Is the conflict in Iraq a civil war? And: Does it matter?
The answers: Yes and no. And: Yes and no.
The Los Angeles Times began calling it that last month. The New York Times says it will do so "sparingly." The Washington Post is agnostic. Other news organizations use the term as they see fit, although not, as a matter of policy, consistently.
NBC announced with some fanfare this week that it would use "civil war" consistently. The decision looked to most old enough to remember that the network was bucking for a "Cronkite moment," as when broadcaster Walter Cronkite broke with President Lyndon Johnson on the Vietnam War. However, "Today" hardly has the gravitas and influence of the venerated anchor and the old CBS News.
Successfully terming the Iraq conflict a civil war might marginally diminish public support for the war. People would ask, "Why intervene in a family quarrel?" But it’s hard to see how — barring a lethal debacle involving American troops — the war could become much more unpopular than it already is. And, absent a dramatic turnaround, it’s hard to see how that would change.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan says Iraq is "almost there" on the way to civil war. The White House says it is not, and the White House is right in the classic sense of a civil war — organized groups, with identifiable leadership and militaries, fighting within a country to either rule or separate.
The danger of a dictionary-definition civil war is that it tends to draw in other parties, as the Spanish Civil War brought in Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union. If what is going on in Iraq was a civil war, there might be a way to settle it, either by negotiation or letting the parties battle to conclusion.
The Iraq war is more like a free-for-all, with Shiites, Sunnis, Baathists, assorted tribes, al Qaeda extremists, foreign jihadis, freelance brigands and even neighborhoods slugging it out, often with us but more and more often with each other.
Whether it’s a civil war, an insurgency or just the settling of old scores, it all looks the same to the American troops on the ground, battling to save a nation from destroying itself.
(Contact Dale McFeatters at mcfeattersd(at)shns.com.)