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Americans Debate Whether to Call Crisis in Iraq ‘Civil War’

November 28, 2006 at 10:41 AM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: Is Iraq entangled in a civil war? After a recent spasm of killings and retaliations, the question has taken on new urgency and led to a very public debate. Here are some examples from the past few days, beginning with an exchange on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

TIM RUSSERT, Host, “Meet the Press:” We keep using the word “sectarian violence.” Is it a civil war, in all honesty?

REP. IKE SKELTON (D), Missouri: Well, it depends upon what you call a civil war.

TIM RUSSERT: Well, what do you think?

REP. IKE SKELTON: Scholars will say no. I will say yes, because the violence is so heavy. The Sunnis are killing the Shiites; the Shiites killing the Sunnis, and among themselves. But insofar as peace and decorum is concerned, it’s a civil war in my book.

KOFI ANNAN, U.N. Secretary-General: I think, given the developments on the ground, unless something is done drastically and urgently to arrest the deteriorating situation, we could be there and, in fact, we are almost there.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: There’s all kinds of speculation about what may be or not happening. What you’re seeing on TV has started last February. It was an attempt by people to foment sectarian violence. And no question it’s dangerous there and violent.

The evolution of 'civil war'

Marjorie Miller
the Los Angeles Times
We feel we have to come to our own conclusion. And, you know, we're journalists. We're not historians. Ultimately, history will determine whether we called it too early or too late. We think we called it at the right time.

JEFFREY BROWN: The question of definition is also being discussed in newsrooms around the country, including our own. Yesterday, NBC became the first television network to officially adopt the term "civil war" to describe the ongoing situation in Iraq. One major newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, took that step a month ago.

And joining us now is that paper's foreign editor, Marjorie Miller.

Ms. Miller, I understand your paper went through several months of internal discussions before deciding to use the term "civil war." What finally led to the change?

MARJORIE MILLER, Foreign Editor, Los Angeles Times: Well, it's been a gradual evolution, I think. We started having these discussions in January. And we ran a story on the front page under the headline "Iraqi Civil War?" And at the time, you had about 1,000 Iraqis a month dying in this conflict.

In the summer, we ran another front-page story that said "Iraqi Civil War All But Declared," and quoting a lot of Iraqi leaders as saying, "Well, we think this has all the earmarks of a civil war."

And, finally, this fall, when we looked at the numbers of Iraqis who were dying -- which had topped 3,000 -- we looked at the almost unbroken violence. We said we thought we had crossed this threshold, and we quit qualifying it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Were your reporters on the ground pushing for some change in terminology? Or did you, as an editor, feel the pressure to define what was happening?

MARJORIE MILLER: I didn't feel any pressure. I felt that this was part of an ongoing discussion that we needed to have all the time. What are we looking at?

It's not unlike the discussion we had in 2003-2004 about the insurgency. What do we have here? And we were very early to call it an insurgency. And, in fact, that's what it turned out to be. And I just think it's something that we have a responsibility to ask ourselves as we're reporting and to try to get as close to the truth as possible.

JEFFREY BROWN: But in defining this, in using this term, is there a clear definition, or is this more of a "we know it when we see it" situation?

MARJORIE MILLER: I think it's more we know it when we see it. You look at the factors, and you say, what's happening here?

You have one country divided into armed factions that are engaged in combat. They're using heavy weaponry. They're using bombs, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades. They're using machine guns mounted on the back of vehicles.

Each side has combatants in and out of uniform. They're attacking government ministries. You have 100 Iraqis dying at least every day. What do you call that, if not civil war?

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you know that colleagues at other newspapers are having -- other media organizations are having the same debate, and you also know that the Bush administration has consistently said that this is not a civil war. What role did that play in your decision?

MARJORIE MILLER: Well, we try not to let it play any role. We try to ask ourselves, independent of who would like us to call it civil war or who wouldn't, who would like us to call something an insurgency and who wouldn't, and that changes from country to country.

But we feel we have to come to our own conclusion. And, you know, we're journalists. We're not historians. Ultimately, history will determine whether we called it too early or too late. We think we called it at the right time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, and finally let me ask you about -- to what extent do you think this matters to your readers? Or is it more important for you internally to get it right and define it?

MARJORIE MILLER: Well, I think it matters to us internally because we're constantly seeking the truth. We're trying to tell our readers what is happening.

