In our country, Wednesday night’s “surge” was mainly a surge of words, twenty-minutes worth, 2,898 of them. In the build-up to the speech, as almost every last detail of it was leaked to the media, untold hundreds of thousands of words surged onto news pages, onto the TV news, into talk radio chatter, and on-line — and so many hundreds of thousands more, these included, will follow in the days to come.
As Gail Russell Chaddock of the Christian Science Monitor wrote, the President’s “new way forward” plan is guaranteed to run into a “wall of words on Capitol Hill,” but, she added, “not much more.” The New York Times front-paged that the Democrats were planning “symbolic votes” against the President’s plan “which would do nothing in practical terms to block Mr. Bush’s intention to increase the United States military presence in Iraq.”
Practical terms means, not words but Congress’s undeniable power of the purse, and so its right to deny at least some part of the tsunami of money the Bush administration is demanding to carry out its latest plan. Only in recent days has the possibility of using the purse to rein in the war begun to make its way from the distant frontiers of critical pariah-hood onto at least some mainstream agendas.
In the lead-up to Bush’s speech to the nation, almost nowhere did words not surge — despite the odd irony that the President did not actually use the word “surge” in his speech. Amid the deluge of words, only George Bush resorted to the resounding sound of silence. As Howard Fineman wrote in Newsweek:
“[T]he new chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee — Carl Levin, an important character now — sent Bush a private letter three weeks ago offering his counsel. Levin never got a reply. Bush can be just as deaf to Republicans. At a recent White House ceremony, Sen. Susan Collins offered to brief him on her Iraq visit. He responded by escorting her to the office of his deputy national-security adviser — and then left before she told her story.”
Given the crisis atmosphere, much of the speech itself, when the President was not plodding through his tactical changes in Iraq or offering insincere thanks to James Baker’s Iraq Study Group, was remarkably ordinary Bush boilerplate. The newest (and most ominous) note struck hardly related to Iraq at all. It lay in these two lines clearly aimed at Iran, a country the Study Group wanted to draw into negotiations: “I recently ordered the deployment of an additional carrier strike group to the region. We will expand intelligence sharing and deploy Patriot air defense systems to reassure our friends and allies.” At a moment when at least one American air strike had just taken place in Somalia, it hinted at a different kind of surge entirely.
Otherwise, we had heard it all, including the plan, before. The President struck only a few Iraq notes that, with a modest stretch of the imagination, might be called new and which are already all over the news. He called the situation in Iraq “unacceptable to the American people” and to him. (No mention was made of the Iraqis, of course). He offered this: “Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me,” which, though already being headlined, managed in typical fashion to sound as if he was somehow taking responsibility for mistakes he had little or nothing to do with making.
He did speak of “benchmarks” twice — “So America will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced…” — but where exactly those “marks” were and how the Iraqis were to be held to them no one listening to the speech could have had a clue. Perhaps the single novel statement was this one: “I have made it clear to the Prime Minister and Iraq’s other leaders that America’s commitment is not open-ended.” Of course, it too went utterly undefined, but assumedly when the present surge fails, it does leave the President some vague kind of out, were he ever to decide to use it.
When it came to much of the rest of the speech, you could easily have taken his address to a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001, or his September 11, 2006 anniversary address on the World Trade Center attacks, shaken the words up and simply dumped them randomly into last night’s speech without reaching for a bit of new vocabulary. As in either of those previous speeches, he created his usual hair-raisingly Manichaean vision of an embattled us-and-them world (one he and his top officials have worked assiduously to bring into being), of simple good and pure evil (though, a rarity for him, he did not actually use the word “evil” last night), of longed-for security and utter terror.
If you were simply to do a word count comparison to his 9/11 anniversary speech (almost 400 words shorter), there would be little way, except possibly by the rise in the use of the word “sectarian,” to note the passage of time in Iraq. Just to take the dystopian side of his official presidential vision, here are some word counts from last night (with the September counts in parentheses).
Terror, terrorists: 13 (17)
Violence, violent: 13 (3)
Sectarian: 9 (1)
Al Qaeda: 10 (3)
Extreme/ists: 6 (6)
Enemies: 5 (14)
Attack: 5 (13)
Insurgents: 5 (0)
Kill, Killing, Killers: 4 (3)
Fight, fighters, fighting: 4 (6)
War: 3 (13)
Struggle: 3 (4)
Death, Deadly: 3 (1)
Islamic (Radical Empire, Radical Extremists): 2 (1)
Murder, Murderers: 2 (1)
Threat: 1 (6)
Defeat: 1 (5)
Destroy, Destruction: 2 (2)
Hateful: 1 (2)
Danger, Dangerous: 2 (1)
Aggressive: 1 (1)
Conflict: 1 (1)
On our side of the black/white divide were all his (and his speechwriters’) usual favorites: “protect,” “secure,” “defend,” “democracy,” “liberty,” and even, against all expectations, not just “success” and its cognates, as well as “prevail,” but “victory” itself (twice), even though it long ago went missing in action in the real world.
Awkwardly, even uncomfortably delivered, last night’s Way-Forward-in-Iraq speech was, in sum, a speech to be forgotten, a speech certain to be buried — and quickly — in the coming carnage.
And here’s a strange footnote to the administration’s surge of words. The most secretive White House in our history, ever ready to accuse others of leaking or releasing information that could hurt national security, has over the last week essentially released the full American “surge” plan for the Baghdad area — as if we weren’t in one world, as if those resisting the American military didn’t watch CNN and couldn’t read our press on-line like anyone else. Whether you belong to a Sunni insurgent group, al-Qaeda in Iraq, or Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, you now know that the American plan involves dividing the Iraqi capital into nine sections; more or less how many American (as well as Iraqi) troops and police will be assigned to live in each of them; that new mini-bases for the surging Americans will be created throughout the city, and so on.
Given administration and military leaks, copious official background briefings for the media, Bush’s speech, and the endless comments of key neocon planners and presidential briefers Frederick Kagan and retired General Jack Keane, can there be anyone on our planet who doesn’t know a great deal about the American “way forward” and the exact schedule on which it is to be rolled out? Since the President’s plan sounds so much like past “surges” into Baghdad, military and economic, just as the speech itself caught so many past presidential speech patterns, planning to avoid, outwait, outfight, or outwit it should be well underway as you read this.
[Note: Part 1 of this three-part blog, Body Count, appeared Thursday; part 3 follows this weekend.]