Saturday, November 25, 2006

Civil War in Iraq

I wonder when the White House will finally bow to reality and acknowledge that what what's happening in Iraq is in fact civil war. The administration's terminology is slow to evolve, and tends to change only when it's been lapped by actual events. Remember how long Rumsfeld and company refused to say the word "insurgency?" "Civil war" will be an even harder pill to swallow -- or phrase to cough out -- because as soon as America accepts that Iraq is in a civil war, the voters will conclude the situation is hopeless, none of our business, and not worth any more American blood and treasure. In other words, "Civil war" is a linguistic trigger that will result in a broad consensus that the war is lost (as it is). The administration understands this, and therefore refuses to adopt the phrase.

There seem to be three general stages to the adoption of terminology. First, no one uses the word. Second, some parts of the media start using the word, forcing the administration to argue that the word is inapplicable. Finally, everyone, the administration included, uses the word, and no one any longer questions its applicability (again, think "insurgency"). After this week's unprecedented butchery, we're close to that third stage with regard to "civil war." When we reach it, our withdrawal will begin soon afterward.

Many people place great hope in the recommendations coming from the Iraq Study Group, aka the Baker Commission. These hopes are misplaced. The ISG will offer no new insights into how we might extricate ourselves from the Iraqi quagmire. Every possible insight has already been aired and vetted in the blogosphere, the media, and among our more astute politicians. Instead, the ISG's function, and its purpose, is to provide political cover for the administration to end our involvement in Iraq. This is what commissions do. They don't think of things others couldn't think of; they offer an imprimatur for what needs to be done. In other words, commissions are not about what; they're about who. The Baker commission is no different. The point isn't what the ISG will recommend. The point is that whatever it recommends, the administration will feel politically able to implement it.

Put yourself in the ISG's shoes for a moment. Civil war is raging. The American public is disgusted with the progress of the war. Both parties want us out soon; the Republicans, because if the war goes on they will lose the White House in '08; the Democrats, because they don't want a Democratic president to be crushed by the burden of ending the war. With these three factors in mind, what would you recommend?

My guess: (1) a dramatic reduction in troop levels; (2) a pullback to garrisons (these days called Forward Operating Bases or FOBs... sheesh, what was wrong with "garrison?), perhaps only in Kurdistan; (3) talks with Iran and Syria.

Let's take these one at a time. The first satisfies voters that we're really withdrawal (and in fact constitutes that withdrawal). The second at least theoretically permits us to respond with Special Forces units to al Qaeda sightings. If this really works, there's an obvious substantive benefit, but even if it doesn't, there's a political benefit because it looks like we'll still be able to respond to terrorists on the ground.

The third seems like a substantive waste of time to me. I don't know what we could offer Iran and Syria that would entice them, and we have nothing left to threaten them with. Some people say that Iraqi disintegration frightens Iran and Syria, thereby offering a foundation for cooperation. Maybe so, but I doubt Iran and Syria need us to explain to them what they ought to be frightened of. And if they are frightened, why are they abetting the insurgency, as the administration claims? Still, even with no substantive benefits, talks with our enemies demonstrate to the American public that we're leaving no stone unturned in our efforts to find a solution.

As I've argued before, Iraq will continue to disintegrate no matter we do. Because it's certainly coming, we ought to be realistically discussing and otherwise preparing for it. So next: is that further disintegration really the disaster for the west that the conventional wisdom claims? And what do we do about it?


Anonymous said...

Looks like you nailed this one, Barry.

"NBC label of civil war at odds with White House
Pronouncement to increase public dismay over troop presence, analysts say"

Anonymous said...

The minute I saw this post ( in Balkanization and this article ( I wondered if you were writing about what is called a Civil War. Low and Behold. Its hard not to admit this is a civil war in which both sectarian violence and militia actions kill hundreds of Iraqis weekly if not daily. How about "quagmire" and "morass" like we used to say about Vietnam. There are only two reasons this wouldn't have become another Vietnam. 1. We do things smarter and differently (didn't happen) or we get out sooner (looks like the option of the day). It seems to me that there are opportunities here, but I have no sense that our leadership will have the sense or political will to take advantage of them.

Elizabeth Krecker said...

Sadly, it appeared in November that,with little help from the terminology of war, the voters had already concluded the situation was hopeless.

Nonetheless, your argument is fascinating. If you'll forgive the incongruous analogy, it reminds me of Shakespeare: "What's in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name...."