It's important, because you want to explain to them what it is that we are faced with in Iraq. But we haven't gotten a huge amount of reaction or pushback on this terminology. I'm not sure if that says we've got it right or wrong or if nobody is paying attention.

Propaganda to get out of Iraq

Richard Betts
Columbia University
I don't think we should get hung up on the label, as long as we focus on the extent to which the shape of the war has been changing and the main lines of division in the conflict have been changing.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Marjorie Miller of the Los Angeles Times, thanks a lot.

Now, we get the views of two people who've studied wars past and present. Donald Kagan is a professor of history and classics at Yale University. He's written on warfare going back to ancient Greece.

Richard Betts has also written widely on military conflict. He's professor of political science and director of the Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University.

Professor Kagan, let me start with you. Do you see this as a civil war? And by what criteria do you decide?

DONALD KAGAN, Professor of History, Yale University: Frankly, I regard this as a frivolous discussion on the one hand, and on the other hand it is a calculated effort on the part of those people who would like to see the United States flee from its responsibilities in Iraq, to use a term that is more frightening, more dangerous-sounding than simply the kind of uprising that they've been dealing with, and decide that it's a civil war, in order to make it a more frightening prospect to try to win this thing and to persuade Americans that it's hopeless and that they should go away.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why is the phrase -- why do you consider it "frightening"?

DONALD KAGAN: I think most people regard civil wars as bigger things, more difficult, more complicated, more hard to resolve without a long, hard war than does the alternative term. And I think that's why people are using it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Richard Betts, what criteria do you use? And how do you see what's going on in Iraq?

RICHARD BETTS, Institute of War and Peace Studies, Columbia University: Well, there's no definition of civil war that's chiseled in stone. I'd call it an emerging civil war. It's more complicated than the image most people have of civil wars as a two-way conflict between, say, one group of rebels and a government.

I don't think we should get hung up on the label, as long as we focus on the extent to which the shape of the war has been changing and the main lines of division in the conflict have been changing. And at least the term "civil war" does focus attention on that.

For the first few years after the invasion, the conflict was mainly between a group of insurgents on one hand and the Americans on the other. It's been changing in recent months more clearly into a conflict between two main groups of Iraqis, with the Americans and the Iraqi government more or less caught in the middle trying to put the lid on both of them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Professor Betts, staying with you, is it possible to have several things going on at once then, an insurgency, sectarian violence, and something that could be called a civil war?

RICHARD BETTS: Yes, several things are going on at once. It's a fluid situation. And a big question, too, is how things may change further.

The Kurds in the north have more or less remained out of this conflict. As things evolve, you could see a situation in which they'd to wind up taking sides or in which the Americans may have to wind up taking sides.

That hasn't happened yet, but that could happen, if it becomes clear that the Americans and the Iraqi government are unable, really, to keep the escalation of violence between the Sunnis and Shiite groups from going further.

Changing strategy in Iraq

Donald Kagan
Yale University
I don't think it really does help to focus anything more than we ought to have been focusing before, and then I think it won't make any difference in that respect. Its uses, as terminology changes often are, are meant for propaganda purposes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Professor Kagan, come back in here. The issue on the table is whether using the term helps focus things, as Professor Betts said.

DONALD KAGAN: I don't think it really does help to focus anything more than we ought to have been focusing before, and then I think it won't make any difference in that respect. Its uses, as terminology changes often are, are meant for propaganda purposes.

The real question remains what it was before: Can the United States continue in its current course and not take more effective steps than it has taken to defend the legitimately elected government against various kinds of violence that threaten its security, that threaten to throw the country into chaos, which will make the question of civil war or insurgency seem trivial?

To me, that has been the central question, and it is more intensely than ever the central question.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what is the answer at the moment?

DONALD KAGAN: In my view, we can't afford not to take every step that we can to prevent the chaos that will happen if we don't change the course of events.

And that means taking military steps that are -- have a better strategy than we have before, which will require more force, to do everything we can to improve the economy, but all of that rests upon the first step of creating security for everybody to function in. And the first step there has to be military.

What we've been doing up to now isn't good enough; we've got to do better.

JEFFREY BROWN: But when you see, Professor Kagan, what we've seen in the last few days, this violence and the retaliations, clearly Sunni versus Shia, at least in the last few days in Baghdad, why is that not useful to think of in terms of as civil war?

