President Bush: Get Used To Iraq Civil War

President Bush doesn’t like to hear people using the ‘c’ word. In discussions about the war in Iraq, Mr Bush believes that appropriate language includes ‘sectarian violence’, ‘struggle for freedom’, ‘central front in the war on terror’, even ‘new phase’ – anything but ‘civil’ war. Yet given the increasing use of the term civil war by retired generals, analysts, politicians, pundits, the general public and the media, Mr Bush might be well-advised to start covering his ears.

On Monday, NBC became the first major television network to use the term in their coverage of the war in Iraq. On the Today show, Matt Lauer explained that “after careful consideration, NBC News has decided that a change in terminology is warranted, that the situation in Iraq with armed militarized factions fighting for their own political agendas can now be characterized as civil war.” Meanwhile, ABC News and CBS News have not yet settled on a policy regarding their use of the term civil war, although this has been the subject of constant discussion at both networks. ABC News senior vice president Paul Slavin has said, “We are not there yet,” owing to the difficulty of settling on a definition.

James Fearon, Professor of Political Science at Stanford University, says defining civil war is a complex business. However, there is consensus that it involves a violent conflict between organized groups within a country that are fighting over control of the government, one side’s separatist goals, or some divisive government policy. Most scholars also use the threshold of 1,000 dead. At the same time, political goals are crucial, so if the conflict in Iraq ever became purely a matter of violence between Sunni and Shiite communities driven by revenge and hatred rather than by political goals, many political scientists would then reject the term civil war.

The Washington Post has so far avoided any references to the civil war in Iraq, in particular because the US and Iraqi governments reject the term. On MSNBC’s Hardball, the paper’s national security reporter Dana Priest admitted that, while she “absolutely” believes Iraq is now in the grip of a civil war, “We try to avoid the labels, particularly when the elected government itself does not call its situation a civil war.”

Yet Los Angeles Times foreign editor Marjorie Miller questioned whether any country would admit it is in the midst of a civil war. Her editorial team were not influenced by either government in their decision to start using the term civil war on October 7. Ms Miller told the Jim Lehrer News Hour, “You have one country divided into armed factions that are engaged in combat. They’re using heavy weaponry. They’re using bombs, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades. They’re using machine guns mounted on the back of vehicles. Each side has combatants in and out of uniform. They’re attacking government ministries. You have 100 Iraqis dying at least every day. What do you call that, if not civil war?”

Most scholars surveyed by the New York Times agreed that Iraq is mired in a bloody civil war. One political scientist at Yale, Nicholas Sambanis, further said, “The level of violence is so extreme that it far surpasses most civil wars since 1945”. Nevertheless, the paper intends to use the phrase “sparingly and carefully” and “not for dramatic effect”.

Richard Betts, professor of political science and director of the Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University, has said that that use of the term could have serious political implications for the Bush administration. “Well, it is a political issue now because the semantic question has political connotations,” Professor Betts told the Jim Lehrer News Hour. “Using the term does work against the administration’s line of argument, just as the administration’s insistence on using another term is a way of trying to deflect attention from the extent to which things aren’t as nice as we’d like.”

According to recent polls taken by NBC News, the Wall Street Journal, CNN and Gallup, roughly two-thirds of Americans believe that Iraq is embroiled in civil war. Immediately before the mid-term elections, most Americans also said they believe the US should withdraw its troops within one year.

It is widely believed that the Bush administration has refused to acknowledge the civil war in Iraq for fear that Americans will begin demanding to know why US troops are risking their lives and dying in an internal conflict in a foreign land, thereby collapsing already weak support for the war among Americans.

Yet if the Bush administration continues to refuse to acknowledge the civil war in Iraq, one of the potential consequences could be that the US will not implement the right change of course. Retired Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, who led troops in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, said in an interview with the Washington Post, “If they can’t characterize what’s going on in Iraq in an honest fashion, we can’t begin to address the problem.”


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