Zigging and Zagging on Cutting and Running

No Exit

The Bush administration's use of the term "cut and run" to caricature opponents of the war in Iraq is yet another example of the attention that America's war party pays to rhetorical repetition and linguistic framing at the expense of realistic discourse and analysis. Bush himself has taken to using this catchprase repeatedly. At a recent speech in Birmingham, Alabama, he declared that "The party of FDR, the party of Harry Truman, has become the party of cut-and-run." He repeated the charge a few days later, at a political fundraising breakfast for California Congressman Richard Pombo. "The Democrats are the party of cut and run," he said. "Ours is a party that has got a clear vision and says we will give our commanders and troops the support necessary to achieve that victory in Iraq."

Bush's speech prompted former White House correspondent John Dickerson to observe that "Bush's political speech undermines his diplomacy." He pointed out that Bush's rhetoric coincided with a surprise visit by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Iraq where she announced that Iraqis "don't have time for endless debate" of the country's escalating problems, a statement that was widely interpreted as a warning that the Bush administration itself might be planning to withdraw from Iraq if the government there fails to make progress. "Her message to Iraqi leaders had a hard truth at its core: If you don't make more progress faster, we're out of here," Dickerson wrote. "American Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad uses this stick in his negotiations every day." But it is inconsistent, he added, to be "defining withdrawal one way in the political sphere and another way in the diplomatic one."

In fact, the term "cut and run" is misleading in several respects. First, it suggests that ending the U.S. occupation of Iraq would be "running away" from something. "What it says is, 'You're a coward,' and moreover it presupposes that the opposite is to stand and fight," observes linguist George Lakoff. Secondly, the word "cut" suggests a hasty, desperate act. The term "cut and run" began in the 1700s as nautical language for a swift retreat, when sailors would cut the anchor chain and flee an attacking ship without waiting to weigh anchor. This imagery of panicked flight misrepresents the actual positions that have been taken by even the strongest opponents of the Iraqi occupation, who have called in fact for a "timeframe for the withdrawal of US troops, so that we can provide some clarity with regard to our intentions" (in the words of Senator Russ Feingold), or for "redeployment" out from Iraq at the "earliest practicable date" (in the words of Representative John Murtha).

What is most misleading of all, though, is the way the Bush administration and the Pentagon have used the rhetoric of "cut and run" to sound tough about "staying the course," while simultaneously floating suggestions that they themselves are actually planning to withdraw troops from Iraq in the near future.

Example: When Murtha first began publicly calling for redeployment from Iraq, supporters of the war instantly accused him of cutting and running. Simultaneously, though, General George Casey submitted a proposal to Donald Rumsfeld — duly passed on to reporters — outlining a supposed plan to withdraw troops beginning in early 2006.

That same week, Condoleezza Rice told CNN, "I suspect that American forces are not going to be needed in the numbers that they're there for all that much longer, because Iraqis are continuing to make progress in function, not just in numbers, but in their capabilities to do certain functions," Rice said, adding that "the number of coalition forces is clearly going to come down because Iraqis are making it possible now to do those functions themselves."

The following day, the Washington Post reported hearing from "several senior military officers" who said, "Barring any major surprises in Iraq, the Pentagon tentatively plans to reduce the number of U.S. forces there early next year [2006] by as many as three combat brigades, from 18 now, but to keep at least one brigade 'on call' in Kuwait in case more troops are needed quickly" and "Pentagon authorities also have set a series of 'decision points' during 2006 to consider further force cuts that, under a 'moderately optimistic' scenario, would drop the total number of troops from more than 150,000 now to fewer than 100,000, including 10 combat brigades, by the end of the year."

These "plans" for troop drawdowns were so persuasive to gullible Bush supporters that some — such as one former public affairs officer for the army — even began speculating that Democrats were trying to take credit for the Bush administration's soon-to-be-realized success in winding down the war:

It's no coincidence that the Democrats have raised their voices so loudly just before the Pentagon was ready to announce these withdrawals. … So, knowing that the plan was to redeploy troops beginning next year, the Democrats decided to get in front of the wave: Demand the troops be sent home NOW and then when the Pentagon announces the plan to redeploy, take credit for it.

In fact, though, the Bush administration has been leaking "plans" for troop reductions so frequently that anytime someone brings up the subject, the discussion will probably "coincide" with some new announcement. The first notable announcement along these lines occurred in October 2003, less than nine months into the war, when the Washington Post reported that "U.S. military commanders have developed a plan to steadily cut back troop levels in Iraq next year ... cutting the number of troops to fewer than 100,000 by next summer and then to 50,000 by mid-2005." It quoted top-level government and millitary officials who said plans were underway to pull out U.S. and British forces from "some major Iraqi cities" including Basra in the south and Mosul in the north, which "might be followed by a withdrawal from some 'well-policed' neighborhoods in Baghdad." According to Eliot Cohen, an advisor on the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, "American troops will stay on the offensive -- just smaller numbers, rather than big sweeps."

Reports of imminent troop drawdowns have occurred since with remarkable frequency. Here's a brief chronology, just covering the past year and a half, of the timeline to no timeline:

April 2005

New York Times reporter Eric Schmitt interviewed "senior commanders and Pentagon officials" who told him that "the American-led military campaign in Iraq is making enough progress in fighting insurgents and training Iraqi security forces to allow the Pentagon to plan for significant troop reductions by early next year."

