Engelhardt and Turse, The Bush Administration’s Fighting Words

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Fighting Words
An 11-Quote Quiz on the Bush Administration’s War of Words
By Tom Engelhardt and Nick Turse

From “mission accomplished” through those endless “turning points” and “tipping points” up to the “brink” of “the abyss” and “the precipice,” and back again, American officials, military and civilian, in Baghdad and Washington, have never spared the images or the analogies. (Do you remember when our President and Secretary of Defense, for instance, were eagerly talking about taking those “training wheels” off the Iraqi “bicycle” and letting the Iraqi child pedal on his own into Democracy-land?) Reality be damned, they’ve had a remarkable way, over the last four years, of turning phrases and pretzeling language to suit their needs and the needs of a war that existed largely in their imaginations rather than on the ground. In recent months, backs against the verbal wall, these spinmeisters have begun spinning ever more wildly — mixing metaphors, grasping at rhetorical straws, and stretching credulity at every turn, if not turning point.

In an effort to analyze this latest surge of sophistry — a war of words always fought with the “home front” in mind — we’ve come up with a short quiz that places genuine quotes from actual military commanders and Washington officials alongside quotes we’ve spun from our own questionable brains. We challenge you to pick the real ones. Did an American general in Iraq liken the situation there to a pogo stick, a teeter-totter, a slinky, or a jungle gym? It’s your choice. Did George Tenet’s “slam dunk” line inspire current Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to use basketball analogies, when speaking of “security” in the Middle East, or did he flee to the football field of life?

Take this TomDispatch quiz and see if you can guess which quotes are too wild, or not wild enough, for the battling bureaucrats of the Bush administration. Let’s start with a warm-up round:

1. At his January confirmation hearings, General David Petraeus, readying himself to command the President’s “troop surge” in Baghdad and al-Anbar Province, promised to offer Congress periodic reports on how the plan was proceeding. No dates were offered. Within months, however, this vague promise had morphed into a specific September report to Congress and has now become a focus of endless, near-obsessional media attention and questions.

Is this September report regularly referred to as:

A. A Disaster Report

B. A Regress Report

C. A Baghdad Report

D. A Progress Report

The answer, of course, is D. And now that “victory” — a word the President once used 15 times in a single speech — has left the administration’s fighting language, think of “progress” as the second team of words. No matter how badly things are going, “progress” (or its lack) remains the frame of reference for U.S. officials — and for reporters asking questions. Typically, in a May 31st press briefing, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, Petraeus’s second-in-command in Baghdad, and the reporters questioning him, managed to use the word no less than 23 times. (“We’ve made some very clear progress…. Anbar’s economic and political progress…. But progress has been made…. Every day we are making progress”)

Now, let’s make the questions just a tad harder.

2. Spokesman for the American military command in Iraq, Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner, was recently asked about “progress” in the “Baghdad security situation.” He responded:

A. “Progress will not be like flipping a light switch — it will be gradual, it will be nuanced, it will be subtle.”

B. “Progress is going to seem like a balky jeep. It will stall, it will kick, but sooner or later it will lurch forward.”

C. “Progress isn’t like a faucet. You can’t just turn it on and get hot water.”

D. “Progress will not be like a cruise missile. You can’t just fire and forget.”

The answer is A — and, by the way, General Bergner, the last one out of Baghdad, please turn off the lights. (Oh, sorry, we never got them on in the first place.)

Now, here’s your next puzzler and it’s you against the mob.

3. Another reporter with “progress” on the brain recently asked Secretary of Defense Robert Gates whether “the pace of progress [in Iraq] is sufficient or whether in fact it looks to you like the surge will have to last longer.”

Gates responded with which of these images?

A. “I don’t think that the goalpost has changed, really, at all.”

B. “I think it’s all still in the same ball park.”

C. “There is a Baghdad clock and there is a Washington clock, and the people in Washington are also going to have to take into account the Washington clock…. Our military commanders should not have to worry about the Washington clock. That’s for us in Washington to worry about.”

If you guessed A, congratulations, you’re right! Of course, if you guessed either B or C, you’re still right. Gates used them all in the same press briefing on the same subject.

4. Actually, our Secretary of Defense seems to love sports imagery. Recently, explaining why a “long-term U.S. military presence” in the oil heartlands of the planet was crucial, Gates used which of the following sports analogies?

A. “It’s important to remember that the September re-assessment is only the seventh-inning stretch, not the bottom of the ninth. Using the Korea model as a guide, we might even go into extra innings. We might be in Iraq until at least the bottom of the 15th.”

B. “It’s important to defend this country on the extremists’ 10-yard line and not our 10-yard line”

C. “It’s important for Team USA to win on the road in Iraq and Afghanistan — and we can’t allow the Bin Laden blitz to get into our backfield again.”

D. “It’s important for the insurgents to learn that we’re the Harlem Globetrotters and they’re the Washington Generals. I mean, of course they’re not the literally the Washington Generals. My generals are the Washington generals, but also the Globetrotters. Well, you know what I mean.”

