Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The politics of a semantic debate

As the civil war in Iraq continues to wreak havoc, the big news today is that President Bush has again decreed that there is no such thing as a civil war in Iraq.

Of course, the case can be made that Bush at this point has little credibility on the issue of Iraq; that the polls show that most Americans have simply stopped believing whatever he says about Iraq; that his own emergency tutor on Iraq, Henry Kissinger, has been casually referring to Iraq as “the civil war”; that former Iraqi prime minister Ayad Allawi (a one-time Bush favorite) is calling it a civil war; that Larry Diamond, a former advisor to Bush's Coalition Provisional Authority, calls it a civil war; that a growing legion of scholars are calling it a civil war; that mainstream press operations such as NBC, the Christian Science Monitor, the Los Angeles Times, and McClatchy Newspapers, having examined the facts on the ground, are now calling it a civil war; and that 65 percent of Americans told CNN pollsters two months ago that they believe it’s a civil war….

But none of this holds sway with The Decider.

Stopping earlier today in Estonia, Bush contended that "the sectarian violence rocking Iraq is not civil war, but part of an al Qaeda plot to use violence to goad Iraqi factions into repeatedly attacking each other."

He really needs to get his talking points straight. There have been times in the past when he has sought to educate his fellow Americans by sharing accurate information – for instance, the fact that foreign al Qaeda terrorists are actually only a small percentage (maybe 10) of all the insurgent and sectarian fighters in Iraq; the vast majority are natives. But then there are times, such as today, when Bush either forgets those facts, or simply prefers to conflate the al Qaeda role into a centrally organized plot; either way, his intent today was to find an argument that would help him deny what so many others are seeing with their own eyes, and processing with their own intellects.

Nor is he even in sync with his own White House spin. Yesterday, national security advisor Stephen Hadley surfaced with the argument that the spiraling sectarian violence in Iraq, far from meeting the criteria of a civil war, is actually just a “new phase” of the American mission. But now comes Bush with the argument that, actually, the sectarian violence is just part of an old phase. In his words, “We’ve been in this phase for awhile.” (Apparently, the term “new phase” sounded too much like “worse phase.”)

Actually, given the fact that the spiraling violence is now killing an average of 120 Iraqi citizens a day (that’s the October figure, according to the United Nations), a debate over the civil-war label seems somewhat irrelevant. What difference does it make, to the average Iraqi, whether the 40 or 50 mutilated bodies that turn up each morning on the Baghdad streets were victims of a “civil war” or “sectarian violence?”

In truth, this labeling debate is an American indulgence, intended for an American audience. This is really about domestic politics.

Bush is basically stuck with his denial, because if he was to admit that Iraq was embroiled in a civil war, he would then be virtually declaring that the signature mission of his White House tenure had irrevocably failed; and if he did that, he would come under even more pressure to scale back the number of U.S. troops, since few Americans would see the wisdom of allowing our fighting men and women to remain trapped in a civil war. Indeed, the White House has known this for many months; back in August, a White House aide told Newsweek, "If there's a full-blown civil war, the president isn't going to allow our forces to be caught in the crossfire.”

So, in the next phase, we can probably look forward to a semantic debate over the proper definition of “full-blown.” But for now, as Bush prepares this week to meet with the Iraqi prime minister, and as Democrats and Republicans alike nervously await the findings of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group (in the hopes of finding some political cover), the bottom line is that, regardless of whether the facts on the ground constitute a civil war, there is now a broad consensus that the downward spiral is accelerating. And that the lame duck in the White House lacks the clout to halt it.