"Civil war," "new phase" or just stayin' the course?

The Times says its reporters can call that thing in Iraq a "civil war." The White House doesn't know what to say.

Published November 28, 2006 4:48PM (EST)

Following on the heels of NBC's decision to start calling that thing in Iraq a "civil war," New York Times e.ditor Bill Keller now says his reporters are free to use the CW-words when "they and their editors believe it is appropriate."

"We expect to use the phrase sparingly and carefully, not to the exclusion of other formulations, not for dramatic effect," Keller says in a statement provided to Editor & Publisher. "The main shortcoming of 'civil war' is that, like other labels, it fails to capture the complexity of what is happening on the ground. The war in Iraq is, in addition to being a civil war, an occupation, a Baathist insurgency, a sectarian conflict, a front in a war against terrorists, a scene of criminal gangsterism and a cycle of vengeance. We believe 'civil war' should not become reductionist shorthand for a war that is colossally complicated."

This is progress, we suppose. Until now, the Times' "reductionist shorthand for a war that is colossally complicated" has been "brink of civil war" -- a formulation the paper has been using off and on for at least 18 months now.

Back in May 2005, the Times said that a "welter of allegations about Shiite death squads going after Sunni Arabs, true or false, may create a new reality, prompting still more sectarian killings and pushing the country ever close to the brink of civil war." The Times' Sunday Magazine declared Iraq to be "on the brink of civil war" in October 2005, and the paper itself embraced "on the brink" without the conditional "may" or the qualifying "close to" in February 2006, when Robert Worth and a team of other Times reporters declared that violence in the wake of the attack on the Shiite shrine in Samarra had "brought the country to the brink of civil war." In the Times' eyes, Iraq remained "on the brink of civil war" in March and April and May and then again in October.

For those of you keeping score at home, it seems that a "brink" is about the same as two or three Friedmans but not quite as long as "the last throes."

Over the weekend, Times reporter Ed Wong, writing from Baghdad, suggested that the brink had finally been crossed or breached or whatever it is that happens to brinks when you haven't succeeded in "stepping back" from them. "Though the Bush administration continues to insist that it is not," Wong wrote, "a growing number of American and Iraqi scholars, leaders and policy analysts say the fighting in Iraq meets the standard definition of civil war." Indeed, Wong added, "many scholars say the bloodshed here already puts Iraq in the top ranks of the civil wars of the last half-century."

Keller cites Wong's story when he says that it's "hard to argue that this war does not fit the generally accepted definition of civil war." The president? He's not taking the bait, but his administration seems to be struggling to agree on a linguistic alternative. Asked today to explain the difference between "what we're seeing now in Iraq and civil war," the president insisted that "we've been in this phase for a while." We're not sure how that makes things any better -- if we've been in this "phase" for "a while," why haven't we done something about it already? -- but we are sure that it's different from what the president's national security advisor said about Iraq just yesterday. Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One, Stephen Hadley said: "We're clearly in a new phase characterized by an increase in sectarian violence that requires us to adapt to that new phase."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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George W. Bush Iraq War The New York Times War Room