Surge: What's In A Word?

Posted: Jan 17, 2007 12:01 AM
Surge: What's In A Word?

Surge n. a violent rising and falling. Webster's

The best thing about the president's speech Wednesday night was what it did not he say. Not once did he mention surge.

The word is shorthand for the commitment of some 20,000 more American troops to Iraq, mainly to boiling-over Baghdad.

It's not the size of the additional commitment that worries. Indeed, the size of it assures. It indicates that this president (and commander-in-chief) is determined to snatch victory from the jaws of a growing civil war that has turned Baghdad into a free-fire zone. Because defeat there, as he noted, would weaken America, and the rest of the free world, everywhere.

What worries is how another injection of American forces, in addition to the 130,000 already there, is being widely described: as a surge.

We all know what a surge is. Anybody who's experienced a surge of electrical power that knocked out a household appliance certainly does. So does anyone who's been lulled to sleep by the rise and fall of the ocean's waves as they surge ashore with a crash, then die out before the next wave begins the cycle all over again.

Is that going to be the fate of this additional increment of American power, too?

Surge has a temporary sound to it. It is only a phase, the advance before the inevitable retreat, more short-term phenomenon than long-term plan.

It's understandable why an opponent of the war in Iraq would use the word to describe this latest American tactic to secure Baghdad. What rises must fall, what surges will subside - without lasting effect. That the president didn't use the word shows he's learned something about giving a fireside chat to the American people.

Unfortunately, our president didn't spare us the usual rhetoric about planting a verdant democracy in the arid stretches of Mesopotamia. But democracy is not native to those latitudes. Nor does it adapt readily, if at all, to a culture that has never known it. That dream is as dead as Woodrow Wilson's after the war that was going to end all wars. Let's hope this was just a rhetorical flourish on Mr. Bush's part. One fears he believes it.

Hope is a powerful weapon in any war, but encouraging vain hopes only leads to disappointment, demoralization and then defeat. See those endless pep talks full of democratic vistas that Lyndon Johnson used to give the country in the midst of the late and nigh-endless unpleasantness in Vietnam.

Did LBJ even believe them himself after a while?

Happily, this president was changing not just the number of troops committed to Iraq, but the way they're used.

In this country's own civil war, Abraham Lincoln retained his secretary of war, the loyal Stanton, from almost first to the very last - but changed generals after every Union defeat. And there was a whole, crushing succession of them. So out went McClellan, and Pope, and then McClellan again, followed by Burnside, and "Fighting" Joe Hooker. After Gettysburg, Meade was kicked upstairs (for winning but not decisively) until Lincoln finally found Grant.

This president finally jettisoned his secretary of defense - Donald Rumsfeld, with all his ideas about fighting a war lite - but he has stayed with the same, unsuccessful generals too long. Has he found his Grant in David Petraeus, who wrote the book (literally) on counter-insurgency?

Let's hope so, but victory will take a willing partner in Iraq's own shaky regime. Is its current prime minister serious about controlling the Shi'ite death squads that have stalked Baghdad? Nouri al-Maliki says so, but he's said a lot of things. Meanwhile, Iraq splinters. And nothing may be able to reverse the process.

Americans should be prepared to accept the break-up of Iraq into three largely autonomous regions - Kurdistan, the other and better Iraq to the north and west; a Shi'ite state centered on Baghdad and Basra; and the Sunnis stewing in their own juices in their bloody triangle.

It's already happening, like the partition of India between Hindu and Muslim in the last days of the British Raj. The least this country can do is try to provide safe passage to refugee families trying to get to their respective parts of Iraq.

A unified Iraq is one more dream that George W. Bush must be prepared to relinquish if it gets in the way of achieving his objective: a peaceful, secure Iraq that is an ally, not a threat.

The president touched only lightly on the front where this war will be won or lost, and, as in Iraq, is now being lost: the home front.

Only if the hope he offered Wednesday night turns out to be realistic can he overcome his opposition at home with its rage for failure in Iraq, which would justify its opposition to this war. Right now it's surging.