Saturday, January 20, 2007

Escalatio, again: "Gordon Smith is an equivocating fool" edition

Apparently, Oregon's Republican Senator, Gordon Smith--who has been painfully ambivalent about the Iraq war for some time now--has come out against the Biden/Levin/Hagel measure opposing the Bush escalation plan. (h/t BlueOregon.)

His reason? The language of the bill is too inflammatory because it explicitly refers to the Bush plan as an "escalation"--which is apparently a "partisan" word choice.

So Smith, who claims to support a phased troop withdrawal from Iraq, refuses to support one of the few moves the Senate can make to open up the possibility of such a withdrawal--because of word choice?

I understand that Smith, as a Republican in a blue state with a potentially-difficult re-election bid coming up next year, is in a very awkward position, and his attempt to triangulate some middle ground position on the war makes sense. He can't afford to alienate either the truly crazy rural Oregonian Republican base or the "moderate" suburban voters who have lately turned against the war in a big way. I fail to see, however, how he's going to win any votes whatsoever by refusing to support a bill that should be the logical consequence of a position he's already taken due to what can charitably be described as a semantic quibble.

As many before me have noted, the Republican Party has had remarkable success in the past several years in controlling the terms of "respectable" political debate: not only the underlying assumptions, but literally the terms, the specific words used to describe things. There have been some missteps--such as the amusing moment in 2005 when Bush was for "private accounts" for Social Security before he was against them and in favor of something totally different called "personal accounts"--but for the most part their efforts have succeeded so handily that we rarely even notice the effort on their part.

I don't think it's going to work this time, though. I suppose it's pretty obvious why Bush and other war hawks would prefer the manly-sounding "SURGE" to the Vietnam-echoing "escalation", but since what they propose fits the literal dictionary definition of escalation, it's hard to see them winning the semantic fight here. It's not possible to change the words people use to describe things simply by applying blunt force PR trauma. The Republicans can't just rename the escalation plan "the absolutely most perfectest increase in heroic warrior presence resulting in free lunches and cute fuzzy bunnies for all" and expect people to accept it; if the plan calls for increasing troop levels and combat intensity, it's an escalation plan, and that's what people are going to call it.

I don't know what Smith thinks he can accomplish by getting involved in this idiotic, substance-free dispute. I do know that I hope now, more than ever, and irrespective of his alleged new-found opposition to the war, that the good people of Oregon will see fit to rid our state of this embarrassment in 2008.

(P.S., the image above comes from a truly astonishing nugget of online pop-culture nostalgia:, a site devoted to preserving the memory of the short-lived 90s soda.)


M.J. O'Brien said...

The problem with framing language, even when it's initially successful (think "death tax"), is that it keeps colliding with reality.

Condi Rice called the "surge" an "augmentation," and strictly speaking she may have a point. If you unload all the political baggage, which of course is next to impossible, you get an incremental increase in the number of troops but no new strategy that hasn't been tried already.

In fact, the number of troops has been greater in the past, as in the leadup to the 2005 election when there were nearly 160,000 American troops in Iraq. The plan to pacify Baghdad isn't so different from Operation Together Forward of last fall, even though it involves incursions into Sadr City (also attempted previously).

Despite the general dictionary definition, an "escalation" to me signifies, politically speaking, a significant qualitative change in strategy, often combined with a substantial quantitative leap. An increase of 21,500, or 16%, wouldn't be an "escalation" by the standards of Vietnam in 1965 or 1970, for example. So I concede, with great reluctance, that Rice may be semantically correct in describing it as a relatively small incremental change--an "augmentation."

At some point an increase in troops, even without a change in strategy, can become an "escalation," but to me that would require an order of magnitude much greater than 16%.

All in all, though, the ability to frame language, and therefore debate, is a critical tool, so ultimately Ellis is correct and we should continue to refer to "escalation." The distinction I'm describing is minute and, as a member of Congress, I certainly wouldn't balk at denouncing the "surge" as an escalation. At the risk of sounding Machiavellian (or worse, Rovian), it seems to me that the slight distortion of language can result in some major political gains.

Another semantic gripe: can't anyone come up with a better word than "troops?" "Soldiers" has been mostly discarded because it might be interpreted as a slight against the many Marines in the conflict, but the constant use of "troops" in the media is damned awkward. It seems to me that "soldiers" once had a more generic sense, referring to anyone in the U.S. military. Too bad we can't revert to that usage.

M.J. O'Brien said...

One more thought: escalation requires a major transformation in the intensity of a conflict, so it can be evaluated either quantitatively or qualitatively. And I don't see how the planned "escalation" will raise the level of conflict to unprecedented degrees of intensity.