It's a Civil War, Stupid

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, November 27, 2006 1:02 PM

After nearly four years of letting the Bush Administration set the terms of the national debate over Iraq, some major news organizations are finally calling the conflict there what it is: a civil war. The White House is howling in protest.

Here's what Matt Lauer announced on NBC's Today Show this morning: "As you know, for months now the White House has rejected claims that the situation in Iraq has deteriorated into civil war. And for the most part, news organizations, like NBC, have hesitated to characterize it as such. But, after careful consideration, NBC News has decided the change in terminology is warranted -- that the situation in Iraq, with armed militarized factions fighting for their own political agendas, can now be characterized as civil war." Here's some video of Lauer discussing the decision with retired general Barry McCaffrey.

NBC's First Read reports that the response was swift: "The White House is objecting this morning to descriptions of the Iraq conflict as a civil war. National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said, 'The violence is primarily centered around Baghdad and Baghdad security and the increased training of Iraqi Security Forces is at the top of the agenda when [Bush and Maliki] meet later this week.'"

NBC is not alone. Here's Solomon Moore writing in the Saturday Los Angeles Times: "Iraq's civil war worsened Friday as Shiite and Sunni Arabs engaged in retaliatory attacks after coordinated car bombings that killed more than 200 people in a Shiite neighborhood the day before."

Newsweek editor and columnist Fareed Zakaria writes: "We're in the middle of a civil war and are being shot at by both sides.

"There can be no more doubt that Iraq is in a civil war, in which leaders of both its main communities, Sunnis and Shiites, are fomenting violence. . . .

"To speak, as the White House deputy press secretary did last week, of 'terrorists . . . targeting innocents in a brazen effort to topple a democratically elected government' totally misses the reality of Iraq today. Who are the terrorists and who are the innocents?"

Edward Wong wrote in the Sunday New York Times: "In the United States, the debate over the term rages because many politicians, especially those who support the war, believe there would be domestic political implications to declaring it a civil war. They fear that an acknowledgment by the White House and its allies would be seen as an admission of a failure of President Bush's Iraq policy.

"They also worry that the American people might not see a role for American troops in an Iraqi civil war and would more loudly demand a withdrawal.

"But in fact, many scholars say the bloodshed here already puts Iraq in the top ranks of the civil wars of the last half-century. The carnage of recent days -- beginning with bombings on Thursday in a Shiite district of Baghdad that killed more than 200 people -- reinforces their assertion. . . .

"'It's stunning; it should have been called a civil war a long time ago, but now I don't see how people can avoid calling it a civil war,' said Nicholas Sambanis, a political scientist at Yale who co-edited 'Understanding Civil War: Evidence and Analysis,' published by the World Bank in 2005. 'The level of violence is so extreme that it far surpasses most civil wars since 1945.' . . .

"On Friday, Scott Stanzel, a White House spokesman, insisted that the Iraq conflict was not civil war, noting that Iraq's top leaders had agreed with that assessment. Last month, Tony Snow, the chief spokesman for President Bush, acknowledged that there were many groups trying to undermine the government, but said that there was no civil war because 'it's not clear that they are operating as a unified force. You don't have a clearly identifiable leader.'"

Harvard professor Monica Toft wrote on NiemanWatchdog.org in July that there are six criteria for considering a conflict a civil war -- and that Iraq had met all six since early 2004.

Here is CNN's Michael Ware talking to Kitty Pilgrim on Friday:

Pilgrim: "Michael, the Iraqi government and the U.S. military in Baghdad keep saying this is not a civil war. What are you seeing?

"MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, firstly, let me say, perhaps it's easier to deny that this is a civil war, when essentially you live in the most heavily fortified place in the country within the Green Zone, which is true of both the prime minister, the national security adviser for Iraq and, of course, the top U.S. military commanders. However, for the people living on the streets, for Iraqis in their homes, if this is not civil war, or a form of it, then they do not want to see what one really looks like.

"This is what we're talking about. We're talking about Sunni neighborhoods shelling Shia neighborhoods, and Shia neighborhoods shelling back.

"We're having Sunni communities dig fighting positions to protect their streets. We're seeing Sunni extremists plunging car bombs into heavily-populated Shia marketplaces. We're seeing institutionalized Shia death squads in legitimate police and national police commando uniforms going in, systematically, to Sunni homes in the middle of the night and dragging them out, never to be seen again.

"I mean, if this is not civil war, where there is, on average, 40 to 50 tortured, mutilated, executed bodies showing up on the capital streets each morning, where we have thousands of unaccounted for dead bodies mounting up every month, and where the list of those who have simply disappeared for the sake of the fact that they have the wrong name, a name that is either Sunni or Shia, so much so that we have people getting dual identity cards, where parents cannot send their children to school, because they have to cross a sectarian line, then, goodness, me, I don't want to see what a civil war looks like either if this isn't one."

