Decoding the War

What those soundbites really mean


A conflict which started out under one doozy of a loaded phrase is mature enough now to have spawned a small dictionary of rhetorical shorthand. For every question raised about the Iraq war—from how long the United States will stay in Iraq to who will be there with us—decisionmakers from President George Bush on down the chain of command have come up with a handy phrase or two. Some of these concepts have grown a little ragged. A quick primer on the big ones, what they say and what they mean:

As Long as it Takes: On or before August 2004. There is absolutely no way Karl Rove lets Dubya hit the podium at the GOP convention in New York City without some tangible sign that Iraq is firmly in the win column. The early returns from Baghdad will carry more electoral oomph than just about any issue left out there for two reasons.

First, the economy, while not roaring along in like a day trader with a new margin account circa 1998, no longer looks downright gloomy. That removes a big worry for any incumbent.

Second, with Bush having inoculated himself on the social issue front with the partial birth abortion stuff, the only possible trouble he could face with his conservative base would be war-related. Criticism that Bush has gone soft following a string of bad outcomes on the ground is unlikely, but it will remain something completely outside the control of the campaign. Hence, it is a worry.

Iraqi Governing Council: Losers. Paul Bremer ran back to Washington essentially to pull the rug out from under this group. Make no mistake, the U.S. has been forced to replace the Council well ahead of schedule. The idea was for the Council to bridge the way toward an elected Iraqi government, taking control of internal security and rebuilding civil society.

But the insurgent assassination campaign has been wildly successful in convincing Iraqis to keep their distance from Coalition activities. As a result, the Council has shouldered very little of the day-to-day running of country, to the considerable consternation of Bremer.

Watch the Council disappear down the memory hole in the coming months.

Operation Iron Hammer: Son of Shock and Awe. Although there seems to be at least some specific tactical use for really big ordnance in Iraq, the strategic goal seems to simply be to remind Iraqis that the U.S. can cause really big explosions.

The use of artillery, tanks, and attack aircraft had been shelved due to the large potential for civilian casualties in built-up areas. Now that risk has been deemed less important than regaining the initiative from an insurgency which was rapidly beginning to operate with impunity and—this is important—outside the so-called Sunni Triangle.

Winning Militarily: I Hate This. This phrase has cropped up more and more in soldier-speak about the conflict. Whether it is Gen. John Abizaid or some NCO, the clear implication is that they are doing their jobs, but the rest of the operation is for shit.

This kind of talk bears watching as it is something smart Democrats—an oxymoron?—could pick up on to critique Bush administration operations in Iraq without seeming to be unpatriotic.

Coalition of the Willing: Us and the Brits. Oh, sure the Poles are in there swinging, but this is nothing like the multinational peacekeeping effort Washington envisioned. Japan was always a dicey proposition, but the thought was that a small contingent would be an important psychological barrier to cross on the way to getting Tokyo to shoulder more of its own defenses (see North Korea: Nutjob.)

However, the attack on the Italians punctured the notion that only forces in the field would be targets of attack. The U.S. had strongly suggested that units "only" engaged in policing would not have to face the fury of the Ba'athists or the Army of Mohammed or whomever.

Now, not even the Turks want any part of duty in Iraq. If they have to slip across the border to kill Kurds they'll do that, but even this possibility has sort of worked itself out with U.S. forces getting in on the act.

One catch phrase that has yet to crystallize, but surely will, is some way to convey that the U.S. is reducing its footprint in Iraq. The administration has already noted that there are now as many Iraqis under arms in their country as Americans. It'll be called "Coalition force ratio" or something that will allow for a big number to be made progressively smaller. Look for it in the spring around the time of the next big troop rotation. And the presidential primaries.