When Is a Civil War a Civil War?


Things have taken a turn for the worse in Iraq. The conflict is being portrayed as a re-emergence of radical islamic insurgency. But the distorted “nation building” process the US initiated with its 2003 invasion and occupation has resulted in the inevitable: a civil war and possible three-way partition of the country.

Back in 2006 I wrote something about how there was a substantial discourse in the US that the invasion and occupation would ultimately produce a Civil War, but it was largely discounted and marginalized. For what it’s worth, I’m going to publish it here:

When Is a Civil War a Civil War?

An Iraq War Priming

Just as the average American was returning to business as usual after the Thanksgiving weekend, a small controversy erupted in the media. Matt Lauer, the host of NBC’s Today show, soberly announced that his network would be using “Civil War” to describe the 3 ½ year old conflict in Iraq. With ex-drug czar General Barry McCaffrey in tow, Lauer addressed the audience as if he were breaking the fourth estate’s fourth wall:

“As you know, for months now the White House has rejected claims that the situation in Iraq has deteriorated into civil war. And for the most part, news organizations, like NBC, have hesitated to characterize it as such. But, after careful consideration, NBC News has decided the change in terminology is warranted — that the situation in Iraq, with armed militarized factions fighting for their own political agendas, can now be characterized as civil war.”

The nuanced use of the phrase civil war has been a kind of barometer for the ability of the Bush administration to control the perception of the American public since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Many, particularly in the European press, have argued that Iraq has been in a civil war since just a few months after the invasion. But the mainstream U.S. press has been loathe to describe it in those terms, even engaging in long debates with itself about what constitutes a civil war. Up until Lauer made his fateful pronouncement a few weeks ago, the mainstream media’s answer to the question “when is a civil war a civil war” was best characterized by the Clintonian rejoinder, “that depends on what is is.”

Who’s Priming Who?

 In their book, News That Matters, Shanto Iyengar and Donald R. Kinder studied the reactions of groups of television watchers to certain emphases in programming that were artificially manipulated by researchers. They found that if certain issues or points of information took up more time in the broadcast, viewers tended to have the opinion that they were more important. Conversely, certain ideas or concepts that were elided from news coverage decreased in importance and were removed from a process of consideration that the average person used to form political opinions. This phenomenon, which could be potentially employed by network news broadcasts, and by extension major newspapers and news magazines, was called “priming.”

“By providing glimpses of some aspects of national life while neglecting others, television news helps define the standards that viewers apply to presidential performance,” write Iyengar and Kinder while formulating a theory of priming. The media engage in a kind of priming of their audience by choosing which issues to emphasize in a process that we expect is a matter of professional judgment. “The New York Times journalists, although they may indeed be American patriots, see their day-to-day task as reporting the news, not elucidating a party line,” writes Michael Schudson in his introductory essay to The Power of News. “They believe in fair and objective reporting.”

This objective judgment, including the ability to ascertain “what is news” as opposed to what isn’t, has been called into question by the increasing sophistication of Presidential administrations to control their message. By being as engaging with the press as a shrewd Hollywood actor would be, Ronald Reagan was able to live off the dramatic spectacles of his foreign policy while diminishing its failures, and in the end, avoided being mired in the Iran-Contra scandal.

But it has been argued that the Bush administration is an entirely different animal from what the national press has faced before. In his January 19, 2004 New Yorker column, veteran media critic Ken Auletta seems to be arguing that the rules of the game have changed. “In other Administrations, the chief of staff and key deputies—people like Deaver and James A. Baker III, during the Reagan-Bush years, and John Podesta and Leon Panetta, under Clinton—have usually been open with reporters; they’ve even courted the press.” While Iyengar and Kinder argue that the press performs a necessary function by filtering the news for the public, which would otherwise be overwhelmed by torrents of information, Auletta paints a scenario where the Bush administration is drastically curtailing the availability of information:

Every modern President has complained about “unfair” and “cynical” reporters and has tried to circumvent the press “filter,” just as White House correspondents routinely complain that their access is restricted, that the Administration is hostile or deceptive….What seems new with the Bush White House is the unusual skill that it has shown in keeping much of the press at a distance while controlling the news agenda. And for perhaps the first time the White House has come to see reporters as special pleaders—pleaders for more access and better headlines—as if the press were simply another interest group, and, moreover, an interest group that’s not nearly as powerful as it once was.

