Calling it a ‘surge’ raises some hackles

Times Staff Writer

Is it a “surge?” Is it an “escalation?” Is it harmless semantics? Is it disingenuous spin?

One thing is clear: Using the word “surge” to describe President Bush’s forthcoming plan for reshaping U.S. efforts in Iraq has ignited a fiery political brouhaha.

The plan, which Bush is scheduled to unveil today, is widely expected to include a proposal for increasing the number of American troops in Iraq. And the increase has been widely referred to by Pentagon officials and others as a “surge.”

That’s how the furor began, raging over the Internet, in complaints to reporters and in the blogosphere. News organizations across the country have been drawn into the fray, including NPR, CBS News, the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal.


What infuriates critics of the war, including many liberal Democrats, is that they see “surge” as a manipulative and deceptive word. It implies a relatively short-term increase in the U.S. military commitment, they say, when the White House intends to keep the additional troops in Iraq much longer, perhaps for several years.

Even worse, critics say, the news media have uncritically accepted the word and thus contributed to deceiving the public.

“I’ve noticed a complete acceptance on the part of most of the MSM [mainstream media] (and Congress) to accept the White House nomenclature,” blogger Nicole Belle wrote in a complaint posted on

“After six years of this, I think we all know that he who frames the debate and chooses the vocabulary wins from the beginning. Let’s be sure to not accept the White House framing, no matter how wimped out the MSM is.”

Some profess to see Machiavellian intrigue by White House political guru Karl Rove.

“It seems like it comes from Karl Rove ... renaming things, reframing, making it sound acceptable,” James A. Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University, said Tuesday on NPR’s “Diane Rehm Show” when a listener called in to complain about the word.

“Please stop buying into the misleading nomenclature calling it a surge,” the caller, identified as Mike from Monkton, Md., said. “Misleading the public by misnaming things might be acceptable in politics, though I find it treasonous, but it’s time for the Fourth Estate to do its job.”


Choosing words to one’s advantage is hardly new. Advertising copy writers do it all the time. So do political advocates, as in the struggle over the “estate tax” versus the “death tax.”

“These are theological disputes,” said S. Robert Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University. The dust-up over the word “surge” seemed to some a metaphor for the passions unleashed by the war itself. Lichter compared the debate to the struggle “for every inch, like Stalingrad.”

The controversy has not been diminished by the fact that Bush and senior White House officials have steered clear of “surge” themselves.

The Wall Street Journal, on its website, declared as early as Dec. 25 that there was a “new war of words brewing over the Iraq War.”

Although critics blame pro-war spinmeisters, some military officials say “surge” has long been used in the armed forces to indicate a quick, not necessarily short-term, increase.

Army Chief of Staff Peter J. Schoomaker, for example, used the term in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee in 2003, saying, “Now there is no question that there’s parts of Iraq that we need to surge troops into.”


In 2004, Gen. John P. Abizaid was quoted by Army Times as saying to a group of senior U.S. commanders, “So you have this notion of using surge forces to deal with specific military problems.... The combination of base forces plus surge forces ... is pretty important.”

None of that has mollified critics. Complaining about the use of the word in The Times on Sunday, an e-mailer identified as Carlileb said, “What’s with the uncritical use of the euphemism ‘surge?’ ... You know, this kind of thing makes the LAT look like a propaganda flack for the Bush administration, even if that wasn’t the intent.”

And some bloggers claimed a measure of success with their attacks. Initially, some Democratic members of Congress had suggested they might support Bush on a “surge,” but by the end of last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco described the plan as an escalation, as did Democrats making appearances on the Sunday talk shows.

Ironically, Frederick Kagan of conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute, who is widely credited with helping sell the increase proposal to the White House, was quoted on the blog Media Nation as complaining that reporters were misrepresenting his ideas when they used the word “surge” to imply a short-term commitment.

“The media has been using the term ‘surge’ very loosely,” Kagan was quoted as saying. “And I think that’s actually a bit of a problem, because there have been various ideas floated for very short-term troop 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.”

What Kagan wants is at least 25,000 additional troops, and not for a short time.

If all that seemed a bit confusing, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow had a solution Tuesday. Braced on “surge” versus “escalation,” Snow said it was up to the reporters:


“You guys do words for a living,” he said. “Rather than trying to ask Democratic or even Republican lawmakers what the proper descriptive term is, you figure it out.”