A Civil War?
By MAUREEN DOWD
After the Thanksgiving Day Massacre of Shiites by Sunnis, President Bush should go on Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News and give an interview headlined: “If I did it, here’s how the civil war in Iraq happened.”
He could describe, hypothetically, a series of naïve, arrogant and self-defeating blunders, including his team’s failure to comprehend that in the Arab world, revenge and religious zealotry can be stronger compulsions than democracy and prosperity.
But W. is not yet able to view his actions in subjunctive terms, much less objective ones. Bush family retainers are working to deprogram him, but the president is loath to strip off his delusions of adequacy.
W. declined to tear himself away from his free-range turkey and pumpkin mousse trifle at Camp David and reassure Americans about the deadliest sectarian attack in Baghdad since the U.S. invaded. More than 200 Shiites were killed and hundreds more wounded by car bombs and a mortar attack in Sadr City. October was the bloodiest month yet for civilians, and in the last four months, some 13,000 men, women and children have died.
American helicopters and Iraqi troops did not arrive for two hours after Sunni gunmen began a siege on the Health Ministry controlled by the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, who has a militia that kills Sunnis and is married to the Maliki government.
Continuing the cycle of revenge yesterday, Shiite militiamen threw kerosene on six Sunnis and set them on fire, as Iraqi soldiers watched, and killed 19 more. The New York Times and other news outlets have been figuring out if it’s time to break with the administration’s use of euphemisms like “sectarian conflict.” How long can you have an ever-descending descent without actually reaching the civil war?
Some analysts are calling it genocide or clash of civilizations, arguing that civil war is too genteel a term for the butchery that is destroying a nation before our very eyes. Anthony Shadid, The Washington Post reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize for his Iraq coverage, went back recently and described “the final, frenzied maturity of once-inchoate forces unleashed more than three years ago by the invasion. There was civil-war-style sectarian killing, its echoes in Lebanon a generation ago. Alongside it were gangland turf battles over money, power and survival; a raft of political parties and their militias fighting a zero-sum game; a raging insurgency; the collapse of authority; social services a chimera; and no way forward for an Iraqi government ordered to act by Americans who themselves are still seen as the final arbiter and, as a result, still depriving that government of legitimacy. Civil war was perhaps too easy a term, a little too tidy.”
It will be harder to sell Congress on the idea that America’s troops should be in the middle of somebody else’s civil war than to convince them that we need to hang tough in the so-called front line of the so-called war on terror against Al Qaeda.
With Iraq splitting, Tony Snow indulges in the ludicrous exercise of hair-splitting. He said that in past civil wars, “people break up into clearly identifiable feuding sides clashing for supremacy.” In Iraq, “you do have a lot of different forces that are trying to put pressure on the government and trying to undermine it. But it’s not clear that they are operating as a unified force.” But Lebanon was a shambles with multiple factions, and everybody called that a civil war.
Mr. Snow has said this is not a civil war because the fighting is not taking place in every province and because Iraqis voted in free elections. But that’s like saying that the Battle of Gettysburg only took place in one small corner of the country, so there was no real American Civil War. And there were elections during our civil war too. President Lincoln was re-elected months before the war’s end.
The president’s comparison to how Vietnam turned out a generation later, his happy talk that Iraq is going to be fine, is preposterous.
As Neil Sheehan, a former Times reporter in Vietnam who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Bright Shining Lie,” told me: “In Vietnam, there were just two sides to the civil war. You had a government in Hanoi with a structure of command and an army and a guerrilla movement that would obey what they were told to do. So you had law and order in Saigon immediately after the war ended. In Iraq, there’s no one like that for us to lose to and then do business with.”
The questions are no longer whether there’s a civil war or whether we can achieve a military victory. The only question is, who can we turn the country over to?
At the moment, that would be no one.