- The Washington Times - Friday, December 1, 2006

NBC is the first major network to call the war in Iraq a “civil war” instead of an insurgency. With that, a new front is opened in the war over what words best describe the war that Americans are most worried about.

A growing number of correspondents in Iraq have been describing the country as torn apart by “civil war” or, at least, rapidly spiraling into it. But, the White House has rejected the C-word and most major broadcast news media have gone along with that, even if it has meant using such hedge phrases as “approaching civil war” or “near civil war.”

NBC’s Matt Lauer announced on “The Today Show” Monday that his network, “after careful consideration,” had decided that the situation in Iraq, “with armed militarized factions fighting for their own political agendas, can now be characterized as civil war.”

With that, in my view, NBC showed a keen grasp of the obvious. A civil war is a fight between factions or regions within the same culture, society or nationality for political power or control of an area. The situation in Iraq appears to have fit that description for much of the past two years.

Retired Gen. Barry McCaffery, an on-air NBC military consultant, agrees. Monday, he told Mr. Lauer he’d been using the expression “civil war” for quite some time, although with the qualifier “low grade.”

Rival networks CBS, ABC, CNN and Fox News announced no similar change in network policy that day, although some of their reporters have called the conflict a civil war. As CNN’s Michael Ware said Monday, “If this isn’t a civil war, I don’t know what is.”

Among newspapers, the Los Angeles Times jumped out last week as one of the first to call the conflict in Iraq a “civil war,” according to a survey by Editor and Publisher, a leading newspaper trade journal. The Christian Science Monitor also has referred to a “deepening civil war,” the survey found. Most other papers put Iraq on the verge of civil war, but not quite there yet, using terms like “sectarian strife” (The Washington Post), “sectarian conflict” (Reuters), or “sectarian violence” (Associated Press).

All this raises the question of how “deep” the “strife” in a “sectarian conflict” must be before we can call it a war. Or, as CNN’s Mr. Ware might say, if it is not a civil war, what is it?

President Bush continued to dodge the C-word Tuesday, following Iraq’s deadliest week of sectarian fighting since the American occupation began in March 2003. Iraq’s sectarian violence is not from civil war, Mr. Bush said, but “fomented in my opinion because of the attacks by al Qaeda causing people to seek reprisal.” Yet, our president did not explain why, after centuries of feuds, Iraq’s Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds would need Osama bin Laden to goad them into fighting each other now.

Words matter. They shape our perceptions, and perceptions shape our politics and, ultimately, government policy. The Bush administration respects the power of words. It has, at various times, urged the media to use “homicide bombers” to describe suicide bombers, the “death tax” to describe the estate tax and “detainees” to describe prisoners who may be locked up without formal charges. It has used “Clear Skies initiative” to describe relaxation of air pollution curbs and “No Child Left Behind” to describe school reforms that leave some children behind.

Against that record, we should not expect much candor from the White House about the civil war that plainly appears to have broken out in Iraq on Mr. Bush’s watch. In the recent elections, Americans voted resounding discontent with how the war has been handled. If America’s noble mission to bring democracy to the Middle East appears caught between the factions of another country’s civil war, calls for rapid departure can only increase.

Yet, reality matters, too. The nature of the insurgency has grown to the point where various factions are seizing control of large chunks of real estate. A mounting civil war forces Iraqis to take sides or simply run for whatever cover they can find. It also reminds all parties of America’s inevitable departure and the need for Iraqis to take charge of their own destiny. Americans have no intention of staying in Iraq longer than necessary. We have even less intention of getting in the way of disputes that, in the end, only Iraqis and their regional neighbors can work out.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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