Civil War?

The Iraqi Shiites, for instance, are not a unified body. We read about

Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army (which is debatable whether he fully controls now anyway), but he doesn't represent all Shi'i,

just those who believe in the Khomeini-like involvement of the mullahs

in governmental affairs. Shiite "quietists" such as Ayatollah Sistani

oppose such involvement, so even the Shi'i are not a united front.

Throw in the Sunnis, some of whom (but not all) are having trouble with

the idea that their Baath Party lost the war and they no longer control

the nation as they did under Hussein. And don't forget the Kurds, who

aren't part of the violence, having carved out a relatively safe and

autonomous enclave in northern Iraq. They want their own self-governing

region, at least, and a new nation, at most.

So, as NYT's Thomas Friedman put it on the Today Show this morning, there are no two clear cut sides in this fight and no political center with which the United States and its allies can attempt to cobble together a working government. What is going on in Iraq is worse than civil war; it is chaos, fueled by sectarian violence, a lack of a working government, and no history of the democratic institutions we've enforced on the nation.

So, take my unofficial poll and choose one of the three options by posting a comment:

  • Yes, of course it's a civil war.

  • No, the designation is just another tactic by the media to make this war more unpopular.

  • It makes no difference what we call it, we've made a terrible mess in the Middle East and it appears to be very difficult to extract ourselves from it.

Like a network hungry to declare the winner first on election night, NBC News — with great fanfare — on Monday "branded" the fighting in Iraq as officially a civil war. I woke up that morning to Today Show host Matt Lauer announcing the importance of NBC's decision and promising to explain it in the upcoming hour. Awfully self-important, especially since the Los Angeles Times has been calling it a civil war since last month.

NBC's attitude issues aside, is Iraq in a civil war, and does it really matter what we call the mess that President Bush has put us into?

Kofi Annan says no, it's not yet a civil war, according to the Washington Post. The Grey Lady (NYT) will downgrade the situation from the current "sectarian violence" designation to civil war "sparingly and carefully," according to editor Bill Keller.

It matters a great deal what we call this war. It's called framing, and there is no doubt that as little stomach the U.S. public has for the current conflict and sectarian violence, it will have much less tolerance for an "Iraqi Civil War" that finds our troops caught in the middle.

The problem is, as any first-year graduate student in Middle Eastern studies could tell you, that the Bush Administration should have seen this coming. The reason it is so difficult to declare that this is a "civil war" is that the geopolitical landscape in Iraq so defies any model or example with which we are familiar. It is not a conventional civil war in the sense that there are two sides with clearly defined objectives and ideologies.

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