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The Wagging of the 'Civil' Tongues

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, August 22, 2006

It's official: The Iraq Civil War has begun -- not necessarily in Iraq, but in Washington, where an all-out fight has broken out over whether what is happening on the Tigris can be called a civil war.

"You know, I hear a lot of talk about civil war," President Bush said at the top of a news conference yesterday. "I'm concerned about that, of course."

But not that concerned. An unusually gloomy Bush admitted with Carter-esque candor that he has been "frustrated" and that Iraq is "straining the psyche of our country." Civil war, however, was not part of his confession. "The security forces remain united behind the government," he said.

Two hours later, former ambassador Peter Galbraith presented a rather different view to the Middle East Institute in Dupont Circle. "There is a civil war, and it is a lot like Lebanon in the '70s and '80s," he declared. "The United States basically has a choice: Either we use our forces to stop the civil war, or we withdraw."

The uninitiated might wonder about the point of such a dispute. With 3,500 civilians killed in Iraq last month, you could call it a ham sandwich and the scene would be no less gruesome. But don't tell that to policymakers here.

Gen. John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander for the region, started the name game earlier this month, when he told a Senate committee that "it is possible that Iraq could move toward civil war."

About the same time, William Patey, the departing British ambassador to Iraq, cautioned that "a low-intensity civil war and a de facto division of Iraq is probably more likely at this stage than a successful and substantial transition to a stable democracy."

That's all Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) needed to hear. "This is a civil war," he declared.

Facing a linguistic insurrection, the administration rallied its semantic defenses. "They have sectarian differences, and some of those are violent," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said. "It's not civil war."

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld argued that Iraq would not have civil war until the Confederates attack Fort Sumter. "It seems to me that it is not a classic civil war at this stage," Professor Rumsfeld argued. "It certainly isn't like our civil war."

And White House press secretary Tony Snow was categorical. "There is not a civil war going on," he said last week.

But the label would not go away. "We in fact are in probably a low-grade, maybe a very defined civil war," Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) proposed over the weekend.

Into this rhetorical minefield stepped an anxious Bush yesterday morning. "These aren't joyous times," he acknowledged as he probed the nation's strained psyche. He started with an opening statement about Lebanese reconstruction, but the Associated Press's Terry Hunt yanked him right into Iraq, reminding him about "the highest civilian monthly toll since the war began."

Hunt said nothing about civil war, but Bush raised the subject himself. "I've talked to a lot of people about it, and what I've found from my talks are that the Iraqis want a unified country," he reported.

ABC News's Martha Raddatz was not satisfied. "The violence has gotten worse in certain areas," she reminded him. "Is it not time for a new strategy?"

Bush acted as if Raddatz were Cindy Sheehan. "We're not leaving, so long as I'm the president," he vowed. "That would be a huge mistake. It would send an unbelievably terrible signal to reformers across the region. It would say we've abandoned our desire to change the conditions that create terror. It would give the terrorists a safe haven from which to launch attacks. It would embolden Iran. It would embolden extremists."

"Sir," Raddatz pointed out, "that's not really the question."

Bush shook his head in disbelief. "Sounded like the question to me," he said.

The president reached for the playful banter that served him well in past dealings with the press. Three times he paused to call attention to the seersucker suit on Cox News correspondent Ken Herman. "Just ridiculous-looking," the president teased.

But reporters were stuck in the humorless rut of internecine war. "It seems that al-Qaeda and foreign fighters are much less of a problem," said NBC's Kelly O'Donnell, "and that it really is Iraqi versus Iraqi."

Bush didn't like that formulation. "I would surmise that some of the more spectacular bombings are done by al-Qaeda suiciders," he said, only then adding: "No question there's sectarian violence as well."

No question. Things are so nasty in Baghdad that the Kurds have started a marketing campaign borrowing from the pork industry, calling their land "The Other Iraq." And at the nonpartisan Middle East Institute yesterday, the session's title presumed that the debate about Iraq's status was over: "Exit Strategies in a Civil War."

"You have a government that isn't a government, a nation that isn't a nation," said Galbraith, Clinton administration ambassador to Croatia. His answer: withdrawal.

"If we do what I recommend, there will be horrific sectarian cleansing in the mixed areas, particularly in Baghdad, and civil war," he said. "If we stay the course, there will be horrific sectarian cleansing in Baghdad, and civil war."

No wonder Bush preferred to talk about seersucker.

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