The “Surge” and the “Purge”

As some reporters question the "surge," it's a welcome sign that Bush no longer controls the terms of the debate without a fight.

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For years, Joe Klein has held a spot among the cloistered Washington pundit class. He’s played the part well, regularly displaying the punditocracy’s disdain toward liberals, while simultaneously reigning, until recently, as Time magazine’s most liberal columnist.

And Klein didn’t buck the trend when Time unleashed his new blog “Swampland” earlier this week. (Klein regularly referred to bloggers as “frothing,” “screeching,” and “vitriolic” before becoming one himself.) He unleashed the same venom in his inaugural post that that he’s been laying on liberals who dare challenge the beltway’s conventional wisdom for years. “Democrats who oppose the so-called “surge” are right,” he wrote, “But they have to be careful not to sound like ill-informed dilettantes when talking about it.”

Leaving aside the fact that Klein appears more concerned with sounding like a macho man than actually stopping a war that he claims to oppose, he bashed a recent Paul Krugman column, where The New York Times columnist termed the Bush administration “delusional” for increasing the number of troops in Iraq.

Krugman’s column noted that the “principal proponents of the ‘surge’ are William Kristol of The Weekly Standard and Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute.” Klein admonished Krugman for failing to note that a “significant number of military intellectuals who have favored a labor-intensive counterinsurgency strategy in Baghdad…may be wrong about Iraq now, reflexively trying to complete a mission that has been lost, but they are not delusional. The counterinsurgency doctrine they published in 2006 is exactly what the U.S. military should be doing in places like Afghanistan. And they, not Kagan and Kristol, are the motivating force behind Bush’s new policy.”

Klein should really read his own magazine. (With its stable of liberal-hating columnists—Joe Klein, Charles Krauthammer, Andrew Sullivan, and now William Kristol—Time is rapidly developing into a kind of weekly Wall Street Journal editorial page.) According to its reporter Michael Duffy in this week’s cover story, “The surge belongs to the neocons and in particular to Frederick Kagan…Kagan turned to former Army Vice Chief of Staff Jack Keane, a retired four-star general who still has street cred at the Pentagon, to help flesh out the plan and then sell it to the White House.”

Duffy also could have explained the following to its shoot-from-the lip pundit: “The White House,” Duffy wrote, “imagines it is girding for battle against the Democrats and the naysayers who opposed the war in the first place. In fact, its fastest-growing problem is with Republicans who carried Bush’s water on ‘stay the course’ last fall. That gambit cost the party 36 seats in the House and Senate in November.”

Of course Joe Klein was hardly alone this week in laying the onus on Democrats and the left for opposing sending more troops to Iraq in what the press has labeled a “surge,” in keeping with the Bush administration’s preferred terminology. National Review Editor Rich Lowry also set up a straw man to attack. He complained, “It once was a staple of Democratic criticism of the Bush administration’s management of the Iraq war that it hadn’t dedicated enough troops to stabilize the country…That was before Bush seemed on the verge of actually proposing more troops. Now Democrats support more troops—but only for Afghanistan.”

Leaving aside that this “staple of Democratic criticism” pretty much began and ended with ex-Democrat Joe Lieberman, most of this criticism occurred years ago when Bush gave the green light to Donald Rumsfeld to invade Iraq with far few troops to maintain order and bring stability to the country. Lowry is like a man complaining that you should wear your snow shoes in August because one day last January you forgot them when you needed them—though it’s hard to believe anyone would actually even pretend to make an argument so transparently specious.

As Vali Nasr wrote late last month at TPMCafe—making a point few have made in the mainstream press—the new troops being sent to Iraq aren’t meant to prop up the Malaki government or provide more security, but rather as a greater offensive force. “New troops will be in Iraq not to police the streets and hold the line against the creeping violence,” he said, “but to expand the war by taking on the Shia militias. This is an escalation strategy.”

But don’t tell that to CNN’s talking heads. They continue to cast the move in purely partisan terms. Correspondent Elaine Quijano declared on Monday that not only are Democrats seemingly the only opposition to the “surge” plan, but they’re “seeking to cast a surge as an escalation of the unpopular Iraq war.”

Truth is, the Democrats don’t need to “seek” to cast the escalation as anything other than reality shows it to be—namely, a ramping up of a war that, according to every major opinion poll, long ago lost both the confidence and support of the vast majority of Americans.

Media Matters noted earlier this week that while Quijano made it sound like Democrats were trying to inject politics into the heightening of the war, CNN’s own Bill Schneider noted that the term “surge” is political in its own right. “Why ‘surge’? Why not ‘escalate’?” Schneider asked. “Because ‘surge’ sounds temporary. Waves surge and decline. ‘Escalation’ sounds long-term.”

On CNN’s “The Situation Room” that same day, correspondent Dana Bash stuck to the White House’s terminology, saying that Democrats were considering “withholding funding for what they call an escalation of the war,” wording which would suggest that while the White House’s “surge” construct has value, the term “escalation” is somehow partisan. (Wait, here comes the Colbert Crutch: “He tore off her space bodice and surged into her loins. ‘Escalation,’ on the other hand, is what old people do every day.” January 9, 2007)

It’s a welcome sign of the times that Bush no longer controls the terms of the debate without a fight. On Wednesday, The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi quoted Tom Rosenstiel, the director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism as saying, “The president and his advisers would be remiss if they didn’t come up with a term suited to their new policy. But journalists would be equally remiss if they just thoughtlessly repeated the term without pondering the policy and its implications.”

Likewise, the Los Angeles TimesJohanna Neuman reported on the language of the debate noting that “surge” suggests a short-term deployment, but the White House hasn’t said how long they plan to keep the extra troops in-country.

Whatever it’s name, just don’t call it “democratic.” As Michael Abromowitz noted in Tuesday’s Washington Post, the news from the heartland is not good for the White House. In the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, six out of every 10 respondents said “the war is not worth fighting,” while a paltry “17 percent called for an increase in U.S. forces” in Iraq.

A Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll conducted in December similarly found that only 12 percent of Americans support a troop increase in Iraq, while a majority of 52 percent are in favor of a fixed timetable for withdrawal. And as the Atlantic Monthly’s James Fallows recently noted, “It is hard to imagine that this is what the public was voting for two months ago.”

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress and the author of six books. His popular blog, “Altercation,” has moved from to Media Matters. The new URL is

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Eric Alterman

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