In 'Victory,' Both Power and Peril ; the Word Now Peppers Bush's Speeches on Iraq - by Design

By Peter Grier writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, December 9, 2005 | Go to article overview

In 'Victory,' Both Power and Peril ; the Word Now Peppers Bush's Speeches on Iraq - by Design


Peter Grier writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


If there is one word the White House wants the American public to associate with the war in Iraq, it is probably "victory." President Bush said it 11 times Wednesday in his speech on rebuilding Iraq - following victory's 15 mentions in his address on the training of Iraqi forces last week.

From the administration's point of view, the benefits of this rhetorical approach are obvious. As a theme, victory is positive, even uplifting. It might serve to counter any public impression that the US is stuck in an Iraqi morass.

But the Bush team's definition of what would constitute victory in Iraq remains fuzzy, say critics. And in using such a powerful word - especially in phrases such as "complete victory" - US officials may have set themselves a dauntingly high goal. As the president himself has said, the nature of the Iraqi conflict means it won't end, as World War II did, with the finality of a signing ceremony on the deck of a US battleship.

"Ending any war is hard," says Lee Feinstein, executive director of the Task Force Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. "He'd have been better off to say, 'We'll leave Iraq better than we found it.' "

The sudden prominence of victory as a central part of the administration's discourse regarding Iraq probably isn't the result of a speech writer's whim. Duke University political scientist Peter Feaver has long insisted that the support of the American public for any war depends crucially on whether they think it will succeed - and Dr. Feaver recently joined the White House staff as a special adviser.

In fact, an electronic signature shows that Feaver created the computer file for "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq," posted Nov. 30 on the White House website, according to The New York Times.

The core of the argument made by Feaver and his colleagues at Duke is that polling shows US voters aren't affected by rising war casualties if they expect the war in question to result in a US victory.

"When the public thinks victory is not likely, even small [casualty] costs will be highly corrosive," says a June 2005 paper by Feaver and fellow Duke political scientists Christopher Gelpi and Jason Reifler.

Not all polling experts accept this conclusion. Even if the thesis is correct, other critics say, the public needs more than rhetoric to believe in eventual triumph.

The problem with Iraq isn't that the administration hasn't been talking about victory enough, says Ivo Daalder, senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution. It's the continued strength of the insurgency.

"If rhetoric doesn't match what's happening on the ground, then the rhetoric will be discounted," says Mr. …

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