Words matter, and Bush has used them to obscure reality

December 01, 2006|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- NBC is the first major TV network to call the war in Iraq a "civil war" instead of an insurgency. With that, a new front has opened over what words best describe the Iraq conflict.

A growing number of correspondents in Iraq have been describing the country as torn apart by "civil war" or at least rapidly spiraling into it. But the White House has rejected the term, and most major broadcast news media have gone along with that, even if it has meant employing such hedge words as "approaching civil war" or "near civil war."

NBC's Matt Lauer announced on the Today show this week that his network, "after careful consideration," had decided that the situation in Iraq, "with armed militarized factions fighting for their own political agendas, can now be characterized as civil war."

With that, NBC showed a keen grasp of the obvious. A civil war is a fight between factions or regions within the same culture, society or nationality for political power or control of an area. Iraq appears to have fit that description for much of the past two years.

Retired Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, an NBC military consultant, agrees. He told Mr. Lauer that he had been using the expression "civil war" for quite some time, although with the qualifier "low grade."

Rival networks CBS, ABC, CNN and Fox News announced no similar change in network policy, although some of their reporters have called the conflict a civil war. As CNN's Michael Ware said, "If this isn't a civil war, I don't know what is."

Among newspapers, the Los Angeles Times was one of the first to call it a civil war, according to a survey by Editor & Publisher, a leading newspaper trade journal. The Christian Science Monitor also has referred to it as a "deepening civil war," the survey found. Most other media put Iraq on the verge of civil war but not quite there yet, using terms like "sectarian strife" (Washington Post), "sectarian conflict," (Reuters) or "sectarian violence" (Associated Press).

President Bush continued to dodge the term after Iraq's deadliest week of sectarian fighting since the American occupation began in March 2003. Iraq's sectarian violence is not from civil war, Bush said Tuesday, but "fomented in my opinion because of the attacks by al-Qaida causing people to seek reprisal." Yet, our president did not explain why, after centuries of feuds, Iraq's Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds would need Osama bin Laden to goad them into fighting each other now.

Words matter. They shape our perceptions, and perceptions shape our politics and, ultimately, government policy. The Bush administration respects the power of words. It has, at various times, urged the media to use "homicide bombers" to describe suicide bombers, the "death tax" to describe the estate tax and "detainees" to describe prisoners who may be locked up without formal charges. It has used "Clear Skies initiative" to describe relaxation of air-pollution curbs.

We should not expect much candor from this White House about the civil war that quite plainly appears to have broken out in Iraq on Mr. Bush's watch. In the recent elections, Americans put the Democrats in charge, obviously discontented with the way the war has been handled. If America's noble mission to bring democracy to the Middle East appears to be caught between the factions of another country's civil war, calls for a rapid departure can only increase.

Yet, reality matters too. The insurgency has grown to the point where factions are seizing control of large chunks of real estate. A mounting civil war forces Iraqis to take sides or run for whatever cover they can find. It also reminds all parties of America's inevitable departure. Americans have no intention of staying longer than necessary. We have even less intention of getting in the way of disputes that only Iraqis and their regional neighbors must ultimately work out.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

Ellen Goodman's column will return next Friday.

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