By a process of elimination, you should have quickly reduced this foursome to a twosome. Neither baseball, nor basketball is smash-mouth enough for the Global Analogy-War against Terrorism and, in any case, for America’s top officials, football has always been war (and vice-versa). So the answer is B.

5. And how about our military surge leader, General Petraeus, in Baghdad? He’s been fretting about progress too. But what image did he reach for to make his point?

A. “We’re in a horse race now. And our horse in Baghdad is simply slower than Washington’s. We better figure out how to spike its oats fast.”

B. “I learned at Princeton that there are many ways to measure progress. As you know you can actually progress backward, and backward progress is progress just the same. The important thing is to keep progressing, whether forward or backward, which we are doing, and in doing so we’re showing the terrorists we’re making progress and that, in itself, is progress.”

C. “Clearly, we’re in the pit and Washington’s the pendulum and we better figure out how to climb out quick before the next IED goes off.”

D. “We’re racing against the clock, certainly. We’re racing against the Washington clock, the London clock, a variety of other timepieces up there, and we’ve got to figure out how to speed up the Baghdad clock.”

Since these turn out to be the months of onrushing clock analogies, if you guessed D, you’re ticking right along. General Petraeus was evidently the first one to wind up that clock image and set the alarm. It now has all Washington on the clock.

6. U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad Lt. Col. Christopher C. Garver, facing the news that, according to the Washington Post, “May was the third-deadliest month for American troops in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, and the casualties reported over the past few days indicate that the insurgency shows no sign of abating,” had what response?

A. “The road to ruin is paved with cement.”

B. “When the tough get going, the going gets easier.”

C. “This is going to get harder before it gets easier.”

D. “This is going to get harder before it gets harder.”

Given the history of the last four years in Iraq, the answer to this one, hands down, should be D. But reality and history are so overrated! If you guessed C, you were right on the mark. (By the way, few of the examples in this quiz are unique. For instance, just a couple of days after Garver made his comment, Deputy Director for Regional Operations, Joint Chiefs of Staff Brig. Gen. Perry Wiggins said of the surge at a Pentagon news briefing: “So, you know, it’s going to get harder before we make it — or it gets any easier.”)

7. In that same May 31st press briefing, General Odierno (his official title is: Commander, Multinational Corps-Iraq) was asked the following question: “General, it’s Lolita Baldor with the Associated Press. You started out talking about some of the progress but also suggesting that it may take 60 to 90 days before you can see what impact the surge is having. At that pace, do you think you will be able to make an assessment within that 60-day window or do you think it’s going to take longer to assess whether or not the surge is having an impact?”

Odierno responded with which play analogy?

A. “It’s kind of like a jungle gym. Lose your grip past the turning point and you’re likely to fall and hit your head on the ground.”

B. “It’s kind of like a teeter-totter; you work your way up the teeter-totter, and when you go past the tipping point, it happens very quickly, and we’ve seen that out in Anbar.”

C. “It’s kind of like a pogo stick. What goes up must come down — and vice-versa. We’ve experienced this in Baghdad.”

D. “It’s kind of like a slinky. A surge begins slowly but as it walks downstairs sooner or later it just springs toward the bottom.”

The correct answer is: B. It seems the official pre-September surge assessment is that we’re on a Baghdad teeter-totter, though our guess is that neighborhood playgrounds in the Iraqi capital aren’t much in use these days.

8. Okay, let’s up the ante here with a two-part question. One aspect of the President’s “surge plan” turns out to involve the hope that the enemy’s counter-surge will smash right into a wall. Literally. The U.S. military has been making plans to build giant walls around whole troubled neighborhoods in the Iraqi capital. Think of giant, grey slabs of concrete going up around your neighborhood. What kind of place, according to the military, do you now live in?

A. A terrarium

B. A prison

C. A gated community

D. A strategic hamlet

If it were 40+ years ago and the setting were Vietnam, D would be the correct euphemism, but today the answer is C naturally. Just like in Southern California! And who wouldn’t want to be part of such an obviously upscale living arrangement?

Of course, you can’t account for the tastes of foreigners. Strangely enough, when the first wall started going up around the Sunni community of Adhamiyah, people objected vociferously, leaving surge types somewhat on the defensive. When pressed on the subject recently, how did Dr. David Kilcullen, an Australian counterterrorism expert whose current position is Senior Counterinsurgency Adviser to General Petraeus (and who also likes to term such walled-in, embattled communities “gated”) sum up the ongoing project?

A. “It’s something you do when a patient is bleeding to death. But you don’t leave it there forever or it causes damage.”

B. “Good fences make good neighbors.”

C. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”

D. “Before I built a wall, I’d ask to know what I was walling in and walling out.”

Yes, indeed, the answer is A. Dr. Kilcullen likes to think of these walls as “tourniquets” applied to bleeding Iraq. And you guessed it, the other three lines come from Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall.”

9. Here’s another two-parter. On Friday, Secretary of Defense Gates announced that he was not nominating Marine General Peter Pace to a second term as head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff because he thought the congressional confirmation process would be “quite contentious” and possibly a “divisive ordeal.” Instead, he picked Admiral Michael G. Mullen, whose record and views, he implied, would smooth the Congressional waters. What, then, has Adm. Mullen had to say about the President’s Global War on Terror?

