The most recent USA Today/Gallup poll indicates that 55% of Americans think things in Iraq are “out of control,” and a similar majority favors withdrawing all U.S. troops from the country either immediately or within a year. This explains why George Bush’s favorite slogan – ‘stay the course’ – has been tossed into the trash bin of political rhetoric. Now the president and his image makers are hoping that their new number one slogan – ‘victory in Iraq’ – will forestall what pundits foresee as an election likely to transfer control of at least one house of Congress to the Democrats.
This isn’t the first time that “victory” has become Bush’s catchphrase of the moment. Sheldon Rampton and I examined the PR behind his use of the term in our recent book, The Best War Ever: Lies, Damned Lies and the Mess in Iraq. Here’s an excerpt:
It was the Sunday before Thanksgiving 2005, and President George W. Bush rolled out the ‘victory’ theme when he delivered a speech to cadets at the United States Naval Academy. The podium stood flanked by posters that featured the phrase “Plan for Victory” in faux-embossed gold letters against a blue backdrop and the official seal of the academy. Behind him, the words “Plan for Victory” were repeated again on a large banner. The word “victory” was repeated fifteen times in the speech itself, and also figured prominently in an accompanying National Security Council document released by the White House to the press, titled National Strategy for Victory in Iraq.
Bush’s speech to cadets was the first in a series of five speeches aimed at countering charges that the war was going badly, delivered at a time when his popularity in opinion polls had fallen for the first time to about 40 percent. Each speech was presented to a carefully chosen sympathetic audience, and the president took no questions afterward.
“Victory,” of course, is something that every nation proclaims as the objective when it goes to war (although, inevitably, war ends in defeat or mutual ruination for most nations that engage in it). Bush’s talk of victory in 2005, however, actually marked a retreat of sorts for a president who had declared “mission accomplished” two and a half years earlier. In a speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in May 2003, Bush had told an audience of cheering troops that the United States could celebrate an “end” to “major combat operations in Iraq.” By contrast, his victory speeches at the end of 2005 were intended to shore up public opinion in the face of the indisputable fact that an end to combat was nowhere in sight.
The theme of “victory” was chosen, in fact, at the advice of Peter D. Feaver, a Duke University political scientist who had joined the National Security Council as a special adviser. Feaver’s research at Duke focused on a problem he called “casualty aversion” or “casualty phobia” – his terms for the negative attitudes that Americans develop upon seeing their soldiers killed in war. He had analyzed opinion polls showing that public support for the war was slipping. Conventional wisdom suggested that the growing death toll and economic costs of the war were the reasons for the change in public opinion, but Feaver believed that this was only part of the story. According to the New York Times, he was recruited by the White House “after he and Duke colleagues presented to administration officials their analysis of polls about the Iraq war in 2003 and 2004. They concluded that Americans would support a war with mounting casualties on one condition: that they believe it would ultimately succeed.”
Bush’s relentless repetition of the word “victory” was therefore part of a rhetorical strategy designed to extract further sacrifices from an increasingly jaundiced country. But aside from the word itself, Bush offered no definition of what “victory” meant, let alone a timetable for achieving it. To the contrary, the administration expressly rejected the idea of such a timetable. “We will not put a date certain on when each stage of success will be reached,” stated the National Strategy for Victory in Iraq, “because the timing of success depends upon meeting certain conditions, not arbitrary timetables.” The document was scattered with phrases such as “failure is not an option” and “our strategy for victory is clear,” but the only time frames proposed for achieving U.S. objectives were virtually meaningless phrases: “short term,” “medium term,” and “longer term.”
Today public dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq is stronger than ever, making it the dominant issue in the mid-term elections. While the president invokes victory, the Democrats continue to lack a united program or slogan other than “we are not Republicans,” and their seeming lack of vision is their main liability in the eyes of voters.
Perhaps this is why President Bush and Karl Rove try to act as though they are brimming with confidence even as their policy in Iraq collapses around them and opinion polls predict Democratic ascendancy. The word “victory” is not a plan of action, and it does not in any way define what an end game for Iraq might look like, but at least it makes it sound like the White House has an objective and a way to get there.
JOHN STAUBER is Executive Director of the Center for Media and Democracy in Madison, Wisconsin and author, with Sheldon Rampton, of Weapons of Mass Deception and The Best War Ever. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org