In his popular weekly radio and subsequent television quiz show, “You Bet Your Life,” Groucho Marx featured the “magic word.” If a contestant happened to utter it during the course of the show, he or she would instantly receive $25 or $50 or some other, inflation-adjusted amount.

Next week, President Bush will do something similar when he addresses the U.S. public and the world on his plan for “victory”—his magic word—in Iraq. He will also officially trot out another magic word, one to replace the not-so-magic phrase of “stay the course.”

Groucho was a straight-shooting comedian who never leaked the magic word to a contestant. In contrast, Bush’s new magic word has been so widely leaked that it’s hard to imagine that anyone in the country hasn’t heard it. And there’s another difference. Groucho told contestants the amount of dollars they could win. But Bush will not be able to tell the public what it will cost in lives and national treasure to implement his new strategy.

That strategy is wrapped up in Bush’s magic word: “surge.” Or maybe, given the long-range heavy artillery that the 3rd Infantry Division troops are bringing for the first time to Iraq later this month, the magic word should be shouted: SURGE.

Either way, the dictionary defines “surge” as a sudden, abrupt, strong increase. Water surges in waves, mobs surge suddenly, and emotions surge unexpectedly. Most often, “surge” denotes a process, a flow of energy that crests and then falls off, eventually returning to a steady state.

Bush is expected to call for a “sharp” increase—30,000 to 40,000 troops—in the current 142,000-strong U.S. military presence in Iraq. Half to three-fourths of the increase will go to Baghdad to “stabilize” security in the Iraqi capital.

The source of the troops for this “surge” remains unclear. Many suspect that Bush will do with regard to soldiers what his administration has been doing with money already appropriated for Iraq: trying an end run around policies, laws, and even the Constitution to get what he wants. So far, the fighting has been paid for largely through “supplemental” spending bills in response to an “emergency” that requires a rapid (surge) response with no time for judicious “unsurged” evaluation.

For his expected announcement, Bush may simply declare that an “emergency” continues to exist in Iraq. Such an emergency would require the Pentagon to temporarily suspend its guidelines on the length of tours of duty in Iraq (currently seven months for Marines and 12 months for army soldiers). The administration would then reduce the interval between tours for both active and reserve components, remove the cap on cumulative months in combat for reserve components, impose “stop-loss” actions that involuntarily keep men and women in uniform, or some combination of the above.

Also unclear is the time span for this “people surge.” Commentators talk of 12 to 18 or even 24 months. Even the briefest of these periods can hardly be regarded as sudden or unexpected or of short duration, and thus would not fit the definition of surge. The current dismal state of affairs has been apparent for some time; it is no surprise. Bush will undoubtedly try to make the case that more troops, more treasure, and just a little more time thrown into Iraq now will prove the proverbial “turning point.” He will call for “one final surge” that will enable the United States to claim “victory”—the ultimate magic word—and turn over to the Iraqi people a country able to defend itself, govern itself, and care for its people.

Undue delay—that is, substantive congressional consideration—will be labeled obstructionist, and defeatist. The administration might even accuse opponents of giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

Congress needs to act as a surge suppressor and carefully look at what Bush as commander-in-chief threatens to decree. While it is true that the United States cannot have 535 commanders-in-chief, it is equally true that Congress has an obligation to the U.S. public and to those wearing military uniforms to restrain the executive branch from costly misadventures—especially war and, most especially, wars of executive choice like Iraq.

If Bush wants to surge in Iraq, he should work out how to surge job opportunities for Iraqis rather than for U.S. and other foreign contractors. He needs to surge electricity production and distribution to cities, villages, and homes. “More (Electric) Power to the People”—now those would be magic words for Iraqis and Americans alike. And certainly better than “More (Fire) Power Against the People.”

Dan Smith is a military affairs analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus, a retired U.S. Army colonel, and a senior fellow on military affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Email at or blog 'The Quakers' Colonel.'

Get more news like this, directly in your inbox.

Subscribe to our newsletter.