IN THE NEWS
I have to confess something. I was being extremely dense about the whole "Is Iraq in the thick of a civil war or not?" controversy. Silly me, I took the question at face value. A few weeks ago, I finally realized that there was a deeper, poisoned vein of politics running through the discussion.
If you ask political scientists, "What is a civil war?" you're likely to get as many answers as the experts you ask. In the general contours, you won't find much disagreement. However, you'll find a lot of difference among scholars about the most descriptive term to use, as well as the different species of animal we're describing. Internal war, civil war, revolutionary warfare, guerrilla war--these terms often get jumbled up together. There's little doubt, however, that what we've seen in Iraq for the last three years is a [select your preferred term]. The only real questions are the conflicts' scale, the participants, the strategies they are using, and the stage of the conflict (choose your preferred series of phases).
In nearly every respect, the question "Is it a civil war or not?" is just plain silly. Its dark comedy is visible in both the Bush Administration's tortured efforts to describe the Iraq war as something else, and NBC News' ponderous, pompous declaration that Iraq is riven by civil war. (The label "pompous" is deserved because, the way NBC anchor Matt Lauer announced it, he made it sound as if it were a brave or profound statement. If NBC had quietly changed its terminology for the Iraq war during its regular news broadcasts, the effect would have been much the same. The American public hardly needs convincing.)
The denials that Iraq is in the middle of a civil war are about as naked a lie as you can get. It's the sort of lie that we've come to accept too readily in the United States: we know the speaker doesn't believe a word he's saying, and he knows that we know. The point of the lie, therefore, is purely political, an effort to deflect bad consequences away from you by sheer willpower, demonstrating through laughable semantics exactly how determined you are. Ultimately, lies like these collapse, but they cost valuable time by generating non-controversies.