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What Constitutes a Civil War?


From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. Alex Chadwick is away. I'm Mike Pesca.



And I'm Madeleine Brand.

Coming up: A U.S. army captain returns from Iraq and shares some tough lessons he learned on his tour of duty.

PESCA: But first, labeling the war in Iraq. President Bush in Latvia today was asked what's the difference between what you're seeing now in Iraq and civil war. He answered.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The Samara bombing that took place last winter was intended to create sectarian violence, and it has, the recent bombings were to perpetuate the sectarian violence. In other words, we've been in this phase for a while.

PESCA: That is known as not fully addressing the question, but we can glean from it that the President is not using the phrase civil war. As of yesterday, NBC is.


(Soundbite of TV show "Today")

Mr. MATT LAUER (Host, "Today"): So is the situation in Iraq a civil war or is it something else? Retired General Barry McCaffrey is a military analyst for NBC News.

General, good morning to you.

General BARRY MCCAFFREY (Military Analyst, NBC News): Yeah. Hi, Matt.

Mr. LAUER: We should mention, we didn't just wake up on a Monday morning and say let's call this a civil war. This took careful deliberation -

PESCA: Editor & Publisher magazine called Matt Lauer's announcement there a bombshell. Though the Pentagon may categorize it as deployment of ordinance. Other news organizations like say the one you're listening to right now, have been using the phrase civil war for a while. Only we didn't have a general on to explain why that was a smart word choice.

We're going with the Yale Professor Nicholas Sambanis, author of "Understanding Civil War: Evidence and Analysis."

And Professor Sambanis, this has been a settled question in your mind for some time that the war in Iraq is a civil. Why do you think the Bush administration isn't calling it as a civil war?

Dr. NICHOLAS SAMBANIS (Political Science, Yale University; Author, "Understanding Civil War: Evidence and Analysis"): The administration is probably reluctant to admit this because admitting it would imply the need for a clear statement of what the role of the American military should be in the middle of a civil war in Iraq. And it would also be an admission of failure of Iraq policy up to this point.

PESCA: Here's White House spokesman Tony Snow on why it's not a civil war. He said -

Mr. TONY SNOW (White House Spokesman): You do have a lot of different forces that are trying to put pressure on the government and trying to undermine it. But it's not clear that they are operating as a unified force. You don't have a clearly identifiable leader.

PESCA: What do you think of Tony Snow's explanation as to why this isn't a civil war?

Dr. SAMBANIS: Well, it's actually common in civil wars for parties to be fractionalized. And there is an idea out there that a civil war is a war between two very coherent organizations that have large standing armies and fight big set - these battles. And perhaps the experience of the American Civil War is - and the example of that war is what informs that opinion. But in reality, mostly in many civil wars since 1945, you have warfare between sort of irregular units and militias are much along the lines what we are seeing now in Iraq.

In Iraq, there is a firmly high degree of factionalism within the Shiite group, which is presumably what Mr. Snow is referring to. But that in and of itself does not disqualify this conflict from being called a civil war.

PESCA: But one historian, John Keagan, has a fairly narrow definition of civil war, so narrow, in fact, he thinks there have only been five in world history. And among the reasons why he doesn't think the war in Iraq is a civil war is that even though there's fighting within Iraq by Iraqi nationals, it's unclear to him that all the factions have expressed the desire to control Iraq. They might want to separate. They may want the U.S. out and then to install a caliphate, if you go by their rhetoric. So, Keagan argues with unclear goal, you can't call this a civil war.

What do you think of that?

Dr. SAMBANIS: Well, I think that the goals of several of the groups that are participating in the fighting are actually quite clear. And, in fact, they include all three of their goals that you've mentioned in your questions. So there are groups that would like to become independent. There are groups that would like to catch the government. And, there are groups that would like to affect a major change in the policy of the government, including ousting of the American army from the country. So, these goals are actually fairly well known and public and publicized on Web pages, on public statements. So I would disagree that the groups don't have clear goals.

PESCA: Polls show a large number of Americans already think of this as a civil war. Do you think that if more Americans come to this point of view it will change their opinion of why America is involved and if America should be in this fight?

Dr. SAMBANIS: Yes. I think that's probably the main reason that the administration is reluctant to admit that this is a civil war because by calling it an insurgency, it effectively downplays the magnitude of the problem and if people start thinking about it as a civil war, then they have to imagine that the involvement of the United States in this conflict, in this war, would be much longer and much costlier. And they would question the incentives, the interests of the American people in continuing involvement in this conflict.

PESCA: Finally, do you think it's important to label this a civil war because that's your job, you're a historian, you believe in accurate labels, or do you think that there are some bigger reasons, sort of, how labels affect mindsets?

Dr. SAMBANIS: There are two reasons I would say. First, it's the reason that you've mentioned - that in this particular case labeling the conflict, as civil war will affect mindsets in American society for sure, and that can have an effect on American policy in Iraq.

And there's a second reason, which is that there is a substantial literature on civil wars that would allow people to make comparisons between Iraq and other cases, in terms of what to expect in the future. So, how do civil wars end? What happens after they end? And, in that sense, it would be as useful to have a good frame of reference for what's going on in Iraq.

PESCA: Yale Professor Nicholas Sambanis, author of "Understanding Civil War: Evidence and Analysis." And thank you for helping us in our understanding.

Dr. SAMBANIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.