Posted by: sean | December 17, 2006

On civil war in Iraq

Safire is debating the usage “civil war” in describing Iraq. Personally, I took to calling a spade a spade almost a year and a half ago.

Safire makes a point of boasting about his easy access to president Talibani, who “definitively” does not call it a civil war, and he quotes Bill Keller, the executive editor of the Times who makes the following point:

I bristle at the way a low-grade semantic argument has become — at least among the partisan cud-chewers — a substitute for serious discussion of what’s happening in Iraq and what to do about it. … Maybe this argument is a symptom of intellectual fatigue in the punditocracy.

So while I can agree that a lot of people are arguing about what to call it while not thinking enough about what to do there, I don’t agree with Safire, who in the end, thinks that it’s just a value judgement:

Call the fighting what you like, but the name you choose to give the hostilities, strife, violence or war not only reflects your view about the current state of affairs but is also an indication of where you stand on what our policy should be. Labels are the language’s shorthand for judgments.

I disagree. Words have meaning. So although it’s true that certain people push for the civil war in Iraq to be called one thing or another for ideological reasons, that does not mean that one label is more or less accurate than another. And when Safire’s Kurdish friend argues that

There is a more complex dynamic to this than civil war… There is Shia versus Shia, Sunni versus Sunni, Shia versus Sunni and Shia and Sunni versus Al Qaeda, as well as militias against the authority of the elected government. Many act as the proxies of regional powers, so you can call it as much a proxy war as a civil war.

I have a hard time thinking that he’s being anything but disingenuous, since, if anything, the Lebanese civil war was even more complex. There, we saw 18 confessional groups lining up with over half a dozen foreign powers (Israel, Syria, Iraq, US, France, Italy, etc.) and the Palestinians, who were somewhat in between a domestic and a foreign force. Does anyone call that anything other than a civil war? So why should Iraq be any different?



  1. It’s still a debatable term.

    I’m not absolutely sure if we’re witnessing any separatist-claims from either the Shiites or the Sunni.

    As far as I see it, the US media has done a piss poor job in making transparent any kind of political claims brought forth.


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