Monday, March 20, 2006

Civil War or Not

Over at Donklephant, Justin asks whether Iraq is in a state of "civil war," or whether that claim is just a "media invention." My answer:

Yes, of course, it’s largely a media issue. It’s not a matter of invention. It’s a matter of naming. Nobody outside the media started this debate over “civil war,” or has been exercised about it. Why does it matter so much to the media if it’s a civil war or not? I have my guesses:

  • The media is more concerned than most other entities with finding descriptive terms for things. it’s the nature of the business to be obsessed with the words

  • The pundits need a fresh thing to fight about on Sunday mornings

  • The press is automatically adversarial to the authorities, and is constantly probing for words and terminology not being used by the White House, and then printing them, to satisfy its anxiety not to be lulled by propaganda. First it was “quagmire,” but that didn’t stick, then it was the wholesale switch from “terrorists” to “insurgents” and even in a few cases “freedom fighters;” then it was whether to call what was going on at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo “torture” or something else. That one did stick. This is just the latest round of that war of words. The press has noticed that Bush avoids “war” when talking about Iraq (read the AP coverage today of his speech on the third anniversary), and speaks instead of “liberation.” They want to drag it back to “war,” and if they can make it “civil war,” so much the better, since that undercuts the notion of “liberation.”

  • For three years, we’ve been running headlines like “violence worsens,” “security deteriorates,” “Iraq on the brink.” And it’s starting to look silly (like the “Franco still dead” gag from the original “Saturday Night Live”) because we have been writing it downward for so long, but the results continue to be a mixed bag of things getting better, things getting worse, things getting worse then better, and things just plain changing. Rather than admit the narrative has been too pessimistic all along, if we can claim the ability to now say, “it has become a civil war,” all that down-writing will be justified.

Is it really a civil war? First, the media doesn’t care. It’s latched on to those two words and started the tug-of-war, and eventually it will win. Because it cares more about claiming the word than anyone else does. The media applies “civil war” indiscriminately to conflicts that it thinks are civil wars but aren’t — the break-up of the old Yugoslavia in 1990, for instance — but not to others that are more deseving of it — the Rwanda war of 1998, for instance.

To really be a civil war, you have to have sections or factions of a country competing to be the government of that country, and putting forth claims to legitimacy. (The American Civil War really was not a civil war; the Russian Civil War was). But for the moment, Iraq doesn’t have that. It has a feckless government representing all factions, and it has an occupation, resisted by an insurgency, overlaid atop sectarian gang warfare, against a background of general tribal squabbling and heavy organized crime, and rankled by Islamist terrorism pursuing its own goals in the country.

It’s a mess, but every mess isn’t a civil war. Really, Iraq faced something more like a civil war in 2004, when al-Sadr in Najaf and Zarqawi in Fallujah had set up self-governing fiefdoms and there was no functioning, popularly chosen, constitutional Iraqi civilian government in Baghdad.