Two More to Come?

Marc Kaufman writes in The Washington Post: "Jordan's King Abdullah, who will host President Bush this week during emergency talks on Iraq, said yesterday that the Middle East faces the prospect of three simultaneous civil wars erupting.

"'We're juggling with the strong potential of three civil wars in the region, whether it's the Palestinians, that of Lebanon, or of Iraq,' the Jordanian king said on ABC's 'This Week.'

"He said that as a result, 'something dramatic' had to come out of this week's Amman meetings between Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. 'I don't think we're in a position where we can come back and revisit the problem in early 2007,' he told interviewer George Stephanopoulos."

Whither the Presidency?

Former presidents Reagan and Clinton both bounced back from midterm elections that didn't go their way. So, as Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "As President Bush struggles to recover from a similar thrashing, his advisers are studying the Clinton and Reagan models for lessons to revive his presidency. . . .

"Both Reagan and Clinton found that the power of the bully pulpit still gave them an advantage over a Congress controlled by the other party. Both Reagan and Clinton used a mix of cooperation and confrontation, moving to the middle on selected issues to pass legislation while standing firm on others that touched on core principles. Both pounced when the other side overreached.

"Whether Bush could emulate those examples is an open question. . . . And unlike Reagan or Clinton, he presides over an unpopular war with no end in sight."

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times: "President Bush leaves for Europe on Monday uncertain of the Washington he will return to, or even his place in it.

"Certainly the pressure is on for Mr. Bush to right a presidency mired in low poll ratings, beset by an unpopular war and claiming few domestic accomplishments in his second term. And the moment would seem to call for something drastic.

"But official Washington remains unsure of which way he may go in trying to salvage his legacy. Will he continue on as if nothing has changed, pursuing conservative policies he believes history will smile upon later, even if it means getting nothing past a Democratic Congress here and now? Or will he move to the political center and seek deals with Democrats that will sour conservatives but leave him with a longer list of accomplishments?"

And which of these sound more like the real Rove?

Baker's story includes this quote "'Let's let the election go,' White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove said in a recent interview. 'Let's say, "Okay, where are some places where we can work together?" ' "

But Rutenberg writes: "Republicans close to the White House said Mr. Rove was already arguing that Mr. Bush should move to bolster his support with conservatives, who make up his base and will compose a greater proportion of the Republican Congressional caucus after an election in which many moderate Republicans lost their seats, some to conservative Democrats."

The Cheney Factor

Vice President Cheney may or may not be in Bush's doghouse, but as long as he remains in the picture at all, you can be assured that cooperation will only go so far.

Charlie Savage writes in the Boston Globe about Cheney's relentless quest to expand executive power: "The Constitution empowers Congress to pass laws regulating the executive branch, but over the course of his career, Cheney came to believe that the modern world is too dangerous and complex for a president's hands to be tied. He embraced a belief that presidents have vast 'inherent' powers, not spelled out in the Constitution, that allow them to defy Congress.

"Cheney bypassed acts of Congress as defense secretary in the first Bush administration. And his office has been the driving force behind the current administration's hoarding of secrets, its efforts to impose greater political control over career officials, and its defiance of a law requiring the government to obtain warrants when wiretapping Americans. Cheney's staff has also been behind President Bush's record number of signing statements asserting his right to disregard laws.

"A close look at key moments in Cheney's career -- from his political apprenticeship in the Nixon and Ford administrations to his decade in Congress and his tenure as secretary of defense under the first President Bush -- suggests that the newly empowered Democrats in Congress should not expect the White House to cooperate when they demand classified information or attempt to exert oversight in areas such as domestic surveillance or the treatment of terrorism suspects."

Seymour Hersh writes in the New Yorker: "In interviews, current and former Administration officials returned to one question: whether Cheney would be as influential in the last two years of George W. Bush's Presidency as he was in its first six."

Thus far, the vice president would appear to be up to his normal tricks. Hersh writes: "The Administration's planning for a military attack on Iran was made far more complicated earlier this fall by a highly classified draft assessment by the C.I.A. challenging the White House's assumptions about how close Iran might be to building a nuclear bomb. . . .

"A current senior intelligence official confirmed the existence of the C.I.A. analysis, and told me that the White House had been hostile to it. The White House's dismissal of the C.I.A. findings on Iran is widely known in the intelligence community. Cheney and his aides discounted the assessment, [a] former senior intelligence official said."

