Tuesday, August 22, 2006

We have a definition, so, now what?

George W. Bush has been relatively consistent and intelligible with his definition of what a civil war looks like. Yesterday was just the latest linguistic lesson. He's mentioned one point about the security forces remaining loyal to the government time and again. The transcript from yesterday's "presser", WhiteHouse.gov:
You know, I hear a lot of talk about civil war. I'm concerned about that, of course, and I've talked to a lot of people about it. And what I've found from my talks are that the Iraqis want a unified country, and that the Iraqi leadership is determined to thwart the efforts of the extremists and the radicals and al Qaeda, and that the security forces remain united behind the government. And one thing is clear: The Iraqi people are showing incredible courage.
You could counter that the government of Iraq, perhaps with a by-the-people and for-the-people definition, has lost control of elements in its police force and elements in the Iraqi army. You could also counter Bush's definition like Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, quoting another policy wonk:
Two hours later, former ambassador Peter Galbraith presented a rather different view to the Middle East Institute in Dupont Circle. "There is a civil war, and it is a lot like Lebanon in the '70s and '80s," he declared. "The United States basically has a choice: Either we use our forces to stop the civil war, or we withdraw."


"You have a government that isn't a government, a nation that isn't a nation," said Galbraith, Clinton administration ambassador to Croatia. His answer: withdrawal.

"If we do what I recommend, there will be horrific sectarian cleansing in the mixed areas, particularly in Baghdad, and civil war," he said. "If we stay the course, there will be horrific sectarian cleansing in Baghdad, and civil war."
Galbraith may counter Bush by stating that the Iraqi government does not actually exist and cannot be considered in control. This would lead to an argument about definitions. What the majority of Iraqis want. Turn out in the election. Recruitment of security personnel. Et cetera, et cetera.

There is another set that plays in a gray area, calling this a low-grade civil war. Or, like the commander of CENTCOM, says that a civil war is possible... and sort of leaves that idea hanging with a somber and earnest expression. (Like he can see the historians playing the tape back in his own mind. For more on the Scarlet Pimpernel, read my previous post.)

A British general has echoed the definition of the Decider, though, AP:
WASHINGTON - The British deputy to the top U.S. commander in Iraq said Tuesday the country's sectarian conflict is not a full-blown civil war but could be described as a "civil war in miniature."

"In my judgment, we are not in a situation of civil war," British Royal Marine Lt. Gen. Robert Fry told reporters at the Pentagon in a video-teleconference from Baghdad. He added, "I know what a civil war looks like."

He said there is no mass migration out of Baghdad, where the sectarian violence is worst; the central government is functioning; and the country's security forces are answerable to the government.
That is a serviceable definition. The best way to go about arguing is to agree on a definition and then move your opponent with facts. The Iraqi security forces remain loyal. But, as Michael Gordon has warned in the New York Times Magazine:
Dogged efforts were being undercut by a dysfunctional Iraqi bureaucracy in Baghdad. The American advisers were able and extremely dedicated, and the Iraqi troops under their tutelage were making strides toward becoming an independent fighting element. But Iraq’s Ministry of Defense has been slow to issue promotions for the new soldiers and to distribute proper pay. A goodly number of the Iraqi soldiers have voted with their feet and gone AWOL — or left to join the Iraqi police, so they could live close to home.
We can easily assert that it would be senseless suicide for an Iraqi formation to attack the government, whatever that means, with the United States in the picture. However, those anti-government formations can torture the innocent population to affect ethnic cleansing.

With those assertions and the point raised by Gordon, we can see how precarious the situation is with George W. Bush's definition. That is the point at which the debate runs out of steam. We are either witnessing a civil war in Iraq, or we are not. If we are not, based on the definition advanced by the president we are very close to a civil war. Very, very close. Where the definitions converge with reality on the ground, and the reality is inching to mayhem, we can realize the debate is futile; it's either happening or about to happen.

The question remaining is: will the Decider decide to do anything about those sectarian formations, militias, and bureaucratic malaise? Will his decision match the difficulty of the task?


Blogger zen said...

With a strategy of "stay the course" and one in which we will stay for what basically seems like forever, it makes the Decider, the Spectator. Rather than truly 'adapting to win' or making progressive changes to our approach, the president fails to admit that the level of violence we see spiking requires a new strategy. So we keep plugging along as the situation continues to unravel. It seems apparent to most people that are paying attention that the situation in Iraq is deteriorating, not improving. I think the recent polls bear this out among public opinion.

The other glaring tragedy is that while the administration bumbles around with its middle east "freedom agenda" the rest of the region scoffs at our weakening position. It is widely accepted now that the first one to two years in Iraq were filled with huge political errors. Yet as the "long hard slough" drags on, we can see there still is no plan. And if what we are currently seeing is infact the plan, well then heaven help us.

6:33 PM  
Blogger Ezzie said...

I think that the definition only matters in terms of how it affects the public. Calling it a civil war can, in fact, strengthen it to the point where it becomes one. *Not* calling it one keeps things calm and people confident.

Nevertheless, actions need to be taken to ensure that it remains this way and improves. Is it a slow process? Yes. Should we be patient? Yes. But right now, it seems to be too slow and/or unorganized.

Perhaps the idea is to get the country stable first: "Even though there are terror attacks, look at the progress we are making and you see on a daily basis. Now help us quash the terror by not supporting them in any way and fighting them for those who are willing." If that's the idea, I wonder how well it's working; obviously the media is telling us no, but soldiers who serve there are saying the reverse. It's likely somewhere in between, with people supporting the government but sick of the terror and having US forces there.

6:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Uncivil war perhaps?

10:52 PM  

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