The Bush administration has aggressively refined the art of distilling any new initiative presented to the public into a single word or phrase that at once defines the idea while obscuring its various downsides. Orwell coined the everlasting expression for this: newspeak.
The phrase “war on terror” is perhaps the administration’s crowning achievement in this realm. Of all people, it was Donald Rumsfeld himself last week in an enlightening interview with the columnist Cal Thomas, who described the vagueness of the phrase and its usefulness (and why, ultimately, it has become problematic):
I don’t think I would have called it the “war on terror.” I don’t mean to be critical of those who have. Certainly, I have used the phrase frequently. Why do I say that? Because the word “war” conjures up World War II more than it does the Cold War. It creates a level of expectation of victory and an ending within 30 or 60 minutes of a soap opera. It isn’t going to happen that way. Furthermore, it is not a war on terror. Terror is a weapon of choice for extremists who are trying to destabilize regimes and, [through] a small group of clerics, impose their dark vision on all the people they can control. So “war on terror” is a problem for me.
But what Rumsfeld forgets — almost as if the plan were not his own — is that the expression was used precisely to give the impression that this war would be like World War II, winnable, and wrapped up after a few clean hits. Rumsfeld, it seems, was a victim of the effectiveness of the phrase. People came to expect a storming of the beaches at Normandy, and when they got a seemingly never-ending stream of car bombs and IEDs, someone’s head had to roll for the disconnect.
It’s not just wars that have inspired this kind of manipulative phrase-turning. Remember how eager President Bush was, in his campaign to privatize social security, to base the program around “personal accounts” as opposed to “private accounts”? The subtle difference shifted the emphasis from free market (where one might not want to gamble with retirement money) to the notion of personal freedom.
It’s the prerogative of any president and his spinners to play this kind of word game. But the press has a responsibility not to be taken in by it, to be able to separate out an explication of a thing from the sheen the administration places on it. The consequences are extreme. Look at the “war on terror.” The press, for the most part, absorbed this descriptive term and used it uncritically for the last five years. But, as Jacob Levenson wondered in the pages of CJR two years ago, “It’s reasonable to ask, for instance, that if the war on terror had been called the war on Islamic extremism, would the American public have supported the invasion of a country, like Iraq, with a secular government? Similarly, had it been called the war for global democracy, would the Patriot Act have become law? What if it hadn’t been called a war at all? Journalists, in other words, must resist employing political jargon — it tends to shortcut analysis in favor of mobilization.”
Now we have “surge,” the word that’s been recruited by the administration to sum up its new Iraq policy, to be unveiled in a speech tomorrow night. Used to describe the addition of 20,000 troops to the Baghdad area, “surge” has become, in the last few weeks, part of the public discourse on Iraq (i.e., as one anonymous Republican strategist told the New York Times, “They’re going to cast it as a choice between withdrawal and surge”). The word has the benefit of seeming active, strong, and quick - a surge is a lightening strike, over and done, the opposite of, say, a quagmire. The other advantage is the other words that “surge” replaces, like “escalation,” with its Vietnam-era connotation.