Defining Civil War Up

Experts agree that Iraq is in a civil war, but somehow that doesn’t seem to stop mainstream media and the White House from saying otherwise.

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Don’t ask me how this happened, but the mainstream media somehow appointed Matt Lauer to decide whether the violence in Iraq now merits being called “a civil war.” “The Today Show” anchor’s brave step was taken only eight months after a CBS News poll found that “more than seven in 10 Americans—majorities of both Democrats and Republicans—say a civil war is currently going on in Iraq, while another 13 percent think civil war is likely to break out in the near future.”

A CNN poll taken between September 22 and 24 similarly found that 65 percent of respondents believe Iraq is currently embroiled in a civil war. And even Colin Powell is calling it a civil war, and calling the president to task for failing to face up to reality.

Yet even this least-credible of all American administrations still apparently gets to decide what constitutes “reality” at The Washington Post. Len Downie, the paper’s executive editor, told Editor and Publisher on Monday that his team of reporters is tasked with nothing more than “just describ[ing] what goes on everyday. We don’t have a policy about it. We are not making judgments one way or another. The language in the stories is very precise when dealing with it. At various times people say it is ‘close to a civil war,’ but we don’t have a policy about it.”

What this statement fails to recognize is that by refusing to call a proverbial spade “a spade,” the paper is participating in a kind of deception that interferes with both policymaking and public opinion with regard to an increasingly desperate situation.

The paper’s reporters are not always so cautious, despite Downie’s reluctance to do more than simply “describe what goes on.” Washington Post reporter Dana Priest went on Hardball Monday night and told Chris Matthews that “We try to avoid the labels, particularly when the elected government itself does not call its situation a civil war. I certainly—and I would agree with General McCaffrey on this—absolutely the level of violence equals a civil war.”

The next day Washington Post reporters Robin Wright and Thomas E. Ricks crept up to the edge of calling the conflict a civil war in a front page piece without crossing the imaginary line Downie has drawn, writing, “The White House again resisted assertions that Iraq is now in a civil war, but that stance is increasingly hard to defend, according to analysts, diplomats and even some U.S. officials in private.”

Rome Hartman, the executive producer of the “CBS Evening News,” apparently agrees with Downie’s stance. He told The New York Observer that Lauer’s announcement was “a political statement, not a news judgment…It should be noted that the day that this pronouncement—and who makes pronouncements anyway? But that’s what it sounded like—was a quiet day, relatively speaking, in Iraq.”

And yet The New York Times published a memo from national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley on Wednesday, whose assessment of Iraq found the following: “Reports of nondelivery of services to Sunni areas, intervention by the prime minister’s office to stop military action against Shia targets and to encourage them against Sunni ones, removal of Iraq’s most effective commanders on a sectarian basis and efforts to ensure Shia majorities in all ministries…all suggest a campaign to consolidate Shia power in Baghdad.”

No matter what CBS News may consider a “political statement,” it’s rather hard to argue that the massive amount of killing taking place inside Iraq—much of it aided and abetted by its U.S.-funded and controlled national government—is not taking place along sectarian lines. Can anyone really argue that a couple “quiet days” in Iraq might smooth over the divisions that the Iraqi government is actively fermenting?

The New York Times’ executive editor Bill Keller, one of the titans of the mainstream media, surprisingly appears to be riding the crest of the wave. Keller announced on Monday that the paper would begin calling the violence a civil war, “sparingly and carefully, not to the exclusion of other formulations, not for dramatic effect.”

But as usual, the Old Grey Lady isn’t the first major newspaper to stare reality in the face and call it what it is. The Christian Science Monitor, The Los Angeles Times, and McClatchy newspapers have all been using the term recently. In other words, it is what it is. Now was that so hard?

And if that’s not enough, I’m willing to once again lean on my “Daily Show” crutch. Jon Stewart talked to correspondent John Oliver on Monday night about what White House press secretary Tony Snow has previously termed “sectarian violence operations” while defining civil war as a situation “where people break up into clearly identifiable feuding sides clashing for supremacy.”

Stewart: Certainly from an Iraqi perspective, what this is called makes no difference.

Oliver: Oh, really? If you have lost a loved one in this conflict, and statistically if you’re an Iraqi you have, wouldn’t you rather know it wasn’t in a civil war but rather a territorial arglebargle of regional qualms?

Stewart: 3,000 Iraqis died just this month. To argue over what to call it seems like semantic quibbling.

Oliver: Semantic quibbling? Oh, well, I wouldn’t call it that.

Stewart: What would you call it?

Oliver: A minor linguistic flare-up between two parties of different terminological points of view.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress and the author of six books. His popular blog, “Altercation,” recently moved from to Media Matters. The new URL is

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Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

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