A Civil Provocation

From the issue

A Google search that combines "Iraq" and "civil war" provides tens of millions of Internet options. Confine this search to the latest news and you're still confronted with more than 21,000 choices.

"Civil war" is being invoked as a kind of trump card in the debate about U.S. policy in Iraq, both by those who support the continued presence of U.S. forces, as well as those advocating withdrawal. President Bush and his supporters say that U.S. forces bolster Iraq's stability and that a retreat from the country--a strategy some call "cutting and running"--will hasten a descent toward civil war. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak recently advanced this argument and warned that Iraq is "almost" in civil war already. Others counter that the presence of foreign troops inspires much of the bloodshed, and that the best way to brake the momentum toward civil war is to withdraw them.

Still others, like former interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, have argued that civil war has already begun. Though he later retreated (somewhat) from this claim, a majority of Americans surveyed have told pollsters they think such a conflict is likely. Yet very few of those who use the term "civil war" ever detail precisely what it would or does mean. All sides look at the disorder and confusion and find the image that best serves their political purposes. But to properly evaluate the wisdom of maintaining the U.S. troop presence, a clear definition is essential.

What Civil War Means

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April 17, 2014