DONALD KAGAN: I don't see how it helps. It has been very significantly Sunni against Shia, perhaps in a more cloaked form. The majority of the government is, after all, Shiite, as the majority of the country is.

The Sunnis have been insurgents because they refuse to accept the fact that their minority will no longer be allowed to lord it over the majority. The first job has always been to convince the Sunnis, however we do it, that they must accept the new realities.

JEFFREY BROWN: Professor Betts, what's your response to that?

RICHARD BETTS: Well, the strategy we've had to try to do that, to keep control from the center, to keep either group from trumping the other, to keep violence from escalating out of our control, hasn't been working. It's gotten worse.

So the question is: What kind of a change of strategy may have a better chance of working? And unless you're talking about a really massive increase in the amount of American power that's infused into the situation to try to sit on all of the combatants and reduce violence, just by massive presence, I don't see much reason to bet a lot on a minor change, sending a few thousand more troops, making a big difference.

We may come to be faced with the choice either of a massive sort of intervention, which I don't think is really realistic, given the limitations on our ground forces and how stretched thin they are already, or a basic change that involves picking sides or trying to arrange a balance of power among the three groups, including the Kurds, that might affect the situation.

I don't see a solution that offers a lot of hope; what we have to struggle to find is one that's a bad solution but not as bad as the others.

Public view of the war

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Professor Betts, staying with you, since you're making the case that using this term can be useful, does it matter in terms of how the public sees what's going on? Does it matter as a political question?

RICHARD BETTS: Well, it is a political issue now because the semantic question has political connotations. As Donald Kagan said, using the term does work against the administration's line of argument, just as the administration's insistence on using another term is a way of trying to deflect attention from the extent to which things aren't as nice as we'd like.

That's why I think it's a mistake to get too hung up on the terminology, but it's inevitable that, in public discussions, things will be simplified. Probably the most neutral term to use would be "the war in Iraq," but then you have to explain what's going on. If you want another shorthand term that does turn people's attention one way or another, "civil war" does that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Professor Kagan, would you agree with the notion that every term is fraught with meaning from one side or the other?

DONALD KAGAN: Sure, every kind of a term in this kind of a circumstance is loaded with people's opinions and prejudices. And the argument about the term distracts us from what is really a terribly critical and important question.

Professor Betts seems to suggest that there isn't anything we can really do about this situation but somehow let it play out -- or he didn't indicate which way to go. But I believe that this is so terribly dangerous to us that we cannot afford to lose.

The notion -- I might say, by the way, that I do not accept the premise that we don't have enough force available, should we choose to use it, to make a sufficient increase in our forces to be effective, if it was attached to the correct strategic approach. So I think that is available to us.

Failing to do that will guarantee, it seems to me, the kind of chaos that we all ought to fear.

JEFFREY BROWN: Professor Kagan, one more question about the terminology. I'm just curious, because you have written about wars going back a long way, do these debates -- are they common in warfare, when we get to a certain point, that people start arguing over what to call things?

DONALD KAGAN: Well, the best historical example that jumps into my mind is that the American Civil War, which I don't remember anybody calling it that during the time. In the South, they referred to it as the War Between the States, in order to suggest that they were within their rights in breaking away from the other states. And up here in Connecticut, we referred to it as the Rebellion of 1861.

And it's that sort of thing that has characterized this kind of issue throughout history, I think.

JEFFREY BROWN: Richard Betts, let me give you one last chance on historical analogy here.

RICHARD BETTS: Well, probably the closest analogies, at least from recent times, I think would be, in different ways, Bosnia and Lebanon, in the sense that this is a complicated conflict that involves more than just two sides, as the Bosnia conflict did. And it is one that involves ethnic divisions and the potential for very long conflict, as Lebanon did.

Now, the United States is in the mix and obviously has a lot of potential to affect the outcome, but the question I think is going to become increasingly whether the way to use American power effectively is as we've been trying to do, to discipline all sides and control everyone, or to try to affect the internal balance of power by tilting one way or the other.

And in some form or other, the separation of the groups, kind of de facto partition, as in Bosnia, would be a terrible solution, but it's increasingly looking like it may be less terrible than any other realistic alternatives.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Richard Betts and Donald Kagan, thank you both very much.