The relationship between the Bush administration and the Washington press may be symptomatic of the simultaneous consolidation of media power and fragmentation of media outlets that has developed in the era of globalization. While the audience for traditional broadcast and print outlets has shrunk, the number of news outlets has expanded, and the Bush media manipulators have capitalized on these changes. The famous Karl Rove talking points and the leading edge of rightist “on message” propaganda expounded by the Fox News network enjoy a symbiotic relationship, and have a way of setting the agenda for the rest of the major network coverage.

The lead-up to the Iraq War was a carefully crafted priming campaign. The administration began with several semantic turns of phrase to describe their motivation in prosecuting the war in Iraq. “For most news, the primary mode of explanation is ‘motives.’ Acts have agents, agents have intentions, intentions explain acts.” They identified an “axis of evil” (coined by speechwriter David Frum, one-time assistant editorial page editor at The Wall Street Journal), a “threat to national security,” and devised a war of “liberation.” Ken Adelman, former assistant to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, wrote in the February 22, 2002 Washington Post that overthrowing Saddam Hussein and liberating Iraq would be a “cakewalk.” With every effort made to emphasize that American troops would be greeted as purveyors of democracy, they ensured that civil war would the furthest thing from the national psyche.

Civil War: It Is What It Is

But even the best laid plans to control the perception of a President’s actions, and his administration’s policies, are easily disrupted by human events, especially if they are as convulsive as the war in Iraq. The invasion of Iraq, based on faulty intelligence, and motivated variously by a desire to dominate an oil-rich area and a fundamentalist Christian urgency to spread democracy, was never attended by a debate on what was likely to follow: a civil war.

The process of globalization has created enormous wealth, which has blinded those in power to its own processes, most notably, the erosion of nations and national identities. The breakup of the Soviet Union engendered the violent break up of Yugoslavia and eventually, ethnic cleansing in Kosovo; the long arc of the postcolonial era exploded in violence in Rwanda; ethnic war rages in Sri Lanka. It should have been common knowledge, given the United States’ long involvement with Iraq, including the Gulf War of 1991, that Saddam Hussein was a despotic ruler from an ethnic minority, the Sunnis, and his rule had built up vast reservoirs of resentment from the majority Shia, and another minority, the Kurds. This should have generated speculation in the media that trouble might emerge if Hussein were deposed.

As was pointed out on Media Matters.com by Eric Boehlert, author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush, Lexis-Nexis searches showed convincingly that for the most part, such discussion was strikingly absent from the media in the lead-up to the war. Major newspapers like The New York Times and the Washington Post failed to produce detailed analyses of the possibility and the major networks failed to mention the possibility at all.

A piece by Erick Black and Bob Von Sternberg in the September 29, 2002 Minneapolis Star Tribune raised the possibility of a civil war only after a long discussion of the legitimacy of preemptive strike against a security threat. Nicolas Kristoff did warn the United States to keep its eyes open for civil war risks in September 2002. Christopher Hitchens explains in the last column he wrote for the Nation before being bounced from that paragon of liberalism that he is “on the side of civil society” in the “civil war now burning across the Muslim world from Indonesia and Nigeria,” a view strangely prescient of recent Bush claims to be supporting moderates over extremists. During Ramadan in February 2o03, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution interviewed an Arab man-on-the-street, Asad Abdullah Ishakat, who feared that a likely civil war resulting from an invasion of Iraq would create a flood of refugees that would destabilize his home country of Jordan.

       Yet instead of acknowledging the risk of a civil war in Iraq, two well-known neoconservatives flipped the script by using the phrase “Civil War” to refer to the 19th century War Between the States, effectively camouflaging its inevitability. In his October 14, 2002 editorial for the Chicago Sun-Times, entitled “Now What Do We Do in Iraq?” Robert Novak opines that Rumsfeld’s manner “recalls the abrasive strategies demonstrated by war secretaries in the mold of Edwin Stanton during the Civil War.” A little over two months later, former deputy secretary of defense and Iraq War architect Paul Wolfowitz writes in the Washington Post that a painting he hangs in his office “depicting the Civil War battlefield of Antietam on the day after” was “a reminder of what it means for Americans to risk their lives in combat for their country.”

