that position.
But here's the rub: when you look at the proposal that's reportedly getting the most attention at the White House, it explicitly rejects the idea of a short-term troop increase, opting instead for a much longer commitment.
Frederick Kagan is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and he wrote the proposal that's getting most of the attention. He says he's been as clear as he can be. It's the messengers who are causing the confusion. FREDERICK KAGAN: The media has been using the term "surge" very loosely. 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.
We're actually calling for an increase of troop strength in Iraq of about 35,000 combat troops; 20,000 of those would go into Baghdad. So I think a part of the problem that we have is that people are not being sufficiently precise about which proposal they're discussing when they talk in terms of a troop surge. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So when Harry Reid, the incoming Senate Majority Leader, refers to a surge, he's talking about two or three months; you're talking about anywhere between 18 to 24. FREDERICK KAGAN: Yes, exactly. It's really important to keep that distinction in mind. The idea of a two-to three-month surge is not meaningful. And the enemy expects to do that sort of thing. They expect us to come in briefly and leave. Doing that kind of thing plays right into the enemy's hands. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, just to be clear, most of the violence in Iraq is still directed against American forces but the majority of the deaths are being suffered by Iraqis, both military and civilian. And the Pentagon says that Shiite militias, not terrorist groups, are responsible for most of those deaths. So who exactly would we be surging against, the militias that are nominally hired by the Iraqi government? FREDERICK KAGAN: Well, the problem is that you don't want to say that we're surging against the Shiite militias because we emphatically do not support the idea of trying to go into Sadr City, where a lot of them are based, and clear them out, which would precipitate, I think, a very widespread and large-scale struggle that would be very destructive of any sort of political solution in Iraq.
So what we're proposing to do is to secure the populations that some of these militias are targeting. And I think with the force levels that we're advocating and the strategy and tactics that we're proposing, we could do that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Getting back to the packaging of this plan, and I think we'll agree the plan faces a certain uphill struggle, is the word "surge" itself part of a marketing campaign, with its suggestion of, you know, last-ditch effort, with its suggestion that it's temporary? Is this a way to basically say that, we'll be staying the course, but you shouldn't see it that way? FREDERICK KAGAN: Well, it's certainly not part of any such marketing campaign on our part. We have tried to emphasize on every occasion that we're going to have to sustain this effort, and that it's going to be costly, but that we think it's the only option that will allow us to succeed and that it's essential. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And when others say that this is an effort to merely re-brand "stay the course," you're saying they haven't read the proposal. FREDERICK KAGAN: They haven't read the proposal, and they're not following what the course has been. It has never been the primary objective of military forces in Iraq to establish security for the population. And we are saying that that is what the effort should be now; that's clearly not stay the course. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well Fred, thank you very much. FREDERICK KAGAN: A pleasure to talk to you. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Frederick Kagan is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. We take him at his word when he says he wasn't engaged in message management. But was the White House taking advantage of the reassuring connotations of the word "surge"? We put the question to one of our favorite parsers of political language, Foreign Affairs Magazine managing editor, Gideon Rose. He says if the Administration has embraced the term, it doesn't seem to have been a premeditated act. GIDEON ROSE: I think they’re casting about for anything they can lay their hands on, have grabbed this think tank proposal and are going to whip it into place and call it whatever they can get away with calling it. The Administration is grasping at this straw because it has no other option; it doesn't want to withdraw, it can't stay in the same place. And it can't really fundamentally launch a major new effort in Iraq. BROOKE GLADSTONE: But is this an actual new policy, or is it simply old wine in a new bottle, remarketed to a public that's really tired of the old one? GIDEON ROSE: The Administration is not reselling its old policy. It seems to be considering adopting a version of a policy that's been uprooted around for a while in Washington and think tanks and articles and so forth.
The problem is that the real version of this involves a sustained, increase in troops and a long presence in Iraq. And there's no appetite in Washington for any policy like that. I mean, when Kagan talks about a sustained surge, he's really talking about a long-term escalation. BROOKE GLADSTONE: A surge that isn't a surge. GIDEON ROSE: Exactly. And in that sense it's a surge that isn't a surge. But what Iraq Study Group or Harry Reid or even perhaps the Administration is talking about is, indeed, something that has a temporary component built into it.
And so, ironically, even if the Administration is trying to slip a fast one past the public, even if they really are trying to sell an escalation of long-term duration as a temporary surge, the very fact that the press is following their current line and using the term "surge" to talk about it is going to backfire on them, because if it does go forward, if there are more troops sent and things don't get better, then after a little bit of time people are going to start saying, where is the temporariness, we've tried your surge, it hasn't worked. Now, let's pull out. BROOKE GLADSTONE: But how do you think the media ought to be reporting on these proposals, then? GIDEON ROSE: I think that one thing that would be a useful service to the country would be if the press, rather than assuming "surge" is either an accurate description or a false one, I think the real question now is can anybody get the Administration to define what the surge actually will be and resolve this apparent contradiction between the language they're using and what the plan's originators have in mind. BROOKE GLADSTONE: I guess that's what we'll find out in the new year. GIDEON ROSE: Unfortunately, it's not going to be a happy answer, no matter which it is. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Gideon, thanks very much.
GIDEON ROSE: My pleasure. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Gideon Rose is the Editor of Foreign Affairs Magazine.
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