Thursday, November 30, 2006

What’s In a Name?

Apparently the big news now is that we’re OK with calling the unpleasantness in Iraq a “civil war.” If that gets progress in resolving an increasingly untenable situation then I’m all for it. If it is simply a semantic convolution aimed at further vilifying the President, then we’ll be no further down the road than we are now.

A group of pointy-headed intellectuals from some university political science department have decided to create objective terms of definition for a civil war. Some obvious aspects and some bordering on the ridiculous. Clearly a civil war is an internal affair of a nation-state. It is competition between competing, armed political movements for control of the future of the territory. It is not an external invasion. It reflects a desire of the population for change from the status quo. And, according to the pointy-heads, qualifies for the terminology when more than 100 persons have been killed in the process.

What amazes this observer is what an over-simplification of a complex situation that is. The death of a hundred people in political strife is both a deplorable occurrence and a commonly encountered event in today’s world. It is simultaneously too terrible and too insignificant to render unrest elevated to the level of civil war. And, in the greater scheme of things, does it really matter what we call it?

Despite what we read in the punditry’s pronouncements, the conflict in Iraq these days isn’t about us or our invasion to oust Sadaam. They aren’t killing us so much as we are getting killed while trying to interpose ourselves between the murderous factions trying to kill each other. We’re simply collateral damage as the Sunni and Shia’ try to outdo each other in religious fervor and demand for the death of all who would imply that their version of Islam isn’t the most righteously peaceful.

Sure, a civil war is an internal struggle for power over a country. If Clausewitz was right about war being politics by other means, then civil war is surely democracy by other means. But, it isn’t clear yet whether Iraq is a two-party civil war. We can’t liken it to the American experience with civil war. It isn’t yet possible to see what the alternative positions are in this conflict. What is the political agenda of the contenders? Are there more candidates for controlling power than just generic Sunni and Shia’? I’d bet there are. A lot more.

Will this evolve from a fractured warlord situation and congeal into a more traditional bipolar conflict? What previous model can we apply to make sense of the situation? Is this Mao versus Chaing as in post-WW II China? Or more like Somalia where rather than emerging consolidation we got total disintegration of order? Might we see a nationalist leader like Tito arise to bring order out of the chaos? Can we distinguish between a benevolent Fascist like Franco and a more malevolent Communist? For certain we aren’t looking at any figures like our own Lincoln, Grant or Lee.

Until we can make some sense of the menu of players we, meaning the man on the street, will be scratching our heads and deferring judgment to those with more accurate intel. Unless we can ascertain what the competitors will do over the long term with regard to building a viable nation we really can’t commit to any faction. If the model is one of an emerging leader, then we can have a positive role to play in stabilizing the region. If we can determine a preferable outcome for the Iraqi people we have a goal to aim for. If we can contribute to security while these questions are answered it can be worth the cost of the candle. But if we can’t answer the questions then it becomes a situation in which we merely endanger ourselves while trying to stand between the warring parties.

If a determination isn’t made soon, the long term impact on the American polity is going to be unfortunately similar to that of the Vietnam War. I’ve long resisted the tendency to make comparisons because this situation is very different. But in one area it will be similar. If we can’t succeed in stabilizing the situation and withdraw from the area to allow it to descend into total anarchy the stench of our defeat and the conclusion that America cannot be a positive force in the world will dog us for another forty years.

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