The Iraq Study Group

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "A draft report on strategies for Iraq, which will be debated here by a bipartisan commission beginning Monday, urges an aggressive regional diplomatic initiative that includes direct talks with Iran and Syria but sets no timetables for a military withdrawal, according to officials who have seen all or parts of the document.

"While the diplomatic strategy appears likely to be accepted, with some amendments, by the 10-member Iraq Study Group, members of the commission and outsiders involved in its work said they expected a potentially divisive debate about timetables for beginning an American withdrawal. . . .

"President Bush is not bound by the commission's recommendations, and during a trip to Southeast Asia that ended just before Thanksgiving, he made it clear that he would also give considerable weight to studies under way by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and his own National Security Council. . . .

"But privately, administration officials seem deeply concerned about the weight of the findings of the Baker-Hamilton commission. . . .

"Mr. Bush spent 90 minutes with commission members in a closed session at the White House two weeks ago 'essentially arguing why we should embrace what amounts to a "stay the course" strategy,' said one commission official who was present."

Robin Wright writes in The Washington Post: "In the history of U.S. foreign policy, there's been nothing like it: a panel outside government trying to bail the United States out of a prolonged and messy war. . . .

"The innocuously titled Iraq Study Group . . . has evolved into a parallel policy establishment over the past eight months."

But were the group's conclusions foreordained by how its members were chosen?

Wright writes: "The panel was deliberately skewed toward a centrist course for Iraq, participants said. Organizers avoided experts with extreme views on either side of the Iraq war debate.

"Neoconservatives, who supported and crafted much of the original Iraq strategy, say the panel was stacked against them."

And yet liberal blogger Glenn Greenwald asks: "Is withdrawal -- whether incremental or total -- considered to be an 'extreme view' that the Washington 'centrists' have not only rejected but have excluded in advance even from consideration? That's what this article seems to suggest, and that would definitely be consistent with conventional Beltway wisdom -- that withdrawal is advocated only by the fringe radicals and far leftists (such as the individual whom Americans just knowingly installed as Speaker of the House). . . .

"If the Commission begins with the premise that we have to stay in Iraq and then only considers proposals for how to modify our strategy on the margins, that is anything but centrist. To the contrary, that is a close-minded -- and rather extremist -- commitment to the continuation of a war which most Americans have come to despise and want to see brought to an end."

White House in Motion

So what was Cheney trying to accomplish in Saudi Arabia this weekend? We can only guess.

The New York Times reports: "Vice President Dick Cheney traveled to Riyadh, the Saudi capital, on Saturday to discuss regional security issues with King Abdullah. . . .

"The meeting at the king's palace, which lasted for a few hours . . . touched on 'the whole range of events and developments on the regional and international scenes,' according to the Saudi Press Agency, particularly 'the Palestinian issue and the situation in Iraq.'

"Mr. Cheney left the country shortly after the meeting to return to the United States."

Donna Abu-Nasr writes for the Associated Press: "Before the meeting, a Saudi official said Cheney was expected to ask oil-rich Saudi Arabia to use its considerable influence with Iraq's Sunni Arab minority to promote reconciliation with Iraqi Shiites and Kurds."

William Douglas and Hannah Allam write for McClatchy Newspapers: "President Bush travels to Europe and the Middle East on Monday to seek help with the two biggest problems dogging his presidency: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"After a quick stop Monday in Estonia, Bush is to arrive in Riga, Latvia, for a two-day North American Treaty Organization meeting that will focus on the 26-nation alliance's struggle to secure Afghanistan against resurgent Taliban forces.

"From Riga, Bush is to fly Wednesday to Amman, Jordan, for a hastily arranged meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, where they'll discuss ways to speed the transfer of security to Iraqi control."

Checked Out?

Liberal blogger Josh Marshall writes: "Is it just me or has George W. Bush checked out of the stumbling national crisis we know as 'Iraq'? . . .

"The one thing that's been a constant over the last three and a half years is the president as the voice of American Iraq policy. Whether he's the author of it is another question entirely. But the voice and pitbull of it, always.

"And yet since the election he seems to have disappeared from the conversation entirely. Like he's just checked out. . . . Like it's not his problem any more."

White House Briefing reader Alicia Rasley writes: "I was struck, watching the Sunday talk shows, how irrelevant Bush seems to have become as far as the pundits and insiders are concerned.

"The commentators and their guests managed to talk about what the 'U.S' ought to do with Iraq ('we need to start dealing with the new realities on the ground') without ever mentioning Bush's name. . . .

"It is the weirdest thing. If Bush were really powerless, then, okay, ignore him. But not one of these plans are going to work without his agreeing to go along with it. And what no one is saying is: He hasn't done one sensible thing yet, so why would he agree to listen now?"

