Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Don't argue with me about it

The other day I got in a small tiff with a gentleman of the Iraq-is-Vietnam persuasion about whether or not Iraq is a civil-war. My opening salvo questioning the use of the term "civil war" met with more than a bit of consternation and a dash of snark.

I was accused of deflecting by re-defining terms down in an attempt to avoid the reality on the ground in Iraq. Hardly, I must say. I simply wondered whether the term was historically accurate in describing the troubling situation there.

I'm apparently not the only one. The British Military historian John Keegan wondered the same thing in this upcoming month's Prospect magazine piece:

Objectively, it must be concluded that the disorders in Iraq do not constitute a civil war but are nearer to a politico-military struggle for power. Such struggles in Muslim countries defy resolution because Islam is irreconcilably divided over the issue of the succession to Muhammad. It might be said that Islam is in a permanent state of civil war (at least where there is a significant minority of the opposing sect) and that authority in Muslim lands can be sustained only by repression if the state takes on a religious cast, since neither Shia nor Sunni communities can concede legitimacy to their opponents.

The Lebanese civil war of 1975-90 offers perhaps the closest example of the sort of outcome towards which Iraq might be heading. An Iraqi civil war, with seven main factions (pro-Iranian Shias, nationalist Shias, Islamist Sunnis, Baathist Sunnis, pro-state secularist forces, and two major Kurdish mini-governments), would very likely offer the confused and confusing array of shifting allegiances and foggy front lines that characterised much of the Lebanese conflict. Without the clarity of blue versus grey, red versus white, or roundheads versus cavaliers, and no one faction capable of winning, the Lebanese civil war went on for 15 years and ended with a broad negotiated settlement. The factions were fighting for authority, for the most part, especially the Christian Phalange, and the others for smaller nationalist projects. Ultimately the country settled into the uneasy equilibrium touched by an endless succession of flare-ups that we know today.

Full democracies are the states least prone to violent civil disorder; autocracies are the second most orderly. It is intermediate democracies and transitional states that are the least orderly. Iraq, of course, is both a transitional and an intermediate democracy. Even without the peculiarly violent character that has been endemic to Mesopotamia since history began there 6,000 years ago, Iraq would still be in the sweet spot for chaos. Yet apart from the Salafists, the state forces are the only player in the current phase of Iraq's domestic violence that aspires to replace the current constitutional arrangement with its own sole rule. These forces, of course, are the only ones that can have that aspiration, for they are the only players who combine the various sectarian identities, and thus the only ones who possess a theory of rule that might work. The individual sectarian tendencies are too weak to replace the current constitutional order in any foreseeable scenario. So what are they fighting for? Revenge, criminality, ideology and political advantage, but not sole authority over the state.

That's his conclusion and of course getting there is important also. The summarized version is simply (and read the whole thing for an understanding of the elements), the historical elements of a civil-war don't exist at all or are currently not in place. At least at this point.

So why does it matter? Well, words matter, definitions matter when you have two sides of argument trying to pin down what exactly is going on over there. We can both look at it and know it isn't good, but whatever we identify it as ought to be as accurate as we can make it.

Time has not allowed for my researching of another prominent Military historian, Victor Davis Hanson's writings on the subject.

This matters a lot in light of Matt Lauer's attempted Walter Cronkite moment and the NBC screen cap so prominently displayed on Today's Monday broadcast. Supposed experts on Vietnam should have no trouble understanding why.

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