A. “I may be a Navy admiral, but I don’t see us up to our eyeballs in millions of terrorists for a generation. I think this has all been overblown.”

B. “Now is the time for sane policies that reflect a realistic assessment of the situation. With all due respect, I think we need a change of course and a fresh approach.”

C. “Look, we can’t go off half-cocked calling people ‘evil’ and saying they hate us or they hate our freedom and democratic principles. Overblown rhetoric like that is unsophisticated, uninformed and won’t do anything for us.”

D. “The enemy now is basically evil and fundamentally hates everything we are — the democratic principles for which we stand…. This war is going to go on for a long time. It’s a generational war.”

The answer is a hair-raising D.

Now for part 2: If you are one of the country’s major newspapers — yes, we’re speaking of our hometown rag, the New York Times — what do you label the admiral?

A. An Ideologue

B. An extremist

C. A pragmatist

D. A warmonger

It’s C, naturally. (The paper’s headline read: “Nominee for Joint Chiefs Is Called a Pragmatist.”)

10. And how long will that “long war,” which the admiral so likes to talk about, actually take? Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice evidently glanced at her own curious version of a clock the other day, and then addressed this question at a meeting with the Associated Press editorial board. Which of the following did she say?

A. “And I think that what this President has done is in some ways comparable to beginning to set up the long struggle that we are going to have to resolve, particularly the problem of the growth of extremism in the Middle East, which was clearly there underneath the surface and exploded on September 11th so that we finally knew what the real problem was.”

B. “Now, will we see the end of all of this? Maybe not. But when you’re confronted with a fundamentally changed strategic set of circumstances, you can try to put band-aids on it or you can say we’re going to have to deal with the root problems here and it may take a long time and it may take successive administrations to succeed.”

C. “But we know what we have to put in place so that successive administrations can succeed, and you don’t get there by covering the problems or trying to find a temporary solution to them that isn’t worth the paper that it’s written on.”

D. “We’re here at the beginning of a big historic transformation, and some of them may still work out on our watch and some of them may not. But now if you — if you — with all due respect, if you try to judge what you should do by today’s headlines, you miss the fact that history’s judgment is rarely the same as today’s headlines.”

If you guessed A, B, C, and D, all said practically in a single breath, you were 100% correct. It took Condi a bare few minutes with the AP editorial board to extend the last six years of mayhem and catastrophe another easy 12-20 years into the future (“successive administrations”). So it turns out that, while Secretary of Defense Gates and General Petraeus are looking at clocks whose second and minute hands are speeding along far too fast for their taste, the new head of the Joint Chiefs and our Secretary of State have timepieces whose minutes pass in weeks, hours in months, and days in years.

11. When discussing American efforts to arm Sunni groups who now claim they are willing to fight al-Qaeda, what did Major General Rick Lynch, commander of the Third Infantry Division, recently say?

A. “We don’t negotiate with terrorists, but sometimes we renegotiate who we call terrorists.”

B. “This isn’t a black and white place. There are good guys and bad guys and there are groups in between.”

C. “You see… in this war, things get confused out there–power, ideals, the old morality and practical military necessity.”

D. “We’ve had good success in operations like this before. Look at Afghanistan in the 80s. We armed Sunnis to fight the Soviets and we ultimately won that one. Imagine what we can produce by getting behind Sunni fighters in Iraq today!”

If you thought you could imagine an Army general intoning answer C, there’s a reason. The line comes from the fictional General Corman in the film Apocalypse Now. The real answer is B. One wonders, however, how such thinking fits with the strict dichotomy of good and evil proffered by the likes of Admiral Mullen and Vice President Dick Cheney who, as it happens, is the subject of our bonus challenge.

Bonus Challenge: The ever-stalwart Dick (in the throes of being) Cheney recently got up before the graduating class at West Point and said, in part:

D. “The terrorists know what they want and they will stop at nothing to get it…. Their ultimate goal is to establish a totalitarian empire, a caliphate, with Baghdad as its capital. They view the world as a battlefield and they yearn to hit us again. And now they have chosen to make Iraq the central front in their war against civilization…. They are surging their capabilities, attacking Iraqi and American forces, and killing innocent civilians. America is fighting this enemy in Iraq because that is where they have gathered. We are there because, after 9/11, we decided to deny terrorists any safe haven.”

Didn’t he mean that, in Iraq, “we decided to deny terrorists any unsafe haven?” Anyway, yes, the answer is D. Now, it’s up to you to create your own A, B, and C. Can you top Dick’s “war against civilization”? Can you match him image for rabid image? Give it a shot.

After all, why should administration officials and military spokesmen be the only ones to run wild, guns cocked, in the fields of imagery, spraying everything in sight? Just remember though: When you’re done, close the playground gate, shut down the ballpark, turn off the alarm on your clock, and turn out those lights. If you don’t, I guarantee you, they won’t.

Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s, is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews with American Iconoclasts and Dissenters.

Nick Turse is the associate editor and research director of He has written for the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Nation, the Village Voice, and regularly for TomDispatch.

Copyright 2007 Tom Engelhardt and Nick Turse