Monday, March 6, 2006

What makes a civil war worthy of that designation? Or rather, when is violent conflict sufficiently widespread to warrant the label “civil war”? That would seem to be the question Iraq posed in the aftermath of the bombing of the Shi’ite mosque on Feb. 22.

News accounts following the bombing described Iraq as on the brink of civil war. There were two things striking about these reports. First, a number of observers have long been claiming that Iraq is heading toward civil war, careening toward civil war, slipping into civil war, etc. Some have gone farther, claiming that conditions in Iraq are now those of civil war and have been for some time.

My Hoover Institution colleague Larry Diamond has an article in the current edition of the New Republic citing a common social science formulation: “[A]t least 1,000 dead (with at least 100 on each side) from internal hostilities in which one side tries violently to change the state or its policies.” By most disinterested reckoning, from 12,000 to 20,000 Iraqis have died violently since the April 2003 end of “major combat operations,” and so he concludes that Iraq has been in a condition of civil war since not long after that date. On a panel I was participating in in December, Harvard’s Stephen Walt made a similar case for viewing Iraq as already in civil war.

Second, for the first time in late February, Iraqis themselves were quoted in U.S. press accounts describing their country as “on the brink” of civil war, and it was a judgment in which U.S. military commanders evidently concurred.

Now, as it happens, I do want to split a few hairs here, but before doing so, let’s take note of the obvious: Iraq is both violent and unstable. It is quite possible to envision getting from where we are today, however we want to characterize it, to conditions of all-out civil strife and warfare, including ethnic conflict and cleansing bordering on genocidal. It is likewise clear that at least some of those responsible for the violence would like conditions to deteriorate along those lines: Civil war has been a stated goal of the al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi from the beginning, and it is clear that some percentage of Sunni Iraqis are deeply suspicious of what the future holds for them in an Iraq they no longer dominate politically.

Meanwhile, there have been ample accounts of reprisal killings, and it is clear that some Shi’ite factions would welcome a bloodier confrontation for political supremacy. For those with an appetite for the bitterest irony, imagine a U.N.-authorized, U.S.-United Kingdom led military intervention, opposed by the Shi’ite-dominated government of Iraq, that cites the “responsibility to protect” the Sunni population, including the ex-Ba’athists and al Qaeda supporters, from mass killing by Shi’ite militias.

But, but, but. That is quite apparently not where we are now. Oh, we might have been, if the bombing of the Golden Mosque had set in motion retaliation by Shi’ites against Sunnis on the massive scale that looked to almost everyone like a real possibility on Feb. 23. Perhaps it was swift action by the authorities in imposing a daytime curfew that checked the violent impulses. But I think it is just as plausible to imagine that had mobs insisted on forming spontaneously, there would have been little the authorities could have done to stop them. Either the security presence in Iraq, including such foreign troops as our own and the growing indigenous police and military capability, is much better than generally advertised, or Iraqis themselves, especially Shi’ites, declined to take this opportunity to blow the lid off the country.

It’s because I took very seriously what Iraqis were saying immediately after the bombing of the mosque that I am also taking very seriously what Iraqis are saying now: They have a sense that the moment of extreme crisis has passed. Back from the brink, they are reported saying, and once again, this is apparently a judgment in which U.S. commanders concur.

“Civil war” may have a social-science definition that encompasses the current situation in Iraq. But under current circumstances, the term can take on a specifically polemical purpose as well. That purpose is to evoke conditions of total political failure: the collapse of a central government that has lost its legitimacy in the eyes of violent extremists on all sides, anarchy in the streets, mass killings, ethnic warfare, humanitarian catastrophe, massive refugee flows, etc.

Those are not the conditions that obtain in Iraq today. They might have been if things had gone differently over the past two weeks. Rather than the story of Iraq sliding into civil war, we seem to have the story of Iraqis looking the prospect of civil war in the eye and deciding instead to circle the wagons around their nascent democratic political process and avert civil war.

Mr. Diamond makes a distinction between the social-science definition of civil war he cites and what he calls “all-out civil war.” That is also the distinction between despair and hope, which Iraqis seem to have resolved for now in favor of hope.

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