Language Matters

Except, apparently, to some reporters

Both The New York Times and the Associated Press, in articles this morning that dealt with the war funding bill passed yesterday by the House, failed to fully and accurately lay out the subtleties of the matter, resulting in pieces that obscure as much as they illuminate.

The Times writes that:

the fight over supplemental war spending is the latest rerun of a well-worn routine: Congressional Democrats, unable to force Mr. Bush to change course in Iraq, push to vote on fruitless legislation to remind Americans that they want to end the war. The White House accuses the Democrats of undermining the troops, and Congressional Republicans express outrage as the House passes a bill.

At first glance, that might sound pretty straightforward, but on a deeper level, it fails the sniff test. If you’ll recall, the president has indeed changed course in Iraq with a little thing called the “surge,” that sent more than thirty thousand extra troops into Iraq earlier this year, reversing his administration’s years-long claim that we had enough troops there to do the job. Is the change in strategy what the Democrats wanted? Certainly not, but to say that the president hasn’t changed course in Iraq just isn’t true.

The AP got itself in a similar bind, reporting that the House version of the bill was “largely a symbolic jab at Bush, who already has begun reducing force levels but opposes a congressionally mandated timetable on the war.” Here it’s the part about the president reducing force levels that sticks. Are troops coming home? They certainly are. Three thousand soldiers from the 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division won’t be replaced by a new unit when they leave Iraq in January, but the brigade was a part of the “surge” and not replacing them only means that the “surge” is drawing down—not the occupation as a whole. In other words, we’re slowly coming back to where we were, troop level-wise, before this spring when we sent more troops to Iraq in an operation that was always billed as temporary. So yes, troops are coming home, but we’ve known for months that they would, whereas there is no talk from the president about reducing troop numbers below the 130,000 pre-surge level. It’s important that reporters, and their editors, be careful with this kind of thing. Partisans of every stripe seize on each wrinkle—accurate or not—in the daily discourse about Iraq, looking for evidence to support their view of what is happening there and what it means. When the mainstream press gets these kinds of framing questions wrong, no matter how benign the reason, it misses an opportunity to bring a measure of intellectual honesty to that discourse.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.