Jonah Goldberg

Without much notice and even less discussion, "civil war" has become the new abracadabra phrase for American foreign policy.

Sen. Joe Biden leads the magicians who've seemed to convince everybody that it never makes sense to get involved in a civil war. In March, he screamed from the Senate floor: "I'm so tired of hearing on this floor about courage. Have the courage to tell the administration, ŒStop this ridiculous policy you have.' We're taking sides in a civil war."

Biden's not alone. It's become a standard talking point for most major opponents of the Iraq war. The Democrats' Iraq-withdrawal point man in the House, John Murtha, says we're "caught in a civil war" in almost every interview, as if this is the geopolitical equivalent of "I've fallen and can't get up." Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid said last week that, "We stand united ... in our belief that troops are enmeshed in an intractable civil war."

The assumption behind this gambit is obvious: Declaring it a civil war is like blowing a whistle at the end of the game. There's nothing left to do but pack up the equipment and go home.

Al-Qaida in Iraq (and perhaps the Iranians) have clearly figured this out. That's why they consistently try to stoke sectarian passions by, for example, bombing the Golden Mosque in Samarra, Iraq's holiest Shia shrine. That 2006 attack prompted the formation of Shiite militias and death squads, which in turn provided fresh evidence that Iraq was heading toward civil war.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration has been desperate to keep the press from describing the situation in Iraq as a "civil war," for the obvious reason that the administration will lose its remaining support if the American public thinks this is just a civil war.

OK, but here's what I don't get: Why? Why is it obvious that intervening in a civil war is not only wrong but so self-evidently wrong that merely calling the Iraqi conflict a civil war closes off discussion?

Surely it can't be a moral argument. Every liberal foreign policy do-gooder in Christendom wants America to interject itself in the Sudanese civil war unfolding so horrifically in Darfur. The high-water mark in post-Vietnam liberal foreign policy was Bill Clinton's intervention in the Yugoslavian civil war. If we can violate the prime directive of no civil wars for Darfur and Kosovo, why not for Kirkuk and Basra?

If your answer is that those calls for intervention were "humanitarian," that just confuses me more. Advocates of a pullout mostly concede that Iraq will become a genocidal, humanitarian disaster if we leave. Is the prospect of Iraqi genocide more tolerable for some reason?

Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
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