Politics & Policy

Civil War in Iraq?

What's in a name.

Would you know a civil war if you saw one? You can still start an argument in this country depending on how you describe the conflict that took place between 1861 and 1865. “War of the Rebellion” or a variation on that theme was one of the most popular terms at the time, or the “Secession War,” along with “War for Southern Independence,” “Second American Revolution,” “War of Northern Aggression,” “War Against Slavery,” “War for Constitutional Liberty,” and “War Between the States.” And of course “Civil War,” by which it is most commonly known today.

Now a spat has erupted over whether to apply the latter term to the conflict in Iraq. Those of us who have made a vocation of the study of irregular warfare are familiar with such exercises in taxonomy. How should one categorize the different forms of political violence? What are the key characteristics of each type, and why are they important? How does one define terrorism? What is the difference between terrorism as a tactic and as a strategic method? What about guerilla warfare, insurgency, revolution? On and on. Academics make careers on the stuff.

Usually a civil war involves rival claimants to be the legitimate sovereign, each with their own leader, government, and armed forces. 18th Century international jurist Emerich de Vattel defined it as a conflict involving two de facto political entities that were formerly joined, recognizing no common arbiter and with no recourse but to force of arms to settle the question. There is also a matter of scale; a civil war occurs when the regime and the insurgency are of similar power, and fighting conventionally. If the insurgency is of much lesser strength, the appropriate term might be guerilla war, or terrorism. If the insurgency is so strong that it can seize power quickly with little bloodshed, one calls it a coup.

Most conflicts that have traditionally been called civil wars have fit Vattel’s definition — in England (1642-1651), in Spain (1936-1939), and so forth. But the nature of these conflicts can also be debated. Once some years ago, I was doing research on the Russian Civil War (1917-1921) and I went to look something up in the card catalogue at the Harvard library. Under “Russian Civil War” it said, “See Counter-revolution.” Bloody Bolsheviks.

So, for example, if the Kurds declared themselves independent and the Iraqi government disputed that with arms, you would have a civil war. Likewise if Moqtada al Sadr declared a Shiite liberated zone in Baghdad, mobilized his militia and called for other cities to rise up and join his cause. (Simply boycotting the government is not sufficient — he has to advocate an alternative.) Yet in Iraq we have yet to see significant attempts to establish rival governments, and no sustained conventional warfighting. There are numerous insurgent groups of various political, tribal, and religious stripes, with no common program or strategy. Sectarian strife, tribal conflict, internecine warfare — these are more appropriate terms. Furthermore the bad guys prefer expressions like “War of Resistance,” which implies that their fight is defensive and legitimate, or “jihad,” with its overtones of sanctification.

By way of contrast, examine the operational use of the term “civil war” during the Cold War. In 1950, Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Jakob A. Malik put forth the proposition that any Communist insurgency is by its nature a civil war, hence no business of any outside parties. This was the Soviet Union’s logic at the outbreak of the Korean War to argue against international intervention. Since it was an internal Korean affair, there was no legal or moral basis for the U.N. to get involved. (Of course the Soviets were supporting the North all along, but that was simply “fraternal assistance.”)

The same argument was made more effectively with respect to Vietnam. Communist propagandists consistently claimed that Vietnam was a single country artificially and unlawfully divided, and that the final disposition of the government must be left to the Vietnamese alone. American antiwar circles bought the line; when they described the conflict as a “civil war” this always carried the embedded message “U.S. out of Vietnam.” LBJ adviser John P. Roche noted in 1969 that “the thrust of the propaganda attack was to convert an externally organized attack into a ‘civil war.’ Regrettably, it was a brilliantly successful exercise in rewriting history, one that could be used as a model of effective political warfare.”

This points to the most important objection to the use of “civil war” with respect to Iraq — this is not a purely internal conflict between Iraqis. The Coalition forces obviously play a large role, as do the Islamist foreign fighters and al Qaeda. Syria and Iran, our putative future partners in dialogue have for years been supplying men, money, and material leading to the deaths of hundreds of Americans. (There’s a topic of conversation.) No, this is not merely a civil war; it is an international conflict with significant regional impact. Reducing the conflict in Iraq to a civil war does not clarify our options. Maybe the people who are so committed to the expression can explain what difference it makes in policy terms, that is if this is anything more than a semantic game. If it is a civil war, what then? How does that affect our over all strategy? What changes need to be made? How can we win it? Unless this word play leads to concrete policy recommendations, it is a great waste of time.

 – James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, a trustee for the Leaders for Liberty Foundation, and author of Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point. Robbins is also an NRO contributor.


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