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Much ado about 'civil war'

For the longest time I've been wondering why there's reluctance on the part of President Bush and his close advisers to admit that a civil war exists in Iraq. Was it a matter of semantics, or what? What, in fact, determines if a nation is in the throes of a civil war? Are there certain standards that must be met to reach that determination?

Finally, I have some answers thanks to a definitive piece in the New York Times of Nov. 26 written by Edward Wong. It answers many of the questions I've thought about for some time. Let me say initially that I don't always buy into everything I read in the Times, but in this case I do. The article is well documented and certainly does not appear to be biased in any particular direction. It presents a definitive response to the questions I've been thinking about.

The Times article points out from the onset that the Bush administration continues to insist that Iraq is not in the midst of a civil war, "although a growing number of American and Iraqi scholars, leaders and policy analysts say the fighting in Iraq in every way meets the standard definition of civil war."

The Times article defines quite clearly what most scholars agree constitutes a civil war. But to me the most important part of the analysis is what it says is the reason behind the refusal on the part of many to acknowledge what is going on in Iraq as a civil war. That's the question I've debated in my own thinking.

Here's what the article says about that most crucial question: "The debate over the term (civil war) rages because many politicians, especially those who support the war, believe there would be domestic political implications to declaring this a civil war. They fear that an acknowledgment of civil war by the White House and its Republican and Democratic allies would be seen as an admission of a failure of President Bush's Iraq policy."

I totally agree with that appraisal and have long believed that was the key to the Bush failure to admit the existence of civil war despite the huge death toll it has engendered among the Iraqi civilian population as well as the U.S. forces.

Another factor in the denial equation is the fear that the American people might not see a role for American troops in an Iraqi civil war and would more loudly demand a withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Iraq's president and prime minister, catering perhaps to the Bush administration, still do not use the term "civil war" in describing conditions in their country. But a great many Iraqis not involved in politics say the debate about usage of civil war is ridiculous, pointing to the huge loss of life of Iraqi citizens. The most recent United Nations report said that at least 3,700 Iraqis were killed in October, and that more than 100,000 Iraqis a month have been fleeing to Syria and Jordan.

American military commanders now are acknowledging that political dominance is at the heart of the insurgency in Iraq. That meets one of the principal criteria for calling what is going on in Iraq a civil war, despite the refusal of the Bush administration and the Iraqi leadership to acknowledge the realities of what is taking place.

A top U.S. military commander, Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, in congressional testimony last month, said the situation in Iraq is "an ongoing violent struggle for power," and he said the country is moving to "a significant breakdown of central authority." Without using the term, he was in effect describing a country in the midst of a civil war.

Murray Light is the former editor of The Buffalo News.

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