Civil War In Iraq? Media Saying Yes

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
Miami Herald
November 29, 2006
Pg. 1

U.S. news outlets are debating the use of the term 'civil war' for the spiraling bloodshed in Iraq.
By Carol Rosenberg
NBC has done it. The New York Times says it is doing it, sparingly. Even The Miami Herald's parent company, McClatchy, joined the fray:
U.S. news outlets are upsetting a Bush administration taboo and using the term ''civil war'' for the bloodshed in Iraq -- a development, analysts say, which could change the way Americans both think about and conduct the war.
White House spokesman Tony Snow rejects the label, calling the conflict ``sectarian violence that seems to be less aimed at gaining full control over an area than expressing differences.''
But NBC's Today host Matt Lauer highlighted the issue of the Bush administration formulation Monday in a live announcement:
``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.''
The Los Angeles Times, for its part, claims the title of ''first,'' noting that it ``began to refer to the hostilities as a civil war in October, without public fanfare.''
Editors at The Miami Herald are debating which term to use -- despite the Washington bureau of its parent company, McClatchy Newspapers, adopting the label.
''Neighborhood by neighborhood, Baghdad descends into civil war,'' said a weekend dispatch.
Also still deciding on a policy Tuesday were The Boston Globe and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, according to editors at both newspapers.
For his part, President Bush ducked the debate in Estonia on Tuesday, when a reporter asked what was the difference between what's happening in Iraq now and a civil war.
Bush: ``What you're seeing on TV has started last February. It was an attempt by people to foment sectarian violence, and no -- no question it's dangerous there, and violent.''
Webster's New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition defines a civil war this way:
''War between geographical sections or political factions of the same nation.'' It cites the war between the North and the South in the United States, 1861-1865, once known as The War Between the States.
Several years of escalating bloodshed in Iraq have been largely ethnically based, with a geographic component. Shiite Muslims live in Iraq's south, closer to Iran, and Sunnis live in the central part of the nation, with both sects sharing the capital Baghdad. Kurds form the third Iraqi ethnic group.
Now, analysts say, the news media are challenging the Bush administration, which for months used its Beltway pulpit from the Pentagon to the White House to dispute the term.
''I think this brouhaha about civil war is kind of politicized, a way of delegitimizing the U.S. effort in Iraq,'' said James Phillips, a foreign policy expert at the Heritage Foundation.
Iraq may be experiencing ''a slow-motion civil war,'' he said, but ``I agree with the administration that it hasn't reached full-scale civil war yet.''
Phillips warned that the terminology debate not be used to urge a U.S. withdrawal.
''If a full-fledged civil war erupts, there will be a bloodbath on the scale of Rwanda or the Congo -- and it'll make what's going on there look like a picnic,'' he said.
Countered Steve Hess, professor of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University: ``I don't see this as something that was the government's prerogative to call. It's semantics, for heaven's sake.''
He called the consequences ''profound,'' especially in terms of television's use of the term civil war:
``Are you asking Americans to die for something between Sunnis and Shiites?''
The Bush administration has largely cast the violence in Iraq as the last gasp of insurgents loyal to Saddam Hussein -- or the work of outside anti-American radicals loosely aligned with al Qaeda.
But the news of late has focused on widespread Iraqi casualties, not U.S. forces.
''This is unquestionably a civil war and it's been a civil war for at least a year,'' said Stephen Biddle, senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. ``By any definition that political scientists use, this is an easy call.''
A classic civil war requires three elements, he said: Warfare between contestants internal to a state; a conflict that has killed more than 1,000 people; at least 100 dead on each side among those 1,000 dead.
'Admission of failure'
But, he said, the Bush administration cannot accept the term because ``it's a lot more than semantics -- it's tantamount to an admission of failure, because of the way it was cast at the beginning: Success as democracy and defeat as civil war.''
Conceding that Iraqis are engaging in a civil war, he said, would require a different U.S. military strategy.
McClatchy Washington Editor David Westphal said his bureau's reports had already quoted a range of people characterizing the conflict as ''civil war'' -- from U.S. troops to military analysts.
So the expression seemed a logical outgrowth of spiraling internal violence, he said.
'What's going on in Iraq is so awful that a dispute over whether the term is `civil war' is innocuous to me,'' Westphal said.
``The facts of the carnage, of the strife there are so profound that civil war doesn't quite even cover it.''
New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller said his newspaper decided to use the term ``sparingly and carefully, not to the exclusion of other formulations, not for dramatic effect.''