Where We Stand

Mark Danner writes in the New York Review of Books: "The election of November 7, 2006, marks the moment . . . when officials throughout the American government, not least the President himself, were forced to recognize and acknowledge a reality that much of the American public had discerned months or years before. The ideological canopy now has lifted."

But recognizing the problem does not mean there is a solution. And Danner, author of some of the most insightful writing about the Bush White House -- and its press corps -- remains fascinated by how we got here.

"[A]s the war's presumed ending -- constructed from carefully crafted images of triumph, of dictators' statues cast down and presidents striding forcefully across aircraft carrier decks -- has flickered and vanished, receding into the just-out-of-grasp future ('a decision for the next president,' the pre-election President Bush had said), the war's beginning has likewise melted away, the original rationale obscured in a darkening welter of shifting intelligence, ideological controversy, and conflicting claims, all of it hemmed in now on all sides by the mounting dead."

Danner's conclusion (though how he gets there is well worth the read): "Saddam Hussein and the autocracy he ruled were the product of a dysfunctional politics, not the cause of it. Reform of such a politics was always going to be a task of incalculable complexity. Faced with such complexity, and determined to have their war and their democratic revolution, the President and his counselors looked away. Confronted with great difficulties, their answer was to blind themselves to them and put their faith in ideology and hope -- in the dream of a welcoming landscape, magically transformed. The evangelical vision may have made the sense of threat after September 11 easier to bear but it did not change the risks and the reality on the ground. The result is that the wave of change the President and his officials were so determined to set in course by unleashing American military power may well turn out to be precisely the wave of Islamic radicalism that they had hoped to prevent."

One Year Later

Eric Lichtblau writes in the New York Times: "When President Bush went on national television one Saturday morning last December to acknowledge the existence of a secret wiretapping program outside the courts, the fallout was fierce and immediate. . . .

"Mr. Bush's opponents accused him of breaking the law, with a few even calling for his impeachment. His backers demanded that he be given express legal authority to do what he had done. Law professors talked, civil rights groups sued and a federal judge in Detroit declared the wiretapping program unconstitutional.

"But as Democrats prepare to take over on Capitol Hill, not much has really changed. For all the sound and fury in the last year, the National Security Agency's wiretapping program continues uninterrupted, with no definitive action by either Congress or the courts on what, if anything, to do about it, and little chance of a breakthrough in the lame-duck Congress."

Cheney spoke at some length about the program in a speech to the Federalist Society on Nov. 17. He argued that the "judicial branch has no business directing national security policy for this country."

Cheney said: "If an additional reason is needed for courts to show exceeding caution in national security affairs, it is this: They are unaccountable for the consequences of getting it wrong. The security of the country, and the strategies for its defense, are the province of the American people themselves. They exercise that control at the ballot box by voting us in or throwing us out. For courts to insert themselves into defense and security matters is to weaken the bond of accountability where it should be strongest --- in the area of national self preservation."

And, lest we forget: "The ultimate threat here isn't 19 men on airplanes; it's 19 men in the middle of one of our cities with a nuclear weapon."

How Much Is That Per Book?

Thomas M. DeFrank writes in the New York Daily News: "President Bush and his truest believers are about to launch their final campaign - an eye-popping, half-billion-dollar drive for the Bush presidential library.

"Eager to begin refurbishing his tattered legacy, the President hopes to raise $500 million to build his library and a think tank at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. . . .

"The half-billion target is double what Bush raised for his 2004 reelection and dwarfs the funding of other presidential libraries. But Bush partisans are determined to have a massive pile of endowment cash to spread the gospel of a presidency that for now gets poor marks from many scholars and a majority of Americans.

"The legacy-polishing centerpiece is an institute, which several Bush insiders called the Institute for Democracy. Patterned after Stanford University's Hoover Institution, Bush's institute will hire conservative scholars and 'give them money to write papers and books favorable to the President's policies,' one Bush insider said."

Cartoon Watch

Bob Geiger has a great roundup of recent political cartoons. Also see Tom Toles on negotiation, Bush-style.

Ever Optimistic

Victor Davis Hanson blogs for the National Review: "[T]here really will come a time, believe it or not, when a future American President baffled and paralyzed by the latest insanity from the Middle East -- whether an Iranian nuke or a Syrian invasion of Lebanon or another Middle East war or the usual assassination and killing of Americans -- will ask former president George Bush II for advice, as a then fawning media will look back to his past 'toughness' and 'determination' when under fire. That seems unhinged now, but it too will come to pass, as they say."

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