By the time Secretary of State Colin Powell made his famous appearance at the UN presenting the case the Bush administration had cobbled together for invading Iraq, the notion of assessing the risks of civil war was never in play. The false narratives of Niger selling uranium tubes to Iraq and the aerial view surveillance photos depicting chemical weapons plants had been put into evidence, the work of UN weapons inspectors dismissed, and all that remained was the final order to attack.

If It Walks Like a Civil War and Talks Like a Civil War, It’s an Al Qaeda-Fomented Insurgency

In mid-August 2003, a major outbreak of violence in Najaf set off a flurry of articles in the European press, sounding the alarm of the onset of the feared civil war. Robert Fisk, a well-known maverick contributor for the Independent in London, announced its beginnings in dramatic terms:

For what is happening, in the Sunni heartland around Baghdad and now in the burgeoning Shia nation to the south, is not just the back-draft of an invasion or even a growing guerrilla war against occupation. It is the start of a civil war in Iraq that will consume the entire nation if its new rulers do not abandon their neo-conservative fantasies and implore the world to share the future of the country with them.

The warning signs for the Bush administration should have been apparent on September 7, 2003, a couple of weeks after the Najaf massacre, when Tim Russert interviewed Colin Powell on Meet the Press. He asked Powell, among other things, difficult questions like: Do we support Israel’s policy of assassinating Hamas leadership? Where are [the WMD in Iraq]? Will we ever find them? Was our intelligence overstated? Is [Vietnam] happening again?

But there was no mention of civil war. The speculation seems to have been begun by Jack Kelly in a November 2003 editorial in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, where he warns of a civil war if the United States withdraws after elections are held. On January 4, 2004, the Christian Science Monitor reported on a dialog in Baghdad between Shia and Sunni that might head off a “possible civil war,” still relegated to a worst-case scenario. Then, on January 22, 2004, Knight-Ridder ran a story about unnamed CIA officers in Iraq who were warning the administration that civil war was possible.

In the first two months of 2004, revelations of the leak of Valerie Plame’s name as an undercover CIA agent, ostensibly orchestrated by the Karl Rove began to trickle into news broadcasts. Disgruntled Bushie Paul O’Neill revealed on 60 Minutes that his administration had been planning to invade Iraq since before the World Trade Center Attacks. In February, CIA director George Tenet testified before a Senate panel that one Abu Musab Zarqawi had emerged as a major threat in Iraq. As described in a March 3, 2004 article in The Washington Post, Zarqawi had direct contact with Al Qaeda leaders (a 17-page letter was found when an emissary was captured in Iraq), and he was “promoting Sunni [against Shiite] predominance within the Islamic community.” Without mentioning civil war, the article suggests that Zarqawi’s great mission was to stave off democracy by fomenting civil war.

By the first anniversary of the invasion, most of the mainstream press was following the Bush line that civil war in Iraq was now the result of a deliberate Al Qaeda policy. The Abu Ghraib photos provided the first major critique of the war, but they did not promote a discussion of civil war. The May 23, 2004 edition of the Sunday Washington Post featured an op ed by conservatives Lewis E. Lerhrman and William Kristol entitled “Crush the Insurgents in Iraq,” which once again invoked the War Between the States.

“Today there is considerable despair over the situation in Iraq,” say Lerhrman and Kristol. “In August 1865 there was a widespread belief in the North that the Civil War could not be won…But Lincoln pressed forward.”

The Civil War Within the Civil War

In late September of 2004, a National Intelligence Estimate report on the state of the Iraq War was leaked to the press to the great embarrassment of the Bush administration. It stated that as early as January 2003, the administration had been warned of the likelihood of an insurgency and that there was a scenario, albeit a worst-case one, that included intra-ethnic civil war. Despite the preponderance of evidence that the Bush administration was doing a poor job handling the situation in Iraq, President Bush won re-election, probably because of the successfully created perception that his opponent John Kerry was an ineffectual standard bearer of the Northeastern liberal elite.

As calls suggesting the gradual withdrawal of troops began to gain traction, the idea that early withdrawal was a recipe for civil war in Iraq began to appear in the mainstream press with increasing frequency. In the days preceding and following Election Day, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe both suggested that leaving early was risky because the power vacuum could result in a civil war.