"We're on track," said General Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

June 2005

"I'm confident that we'll be able to continue to take reductions over the course of this year," stated General George W. Casey, Jr., the commander of U.S.-led forces in Iraq, as he stood alongside Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at a June 22 news conference. His confidence, he said, came from improvements in "the security situation and the progress of the Iraqi security forces." Casey added, though, that he opposed setting a timetable for withdrawal of troops. "I feel it would limit my flexibility," he said. "I think it would give the enemy a fixed timetable, and I think it would send a terrible signal to a new government of national unity in Iraq that's trying to stand up and get its legs underneath it."

July-August 2005

Newspapers reported the contents of a leaked "secret" memo written by British Defense Secretary John Reid, stating that the "United States and Britain are drawing up plans to withdraw the majority of their troops from Iraq by the middle of next year" and estimating that this would mean "a reduction in overall U.S.-led forces in Iraq to 66,000 troops."

As July turned into August, Newsweek dutifully reported on "the Pentagon's secret plans," crediting Donald Rumsfeld as the planner behind "drastic troop cuts" that would "scale down the U.S. troop presence in Iraq to about 80,000 by mid-2006 and down to 40,000 to 60,000 troops by the end of that year."

November 2005

John Murtha publicly began calling for withdrawing troops on November 17, followed a day later by reports that General Casey had just submitted a proposal for troop cuts to Donald Rumsfeld. (See details above.)

December 2005-January 2006

A U.S. Department of Defense news release on December 23 announced plans for troop drawdowns that "will likely reduce the forces in Iraq by the Spring of 2006 below the 138,000 baseline. This decision follows the demonstrated capabilities of Iraqi Security Forces in establishing primary security conditions in the recent Iraqi elections. Continued success in the handover of security responsibilities is making this U.S. force adjustment possible."

"The commanders have recently determined that we can reduce our combat forces in Iraq from 17 to 15 brigades," Bush said on January 4. "This adjustment will result in a net decrease of several thousand troops below the pre-election base line of 138,000 U.S. troops in Iraq." The reason the force levels can be reduced, he said, was "because the Iraqis are more capable" and the U.S. mission this year "is to continue to hand over more and more territory and more and more responsibility to Iraqi forces."

April 2006

ABC News used the headline "Pentagon: Iraq Troop Reductions on the Way" to herald the latest promise from Casey and Pentagon planners that they would pull out more than 30,000 troops by as early as November.

June 2006

Casey responded to a Democratic plan for "gradual withdrawal" by saying it would "limit my flexibility" and "send a terrible signal." A few days later, though, the New York Times dutifully reported on Casey's own timeline for gradual withdrawal, calling it "a plan that projects sharp reductions in the United States military presence there by the end of 2007, with the first cuts coming this September." According to the Washington Post report on Casey's latest secret plan, "The widespread expectation inside the Army is that the U.S. presence will be cut to about 100,000 by the end of this year, with further reductions in 2007 to perhaps 50,000 to 75,000."

September 2006

General John Abizaid said that the number of American forces in Iraq cannot be reduced anytime in the foreseeable future, telling reporters that the current level of 147,000 soldiers "will probably have to be sustained through the spring, and then we'll evaluate." Abizaid added that even more troops might be sent in, if "the military situation on the ground requires that."

A week later, the Pentagon announced that it was delaying the departure of thousands of soldiers from Iraq while sending in another brigade a month earlier than than previously scheduled, in order to maintain troop levels for an occupation whose forces are already stretched thin.

This chronology suggests a question that ought to be raised the next time someone from the Bush administration objects to setting a timeline for troop withdrawals: What, specifically, is the difference between a "plan" and a "timeline"? In the examples I have listed above, White House and Pentagon officials have been perfectly willing to talk publicly about "plans" for troop drawdowns that involve specific numbers and target dates. Isn't that a timeline? Or does the difference between a "plan" and a "timeline" consist merely in the fact that none of the previously-announced "plans" bears any resemblance to what has actually happened in reality?

Unfortunately, Democratic fecklessness has enabled the Bush administration to have it both ways. While some Democrats, such as Murtha and Feingold, have clearly articulated a position in support of ending the occupation of Iraq, many others — most notably, Hillary Rodham Clinton — continue to oppose a timeline for withdrawal. In 2002, half of the Democrats in Congress voted to authorize Bush to go to war. In 2004, presidential candidate John Kerry's strategy of criticizing the war while declining to call for withdrawal helped the Bush campaign paint him as a "flip-flopper." The same problem is likely to bedevil Democrats in this year's elections. Recent Gallup surveys show that Iraq is the most important issue on voters' minds, and only 36 percent of Americans believe that Bush has a plan for Iraq. However, only 25 percent believe that the Democrats in Congress have a plan.

"It may not be sufficient to assume that unease with Republicans' handling the issue is enough to convince voters to elect Democrats in their place," observes Gallup analyst Jeffrey M. Jones. "Without a clear plan to demonstrate how they would do things differently, or, more importantly, the perception that they have a plan, Democrats remain vulnerable to the criticism that they would be no better, or perhaps worse, than Republicans on Iraq."

Ending the occupation is a plan, and moreover it is the only plan that would clearly separate Democrats from Republicans in the minds of voters. The recent assessment by U.S. intelligence agencies makes it clear that the war in Iraq is making terrorism worse and that the Feingold/Murtha positions are the reality-based approaches necessary to stop pouring gasoline on the jihadist fire. They also happen to be the positions that would give Democrats their best shot at success in this year's elections. The American people — and the people of Iraq as well — have largely realized already that the question is not whether to cut and run, but how to cut our losses. This conclusion may still seem rather radical to the politicians and pundits in Washington, but for most people, it's just common sense.