WASHINGTON -- National Intelligence Estimates are not supposed to be amusing. And the latest NIE on the situation in Iraq was uniformly grim. But the document's determined effort to split the difference on the use of the phrase "civil war" did verge on the comical. One can only imagine the interagency wrangling that produced the classic bureaucratic compromise: "The Intelligence Community judges that the term 'civil war' does not adequately capture the complexity of the conflict" but "nonetheless, the term 'civil war' accurately describes key elements of the Iraqi conflict."
In other words: yes, no, maybe. Multiple civil strife, but way too messy to rank with the classics such as America in the 1860s or Spain in the 1930s.
I don't deny that this is a fair application of "civil war" to the current situation. What I note with dismay, however, is how important -- and absurdly irrelevant -- the application of certain loaded words to the current situation has become.
What is striking is how much of the debate in Washington about Iraq has to do with not the war but the words. Who owns them, who deploys them, who uses them as a bludgeon. NBC's announcement last November that it would henceforth use the term civil war -- a statement far more political than analytical, invoking the same fake authority with which the networks regally "declare" election winners (e.g., Florida to Al Gore, Nov. 7, 2000) -- set the tone of definitional self-importance.
Words. We had weeks of debates in the Senate about Iraq. They eventually went nowhere, being shut down (temporarily) by partisan procedural disputes. But they were going nowhere anyway. The debates were not about real fighting in a real place. They were about how the various senators would position themselves in relation to that real fighting in that real place. At issue? With what tone and nuance and addenda to express disapproval of a troop surge that the president was going to order anyway.
When it came to doing something serious about the surge, the Senate ducked. It unanimously (81-0) approved sending Gen. David H. Petraeus to Baghdad to do the surge -- precisely what a majority of the senators said they did not want done.
If you really oppose the surge, how could you not oppose the appointment of the man whose very mission is to carry it out? Yet not one senator did so. Instead, they spent days fine-tuning the wording of a nonbinding, i.e. entirely toothless, expression of disapproval.
Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.
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