Iraq by any other name

by Peter

27 November 2006, 1920 EST

I have this thing about Definitions. In short, I hate them. Perhaps its the influence of Wittgenstein in my work, but nothing irks me more than people who lay out a dictionary definition, as if its obvious, and proceed with a political or academic analysis, leading logically to some conclusion. As those people say in debates, well, if we could only agree on defining terms….. well, sure, then the debate would be all over.

Within IR, one of the most important insights of critical, constructivist, post-structural (and others) theory is that the political battle over definitions is a central aspect of how the world works. Once something is “labeled” and “legitimated” as that thing, it creates a whole realm of possible pathways for action and forecloses others. So, to say, well, the definition of such and such a thing is X, Y, Z is to engage in a political act creating a topography of possibility for that such and such a thing. Unpacking and investigating that battle is then a very interesting locus of academic study.

Which brings us to tonight’s word: Civil War.

On Sunday, the NYT posed the very relevant, pertinent, and vital question: “Is Iraq in a civil war?”

Though the Bush administration continues to insist that it is not, a growing number of American and Iraqi scholars, leaders and policy analysts say the fighting in Iraq meets the standard definition of civil war.

The common scholarly definition has two main criteria. The first says that the warring groups must be from the same country and fighting for control of the political center, control over a separatist state or to force a major change in policy. The second says that at least 1,000 people must have been killed in total, with at least 100 from each side.

American professors who specialize in the study of civil wars say that most of their number are in agreement that Iraq’s conflict is a civil war.

“I think that at this time, and for some time now, the level of violence in Iraq meets the definition of civil war that any reasonable person would have,” said James Fearon, a political scientist at Stanford.

Now Fearon, who is regarded as one of the smartest folks in our profession, has built a rather impressive career applying the tools of rationalist game theory analysis to the analysis of civil wars and ethnic conflict. So, from an “expert” perspective, he certainly knows what he’s talking about. But, at this moment, notice what is happening– he has left the realm of scholarly analysis and has become part of the political discourse on the problem-definition of Iraq. Back in September, he gave a very poignant and insightful bit of testimony to the House of Representatives summarizing his research and what it might mean for Iraq (link to Word file of the testimony here).

Now, as a policy person, I love this stuff, because here you have someone with a clue about what he is discussing offering insights about how the world works drawn from the “reality based community” (and, as an aside, if you haven’t read that article yet, drop whatever you are doing and check it out) giving an informed analysis of what the US Government might be able to do in a given situation in Iraq. But, in doing so, he’s stepping out of the realm of academic and into the realm of policy adviser. Introduces an interesting endogenaity problem into his research, doesn’t it–from now on, all of his analysis on Iraq must factor in the fact that US policy is, in part, based on knowledge he presented based on his previous research. Might upset a trend-line or preference ordering.

Its all part of the high-stakes battle to define Iraq.

In the United States, the debate over the term rages because many politicians, especially those who support the war, believe there would be domestic political implications to declaring it a civil war. They fear that an acknowledgment by the White House and its allies would be seen as an admission of a failure of President Bush’s Iraq policy.

They also worry that the American people might not see a role for American troops in an Iraqi civil war and would more loudly demand a withdrawal.

Surprising? To some, yes.

“It’s stunning; it should have been called a civil war a long time ago, but now I don’t see how people can avoid calling it a civil war,” said Nicholas Sambanis, a political scientist at Yale who co-edited “Understanding Civil War: Evidence and Analysis,“ published by the World Bank in 2005. “The level of violence is so extreme that it far surpasses most civil wars since 1945.”

Only stunning if you ignore the politics of the situation–the battle over the use of language to define and legitimize power, policy, and governance. Its not about what Iraq is, but rather, what it means to us. Yes, we can “measure” the number of people getting killed (though such numbers are much more difficult to come by and legitimize than you’d think). We can even measure “control” over territory and government effectiveness and such, or how much civil conflict there is. But, giving those deaths meaning is the real issue at stake. Is it a civil war or not, because we react differently to civil wars than we do to terrorist insurgencies.

David Laitin, (a “favorite” of some of my fellow Duck contributors), almost, but doesn’t quite, gets this.

Scholars say it is crucial that policy makers and news media organizations recognize the Iraq conflict as a civil war.

“Why should we care how it is defined, if we all agree that the violence is unacceptable?” asked Mr. (David) Laitin, the Stanford professor. “Here is my answer: There is a scientific community that studies civil wars, and understands their dynamics and how they, in general, end. This research is valuable to our nation’s security.”

Its crucial IF you subscribe to a certain set of policy options that follow from “civil war.” If you are the Bush Administration, then its crucial that it not be defined as a civil war. There is a substantial literature on civil wars and their particular dynamics. But, its only valuable to our nation’s security if and when that security is defined in certain ways. If you define our national security as staying out of civil wars or having a particular side win a civil war, then, yes, its valuable. But, if you define our nation’s security as something else, as the Bush Administration does, then, its not so crucial.

Either way, its a political power play to set the terms of the discourse for national security policy.