WASHINGTON -- Today's big debate over Iraq seems to be: Is there or is there not a civil war? Yes, say the defeatists, citing former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a man with an ax to grind against the current (elected) government that excluded him.
No, not really, not yet, not quite, say U.S. officials and commanders, as well as Iraq's president, also hardly the most neutral of observers.
This debate appears to be important because the perception that there has been an outbreak of civil war following the Samarra bombing pushed some waverers to jump ship on their support for the war. Most famous of these is William F. Buckley, who after Samarra declared that it is time for ``the acknowledgment of defeat.'' Defeat? Yes, because of the inability of the Iraqi people to ``suspend internal divisions'' to allow a new democratic order to emerge.
This whole debate about civil war is surreal. What is the insurgency if not a war supported by one (minority) part of Iraqi society fighting to prevent the birth of the new Iraqi state supported by another (majority) part of Iraqi society?
By definition that is civil war, and there's nothing new about it. As I noted here in November 2004: ``People keep warning about the danger of civil war. This is absurd. There already is a civil war. It is raging before our eyes. Problem is, only one side'' -- the Sunni insurgency -- ``is fighting it.''
Indeed, until very recently that has been the case: ex-Baathist insurgents (aided by the foreign jihadists) fighting on one side, with the United States fighting back in defense of a new Iraq dominated by Shiites and Kurds.
Now all of a sudden everyone is shocked, shocked to find Iraqis going after Iraqis. But is it not our entire counterinsurgency strategy to get Iraqis who believe in the new Iraq to fight Iraqis who want to restore Baathism or impose Taliban-like rule? Does not everyone who wishes us well support the strategy of standing up the Iraqis so we can stand down? And does that not mean getting the Iraqis to fight the civil war themselves?
Hence the gradual transfer of war-making responsibility. Hence the decline of American casualties. Hence the rise of Iraqi casualties.
What we don't want to see is the private militias taking the law into their own hands. The army, by all accounts, has remained cohesive with relatively good discipline. The problem is the police forces, which have been infiltrated by some of the Mahdi Army and other freelance Shiite vigilantes.
We cannot allow parts of the police apparatus to become instruments of Moqtada al-Sadr or other private interests. And not just because they act viciously and vindictively, but also because their insubordination and independence are a threat to the very stability of the new Iraqi state.
But let's put this in perspective. First, this kind of private revenge attack has been going on at a low level since the beginning of the insurgency. Second, it does have the effect of concentrating Sunni minds on the price of their continuing support for the random, large-scale and heretofore unanswered slaughter of Shiites that they either actively or passively support.
And third, if the private militias are the problem, it is a focused and relatively narrow problem. Creating discipline and central control over the security services is a more manageable issue than all-out Hobbesian conflict.
The principal issue, and measure of our success, is the shaping of disciplined and effective security forces. And that is why the political negotiations that have been dragging on are so critical. It is the political track that must secure leadership for both the defense and interior ministries that are nonsectarian and committed to a unitary force whose members do not answer to private warlords.
Civil wars are not eternal. This war will end not with an Appomattox instrument of surrender. It will end when a critical mass of Sunnis stops supporting the insurgency and throws in its lot with the new Iraq.
How does this happen? The stick is military -- the increased cost in the Sunni blood of continuing the fight. But the carrot is political -- a place at the table for those Sunnis, some of whom are represented in parliament, who are prepared to abandon the insurgency for a share of power, a share of oil income and a sense of security and dignity in the new Iraq.
This is doable. That is not to say it will be done. It is to say that those who have decided that because of ``civil war'' it cannot be done have been unreasonably panicked by something that has been with us all along.