Not your average civil war

Our friends at Real Clear Politics have posted two pieces on whether Iraq is experiencing a civil war. Charles Krauthammer says yes; Ralph Peters says no. The debate matters rhetorically because the term “civil war” connotes a disaster of epic proportions, and certainly something qualitatively worse than internal violence that falls short of civil war.

Whether the situation in Iraq rises to the level of a civil war depends, of course, on how one defines the term. If one defines it as violence between forces within a country for political purposes which produces significant casualties, then Iraq is having a civil war and has been for several years. If one defines it as something comparable to past situations that have been deemed civil wars, then (as I argue below) the answer is different.

I prefer the latter definition. Definitions should be consistent with past usage, especially when the debate arises in the context of one side of a political debate trying to conjure up visions of the horrors associated with past civil wars.

Peters points to past clashes which indisputably constituted civil wars — our own Civil War, the Spanish Civil War, the Korean and Vietnamese civil wars, and civil wars in China, Yugoslavia and Africa — and shows that they were vastly different in nature and scope from what is occurring in Iraq. One can also consider clashes that generally were not regarded as amounting to war or civil war. At times in Israel, terrorists have been able to kill people on a regular basis. But this killing was not labeled a war, and had it been conducted by Israeli Arabs instead of Palestinians would not have been considered a civil war. The main missing ingredients were an organized opposition army in Israel and the ability of the terrorists to hold territory there.

But even the existence of an opposition military force capable of holding a town or two until government troops arrive generally isn’t considered enough to convert an insurrection into a civil war. These types of situations have existed at various times in places like the Philippines, Peru, and perhaps Bolivia when Che Guevara led local insurgents against the government. Sometimes they persist for years. But to my knowledge, they are not called civil wars.

There are differences between what is happening in Iraq and what occurred in the situations I just mentioned. But Iraq far more closely resembles these insurrections than it does the paradigmatic civil wars Peters cites.

JOHN adds: I agree. A civil war is a species of war. If it isn’t a war, it can’t be a civil war. A “war” exists when opposing armies take the field; such is not the case in Iraq. What is happening there is not a war, it is terrorism, pure and simple.

What the terrorists are doing in Iraq, they could do here. If terrorists started exploding IEDs along American highways, would we be experiencing a “civil war”? No. The fact that most of the terrorists in Iraq belong to a particular religious faction does not convert their terrorism into war.

Actually, I think this point is an important one. What makes the situation in Iraq difficult is not that a war is going on. There was a war, and we won it easily. The situation is difficult in Iraq precisely because it is not a war, civil or otherwise; it is terrorism, which is far less devastating than war, but much harder to bring to an end. If we can’t outlast terrrorists in Iraq, what reason is there to think we can outlast them anywhere else, including here?

JOHN adds more: Someone will no doubt object, “Haven’t you yourself continued to refer to “the war in Iraq” right up to the present? Yup, guilty as charged. Maybe I should start calling it “the period of extensive terrorism and widespread criminal violence in the aftermath of the war.” Only it would take too long to type.

That led to what is, in my mind, anyway, a more interesting question: If the Global War on Terror is a “new kind of war,” why can’t what’s happening in Iraq be a “new kind of civil war”? (Which brings to mind the observation that the people who are most anxious to describe the current situation in Iraq as a “civil war” are, for the most part, the same ones who don’t want to admit that our worldwide anti-terror struggle is, as President Bush insists, a “war.” Krauthammer, of course, is not in this category.)

To answer that question, I think we have to go back to the beginning and ask why it is legitimate (iimportant, in my opinion) to call the GWOT a war. I think there are at least two reasons. First, acknowledging that we are at war recognizes that Islamic terrorism poses an existential threat to our civilization. It is not just a “nuisance” or a “tragedy.” Second, it implies a willingness to use military force and to fight actual wars, if necessary. So far, two wars have been fought pursuant to the GWOT: in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But as President Bush has repeatedly emphasized, the War on Terror has many facets; often, it is fought through intelligence and law enforcement. If we eavesdrop on an al Qaeda cell in Italy and notify the Italian authorities, and Italian police or military forces apprehend the terrorists, we are not at war with Italy and Italy is not experiencing a civil war, even though the events were an episode in the GWOT.

It seems to me that it is helpful to distinguish “war” from the other facets of the GWOT. Not all violence is “war.” In the Middle East, for example, Israel’s Arab neighbors have inflicted violence on her more or less continuously since 1948. But any historian will say that during that time, three wars have been fought. The Six Day War is called the Six Day War because it was over after (give or take) six days, notwithstanding that violence continued thereafter.

What is now happening in Iraq is unquestionably a front in the Global War on Terror; indeed, the principal front, as the terrorists themselves say. But the war that we fought against Saddam’s army, which began in March 2003, has been over for some time. What we are combatting now is a campaign of terrorism that is, as far as I know, unprecedented in world history, combined with a good deal of criminal violence in what remains a relatively lawless part of the world. The violence there, while sometimes horrific, does not, as Paul pointed out, satisfy the criteria that have traditionally defined a “civil war,” or, more broadly, as I added, a “war.”

I’m not sure how important all of this is, but for me, anyway, this conclusion emerges: the situation in Iraq is difficult precisely because it is not conventional warfare, civil or otherwise. What is being driven home day after day in Iraq is how many factors the terrorist has in his favor, and how hard terrorism is to extirpate. If there were an easy way to prevent someone from loading up the trunk of a car with fertilizer and detonating it in a public place, our troops would have done it long ago. Likewise with preventing IEDs, suicide bombers, and so on.

The difficulty of ridding a country of terrorists is not, in my opinion, grounds for giving up in Iraq. Everything the terrorists are doing there, they–the same people, and their allies–will do here if given the opportunity. I spent last evening at the Mall of America. There is nothing–absolutely nothing–to prevent a terrorist from bringing a bomb into that building, the biggest shopping center in the U.S., and killing hundreds of Americans. This is what al Qaeda and the other Islamic terrorist groups want to do, and they will do it if they can.

If the United States is ultimately subjected to the same scale of terrorism that is now occurring in Iraq, we will not be experiencing a civil war. But we will be in very deep trouble.

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