Monday, November 27, 2006

Look, kids, it's a civil war!

By Michael J.W. Stickings

So... NBC has finally decided to call the sectarian violence in Iraq a civil war. Which is sort of like just now getting around to calling the violence in Kosovo genocide. Better late than never, I suppose, but the media's hesitation to sectarian violence a civil war has essentially belittled the violence, prevented them from taking it as seriously as it ought to have been taken, and prevented the American people from coming to terms with what's really been going on over there on the ground -- and what's going on now.

But at least NBC is on the right track. The same cannot be said for The Washington Post, which still refuses to use the "label" civil war to describe the situation in Iraq. Why? Because, says Post reporter Dana Priest (and you can see the video here), that paper "[tries] to avoid the labels" and -- get this -- because "the elected government itself does not call its situation a civil war". Priest thinks it's a civil war, but what's wrong with using a label when it fits? Besides, even "sectarian violence" is a label. Even "elected government" is a label. There's a war going on in Iraq. And it's civil. There you go.

But it's even more ridiculous not to call the sectarian violence in Iraq a civil war because the Iraqi government says it isn't a civil war. As Think Progress puts it (link above), the Post's job -- or, for that matter, any serious, non-partisan news media outlet's job -- "is not to act as stenographers for officials in positions of power, but rather to report facts as they exist on the ground". Besides, the Iraqi government lacks authority and, in some respects, legitimacy. Why should its own definition of the violence be accepted uncritically? Why should the official Iraqi spin be regurgitated as if it's undeniable fact? After all, "[g]overnment officials in Iraq have a direct interest in avoiding the characterization of violence there as a civil war".

And so, too, does the White House, which sides with Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki. As reported at Mahablog, National Security Advisor Steven Hadley claims that "the Iraqis don't talk of it as a civil war". And how this for a delusional euphemism: "There is a high level of sectarian violence. It is a challenge for the Iraqis. It's a challenge for us." Sure is. (Press Secretary Tony Snow uttered similar nonsense.)

It doesn't do much good to get bogged down in largely semantic debates over terminology. But the news media have been far too slow to respond to the truth coming out of Iraq. And they've been far too lenient with respect to accepting whatever latest spin the White House tosses their way. They're coming around -- some of them, belatedly -- but it would help if they expressed some independence and not just called it like it is but reported it like it is.

Forget the White House spin. Forget the Maliki spin. It's civil war over there, and honest recognition of that bloody reality would go a long way towards dealing with it appropriately and finding a way out of the mess Bush made. Unfortunately, such recognition isn't likely to come from the people who need it most. Even if the American people come to see Iraq for what it is from NBC and the rest, Bush and his warmongers will remain hopelessly delusional.

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