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The inconvenient truth about Iraq: It's an occupation, not a war

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The NewsCenter publishes the perspectives of UC Berkeley faculty on topics of general interest. The points of view expressed are those of the author. We welcome previously published or unpublished articles for consideration. Please send submissions or ideas to newscenter@berkeley.edu.

George Lakoff is a professor of linguistics at UC Berkeley who focuses on cognitive linguistics, in particular the relevance of metaphor to human thinking, political behavior, and society. His most recent book is Whose Freedom? The Battle Over America's Most Important Idea (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, released July 2006); other books by Lakoff include Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think (University of Chicago, 1994) and Don't Think of an Elephant (Chelsea Green, 2004).

This opinion piece was first published by the Rockridge Institute on July 1.

We've begun with global warming. Now the U.S. and its military allies need to face another inconvenient truth, this one about Iraq: This is an occupation, not a war.

  George Lakoff
George Lakoff (Bart Nagel photo)

The war was over when Bush said "Mission Accomplished." A war has one army fighting another army over territory. Our fighting men and women defeated Saddam's military machine three years ago. Then the occupation began. Our troops were trained to fight a war, not to occupy a country where they don't know the language and culture; where they lack enough troops; where they face an anti-occupation insurgency by the Iraqis themselves; where most of the population wants them out; where they are being shot at and killed by the very Iraqis they are training; and where the U.S. has given up on reconstruction and can't do much positive good there.

The Occupation Frame fits a politically inconvenient truth. Most people don't want to think of our army as an occupying force, but it is. An occupying army can't win anything. The occupation only helps Al Qaeda, which Iraqis don't want in their country because Al Qaeda attracts foreigners who have been killing Iraqis.

Our nation has been held trapped in a fallacious War Frame that serves the interests of the Bush administration and the Republican Party. The term "cut and run," currently being used to vilify Democrats, is defined relative to the following frame:

There is a war against evil that must be fought. Fighting requires courage and bravery. Those fully committed to the cause are brave. Those who "cut and run" are motivated by self-interest; they are only interested in saving their own skins, not in the moral cause. They are cowards. And since those fighting for the cause need all the support they can get, anyone who decides to "cut and run" endangers both the moral cause and the lives of those brave people who are fighting for it. Those who have courage and conviction should stand and fight.

Once the false frame is set, it is hard to use any pure self-interest frame that ignores the just cause of fighting evil. That is the trap the Democrats have fallen into. Their proposed slogans evoke self-interest frames: Both John Murtha's "stay and pay" and John Kerry's "lie and die" have an X-and-Y structure that evokes — and thus reinforces — "cut and run."

'The Cut-and-Run Frame, when put forth as a reason why we cannot withdraw from Iraq, fits a gallant war. It does not fit a failed occupation.'

These, as well as Senator Jack Reed's "The Republican Plan to Be in Iraq Forever," are self-interest frames that accept the "cut and run" frame, but says it is in our interest to leave. We "pay," we "die," we are stuck there forever. As long as Democrats accept the war-against-evil frame, any self-interest framing will be treated as immoral — acting as a coward, letting evil win out, and endangering our troops.

The Cut-and-Run Frame, when put forth as a reason why we cannot withdraw from Iraq, fits a gallant war. It does not fit a failed occupation. When you have become the villain and target to the people you are trying to help, it's time to do the right thing — admit the truth that this is an occupation and think and act accordingly. All occupations end with withdrawal. The issue is not bravery versus cowardice in a good cause. The Cut-and-Run Frame does not apply.

In an occupation, there are pragmatic issues: Are we welcome? Are we doing the Iraqis more harm than good? How badly are we being hurt? The question is not whether to withdraw, but when and how. What to say? You might prefer "End the occupation now" or "End the occupation by the end of the year" or "End the occupation within a year," but certainly Congress and most Americans should be able to agree on "End the occupation soon."

In an occupation, not a war, should the president still have war powers? How, if at all, is the Supreme Court decision on military tribunals at Guantanamo affected if we are in an occupation, not a war? What high-handed actions by the President, if any, are ruled out if we are no longer at war?

Telling an inconvenient truth takes some political courage.

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