Friday, February 02, 2007

Does Iraq Have a Civil War Redoux?

Nearly seven months ago, I blogged on the possibility that Iraq was already suffering a civil war despite the strong protestations by the Bush Administrations that it was not. Today, a National Intelligence Estimate, which I picked up from the Washington Post and you should be able easily to find, came out saying:
The Intelligence Community judges that the term “civil war” does not adequately capture the complexity of the conflict in Iraq, which includes extensive Shia-on-Shia violence, al-Qa’ida and Sunni insurgent attacks on Coalition forces, and widespread criminally motivated violence. Nonetheless, the term “civil war” accurately describes key elements of the Iraqi conflict, including the hardening of ethno-sectarian identities, a sea change in the character of the violence, ethno-sectarian mobilization, and population displacements.
In my blog I hesitated to proclaim unequivocally that Iraq's internal strife was a civil war. I find it interesting that in the passage just quoted, the NIE hedges a bit suggesting that a civil war might be part of what is going on.

I was inspired to descend to my blog room (i. e., what my wife calls "our so-called study") by hearing Defense Secretary William Gates say that what is going on does not match up with what he thinks of as a civil war. He had in mind dual competing governments and a divided or two separate armies going at each other. This would be close to the default understanding of a civil war that we all very well might share.

As a linguist, I caution against carrying on a political debate that relies on how one defines the concept of a civil war for as Ludwig Wittgenstein said years ago in his Philosophical Investigations, one of the great books of the 20th century in my estimation, most words and "fixed expressions" like "civil war" do not admit of a definition consisting of a univocal set of properties that specify all of the things covered by the word or fixed expression and nothing else. What counts as a "ball" must include baseballs and cricket balls, basketballs, American footballs, rugby balls, balls of twine, and many other things. Being round is important but the moon is more or less round and isn't a ball. and balls of twine rule out "used in games" though doubtless some kids somewhere have stolen someone's ball of twine and used it as a ball. What Wittgenstein said was that these things exhibit family resemblances to each other, some more like what one might call a paradigmatic ball such as a baseball or cricket ball, both of which are round, and others deviating from it in varying degrees. Rugby balls are not quite ovoid but are certainly not round. And they are all made of different sorts of things.

The notion of a "civil war" is also subject to this same problem. The American Civil war might be one's idea of a paradigmatic civil war since we had two governments and two standing armies. The Russian or French Revolutions were civil wars not involving two independent governments and they differed from each other in nature. The recent Ethiopian invasion of Somalia was part of a civil war since it supported a nearly defunct government in a fight against Islamic revolutionaries. So, one could argue, as the NIE does, that a civil war might be part of what is going in in Iraq.

In reality, the important thing is not what we call it but how we describe it. After giving a description of who is fighting whom (a long list I fear) then we are in a position to decide what aspects of the fighting we might have some ability to affect and what not and to try to restrict ourselves to doing just that. Bush has given our military at least two aims -- stop the killing of each other by groups of Shiites and Sunnis and try to destroy the so-called "insurgent" forces. Sadly, this is where we were before the last election when the people spoke loudly and clearly as to how they feel about continuing this war. However, Bush decided to escalate the war using Johnson's method of adding more troops. How many of you think he is just buying time so that he can get out of Dodge before we see people dangling from the runners of the last helicopter to leave Baghdad?

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Blogger HSin Sung Lee said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:32 PM

Blogger High Power Rocketry said...

: )

10:26 AM

Blogger Escape.... Great Escape said...

I think what you are saying is correct. I also predict that the state of Iraq qill be split into two or three easily manageable chunks. Like India and Pakistan...

There will be a lot of problems in deciding who will have control of th oil wells. I have a feeling we are just starting out with the problems in Iraq.

This is going to snowball into a huge problme with effects even 50 years down the line.

1:18 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

I couldn't agree more, Great Escape. We are in a spiral descending downward to a hellish state of affairs. If I thought we could correct the situation I would be for staying there and trying to help but I can't see us doing more than diverting attention away from the main problem. The Sunnis want the pawer they had back. They are in their own minds superior to the Shiites. A tripartite arrangement will happen I suspect, with resultant problems in the North with Turkish Kurds and Iranian Kurds wanting to form Kurdistan by adding their parts to the part that the Iraqi Kurds have.

7:48 AM

Blogger Karl Keller said...

Why has the phrase "civil war" been thrust upon the discussion of Iraq ove the past 6 - 9 months?

Because the subtext of the phrase is "civil war -- as in, we shouldn't be involved in them BECAUSE they are civil wars."

It has a nice circular logic disguised cleverly as an implicit syllogism.

Both the NIE and Iraq Study Group reports did a very good job of describing the situation in Iraq which can basically summed up as an odd admixture of jihadist insurgents with cadres of suicide-accepting minions, militias with loose-to-strong political affiliations, criminal gangs, and roving bands of sectarian revenge killers and proto-genocidists.

It may not be a "civil war," but it's a handful.

My view has always been that if you looked at the 25 million people in Iraq in totality, a lot more of them want a "civil society" than like the idea of "civil strife." ("Civil Strike, Civil Conflict" are the terms I would vote for). But the reality is that three guys in a garage can build a car bomb, drive it into a marketplace, kill hundreds, and get on CNN for worldwide exposure, and credit for perpetuating a "civil war."

Frankly, what we have in Iraq is the prospect not of civil war in the traditional sense, but large scale genocide...as in 3 million Sunnis in Baghdad forcibly evicted and slaughtered. Because in my view, civil war has a political motivation. Sherman marched to the sea to get the south BACK. The Mahdi Army would drive the Sunni's into Anbar province to destroy them.

A distinction, I would argue, with a difference.

1:38 PM


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