Fri, Dec 22, 2006 - Page 7 News List

White House semantics on Iraq blur objectives


First there was the "mission accomplished" banner.

Then, last year, there was a "plan for victory" and, just this past October, the presidential assertion, "Absolutely, we're winning."

Now that US President George W. Bush is seeking "a new way forward" in Iraq, he is embracing a new verbal construction to describe progress there: "We're not winning. We're not losing."

The latest shift in the official language begs the question: Well, which is it? A tie? A draw? Something else?

Bush essentially endorsed the not-winning-not-losing assessment in an interview with the Washington Post on Tuesday by way of attributing it to General Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. When asked if the US was winning in Iraq, Bush said, "An interesting construct that General Pace uses is `We're not winning; we're not losing.'"

To those who closely follow the president's rhetoric on the war, the answer was something of a dodge.

"This is pretty weak, but they have pretty weak material to work with at this point," said Christopher Gelpi, a political scientist at Duke University whose research on public opinion and the war has been studied by the administration.

"He's in a difficult rhetorical situation because he stuck so long with the `we're making progress' argument, yet clearly he does finally understand this is his last chance to make a major policy correction in Iraq," he said

At his news conference on Wednesday Bush was emphatic that victory in Iraq was achievable and that winning was what he had in mind even when he referred to Pace's remarks.

Yet, by the generally accepted David-versus-Goliath rules of counterinsurgencies, the insurgents are winning so long as the counterinsurgents are not.

"The basic theory of counterinsurgency warfare is that the defenders must demonstrate momentum toward victory or success," said Loren Thompson, an analyst at the Lexington Institute, a military policy organization in Virginia. "If you can't prove you are making progress then by definition you are losing."

White House officials say that in this war there are insurgents attacking other insurgents as well as counterinsurgents; there are terrorists, armed gangsters and an occupying force -- the US-led coalition -- all fighting each other, too, and so the usual rules and definitions do not apply.

In short: a dizzying mix of forces in Iraq has resulted in a dizzying mix of definitions of winning and losing as the administration has sought to recalibrate expectations for a public that was initially promised a swift victory and now just seems to want to hear it straight.

"When they say, `We're not winning; we're not losing,' that's just being realistic," said William Safire, whose column, "On Language," appears in the New York Times Magazine.

"And `realistic' is a word that's being kicked around now," he said.

This week began with a debate over what former secretary of state Colin Powell meant when he said on Face the Nation on Sunday, partly quoting the Iraq Study Group report.

"So if it's grave and deteriorating and we're not winning, we are losing," Powell said.

"Look, what Colin Powell is saying, `We're not winning, so therefore we must be losing,'" White House spokesman Tony Snow said.

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