[Marxism] Iraq: Civil War? What Civil War?

Russell Morse russell.morse at yahoo.com
Thu Mar 23 06:49:21 MST 2006

Juan Cole - at


There is no great secret about why Bush is so eager to deny that Iraq is in a state of civil war. He knows only too well that the moment Americans come to believe that Iraq is in a civil war, virtually all support for Bush's war of choice will end. As the Washington Post reported nine months ago, Bush's domestic political spin on the war is guided by the work of two Duke University political scientists, Peter D. Feaver and Christopher F. Gelpi, who have examined public opinion on Iraq and previous conflicts. They argue that the U.S. public will only support wars if it believes the mission will succeed. Public support for the Iraq war has faltered because the American people cannot see progress toward a well defined goal and toward success. If Iraq really has fallen into civil war, there is obviously little hope for victory, and Americans are not going to want to go on spending $60 billion a year on a failed enterprise.


That there should be a political controversy over whether there is a civil war in Iraq is a tribute to the Bush administration's Orwellian attention to political rhetoric. By the most widely accepted social science measure, Iraq is incontestably in a civil war. 
  J. David Singer and his collaborators at the University of Michigan (where I also teach) have studied dozens of such conflicts and have offered a thorough and widely adopted definition of civil war. It is: 
  "Sustained military combat, primarily internal, resulting in at least 1,000 battle-deaths per year, pitting central government forces against an insurgent force capable of effective resistance, determined by the latter's ability to inflict upon the government forces at least 5 percent of the fatalities that the insurgents sustain." (Errol A. Henderson and J. David Singer, "Civil War in the Post-Colonial World, 1946-92," Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 37, No. 3, May 2000.) 
  The definition focuses on three main dimensions of civil war: that it is fought within a country rather than between states; that it is fought between insurgent forces and the state; and that the insurgent forces offer effective resistance. 
  The Iraqi central government is pitted against an insurgent force capable of effective resistance. Some 50 distinct cells, spanning the political spectrum from secular Arab nationalists to religious fundamentalists, direct the activities of at least 20,000 to 30,000 part-time guerrillas, and perhaps many more. They strike regularly throughout seven key center-north provinces, including Baghdad, which at 6 million persons contains a fourth of the inhabitants of Iraq. In civil wars, the violence is staccato and almost random. Journalists or bloggers who visit Iraq and find bustling bazaars and brisk traffic are often fooled by their naiveté into thinking that the violence has been exaggerated. But it should be remembered that boys went swimming and fished not far from where the battle of Gettysburg was being fought in the U.S. Civil War. Guerrilla violence does not need to be omnipresent to effectively disrupt the society. 

To be sure, the civil war in Iraq could be more acute. Nonetheless, Iraq is in civil war, as social scientists define it. We have a good notion of how it fell into civil war, and the responsibility the U.S. bears for that outcome. What remains unknown is whether the Bush administration can do anything effective about it. The relative passivity of U.S. forces during the sectarian riots after the Golden Shrine was destroyed, and Rumsfeld's startling pledge that the U.S. military would stay out of civil war-type conflicts, do not inspire faith that it can. 
  Bush will continue to mouth his optimistic slogans -- he has no choice. But he is now at the mercy of events. A catastrophic, or even significant, downturn in Iraq may strip the last shreds of public support for Bush's ill-fated war, and send his presidency into a downward spiral from which, like the tragedy in Iraq, there may be no escape. 

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