Finally, on January 6, 2005, the New York Times’s Thomas L. Friedman came out and said it. Addressing the upcoming elections in Iraq at the end of the month, Friedman mused, “What the Bush team has done in Iraq, by ousting Saddam, was not to ‘liberate’ the country—an image and language imported from the West and inappropriate for Iraq—but rather to unleash the latent civil war in that country.” Giving into the inevitability of civil war, Friedman goes on to say that “the civil war we want is a democratically elected Iraqi government against the Baathist and Islamist militants.”

By the end of February, on Meet the Press, Friedman retreated from that odd bravado in response to a Russert question about a potential tipping point in the conflict, rhetorically asking if “the Shiites, who will dominate the next government basically, will they reach out and share power?”The oppressive reality of the ongoing civil war had created so much indecision in both the pronouncements of the administration and the mainstream press that there were now layers of civil war, refracting against each other until the conflict became an indistinct and random bloody mess.

The Great Flood Brings the Civil War Home

What followed was a strained summer, with antiwar protestor Cindy Sheehan camped out in front of the Bush’s Texas compound. An almost shocking turn of events began to erode the Bush priming machine when his administration demonstrated an astounding display of indifference and incompetence in its handling of Hurricane Katrina and its accompanying flood, which drowned New Orleans. In the weeks that followed, Lynndie England of Abu Ghraib fame was convicted, FEMA commissioner Michael Brown was publicly humiliated, and Bush made his disastrous appointment of yes-woman Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court.

A week after Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff Scooter Libby was indicted in connection with the Valerie Plame affair, Representative John Murtha came out strongly against the war in Iraq. The following Sunday, he appeared on Meet the Press, where Russert advanced the “early withdrawal = civil war” hypothesis, and Murtha explained why the rules had changed.

MR. RUSSERT: Last year in the epilogue to your paperback book, you wrote this: “A war initiated on faulty intelligence must not be followed by a premature withdrawal of our troops based on a political timetable. An untimely exit could rapidly devolve into a civil war, which would leave America’s foreign policy in disarray as countries question not only America’s judgment but also its perseverance.” And this: “It would be an international disaster I think if we pulled out.” Civil war, questioning America’s perseverance, international disaster– why is it any different now than it was a year ago?

REP. MURTHA: I’ll tell you why it’s different. It’s different because there’s no progress at all. When I went to Iraq about two months ago, I talked to the commanders….I can tell how discouraged they are. And this all started from the illusion it was going to be easy. For instance, in the first stage of it, they didn’t have enough troops… I found 40,000 troops without body armor when I went over the first time. I found unarmored Humvees. I found jammers that they needed and I came back and complained about it. It took us too much time to get that done. So the country got out of control.

For the Bush administration, the loss of control was evident. A scandal developed over the sale of port oversight to a company based in Dubai. Democrats and Republicans criticized Bush’s unauthorized wiretapping of American citizens. Vice President Cheney accidentally shot his friend while duck hunting and tried to cover it up. By February of 2006, President Bush’s approval rating was sinking fast, and a CBS News poll showed that the public’s confidence in the media was steadily increasing. At about the same time, Fox News ran almost concurrent reports that the civil war in Iraq “could be a good thing” and that the mainstream media “made it up.”

Matt Lauer’s announcement that a civil war is a civil war last month may mean little else than the fact that the mainstream media has finally severed itself from the priming powers of the Bush administration. But one of the most disturbing quotes in Boehlert’s Media Matters.org column was offered up by Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter: “Imagine if the GOP had retained control of the House and the Senate: You can bet that ‘civil war’ would still be verboten.” It’s telling that even in jest, the mainstream press’s most powerful members still remember their roles as “pleaders.”

Just a few weeks ago, in mid-October, Jeff Stein wrote a piece in The New York Times for which he interviewed several intelligence and law enforcement officials, as well as members of Congress who had important roles in overseeing U.S. spy agencies. The majority of them had no idea what the difference between a Sunni and a Shia was. When he asked Representative Terry Everett, Republican from Alabama, if he knew the difference, he was baffled.

After a brief explanation he said, “Now that you’ve explained it to me, what occurs to me is that it makes what we’re doing over there extremely difficult, not only in Iraq but in the whole area.” Seems like the explanation was a few years late.


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