Apart from opinion columns and magazine pieces, news outlets tend to place any mention of civil war in the mouths of sources, or qualify it with phrases like “on the brink of” and “risks descending into.” Brooke asks New York Times Deputy Foreign Editor Ethan Bronner why.
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. On the third anniversary of the war in Iraq, we noted that the media were asking, is it civil war yet? This week they edged closer to the answer.
REPORTER: With not enough boots on the ground and a civil war either happening now or perhaps about to happen, how should America-- [OVERLAPPING VOICES]
REPORTER: - civil war, if not already deep into a civil war. I talked about that -
REPORTER: I can’t send my kids to school, because I have to cross sectarian lines. The marketplace blew up three days ago. These people say this feels like civil war -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As the civilian death toll climbs to more than 100 a day, many observers declare that Iraq is, in fact, already in the midst of an all-out civil war. Among them were former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, Congress members from both parties and numerous columnists and military analysts. Public opinion polls suggest that most Americans agree, almost two-thirds of them, according to a CNN poll this week. But the Bush Administration does not agree. And apart from opinion columns and magazine pieces, news outlets largely decline from making the declaration themselves, placing any mention of civil war in the mouths of sources, or qualifying it with phrases like "on the brink of" and "risks descending into." We asked New York Times deputy foreign editor Ethan Bronner why.
ETHAN BRONNER: Our policy is not to label it a civil war. We recognize and describe elements of civil war in what's going on in Iraq. We tend to call it sectarian conflict, sectarian violence. Civil war, to us, feels like a stage of conflict that we are not convinced Iraq is in yet. It may feel occasionally like it's there, that it puts its foot there sometimes, but it doesn't stay there. And so, it seems to us that if we were to call it a civil war, then we will have labeled it something that we're not convinced it is, and in that sense, it's not useful.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: People in government understand, as you do, that civil war is a very loaded term and that there are policy implications if one were to be declared there. Many who defend the current action say, if we left now, the country would fall into civil war. If the country already is in civil war, it changes the calculus on whether or not we ought to be staying. Is it just The Times wants to stay out of that argument?
ETHAN BRONNER: I don't think that that's a fair description of why we're keeping the term out of the paper the way we do. That is to say, it's not a conversation we've had where we say, damn, we really don't want to be used by one side or the other in this dispute. Again, it just feels like labeling that's not all that useful, because let's say we agree that there is a civil war and if we leave, there'll be a worse civil war, a full-blown civil war, does that change that argument about whether we should stay or leave? I don't think so. I mean, another person could say there is severe sectarian violence going on in Iraq, and if the United States leaves, it will get far more severe so that it becomes actually a civil war. It seems hard for me to believe that it would make a big difference in the political discussion.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What would it take for The Times to decide that it is a civil war?
ETHAN BRONNER: I don't think I could answer that, you know, sort of we need to see X, Y and Z. But I think that, broadly speaking, if it seemed that the sides of conflict in Iraq had separated themselves into full-blown militia/armies and war was a full-time occupation in Iraq, that would be a civil war, and I imagine that's when we would start calling it that. At the moment, in Iraq, after all, every day people go to school, people go to work. There is awful violence, but I don't know that the warfare between the sides is the thing that defines every moment of life. Of course, it threatens life and it is a horrible part of life, but it doesn't seem to us to be the overriding element of every day and every hour there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On the other hand, it doesn't have to affect every single part of life for there to be a civil war under way.
ETHAN BRONNER: Does it not? I don't know.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, I mean, even in the American Civil War, people went about collecting their crops in various parts of the country and managed to survive.
ETHAN BRONNER: No, I mean, I understand what you're saying. I guess it seems to us that, you know, at a certain point, it will, if, in fact, it grows to the point where the sides have divided into clearly defined groups fighting one another. I mean, the government, for example, is a mix of Sunni, Shi'a and Kurd. Is it a player in this civil war that others see? It's not clear to me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let me just do something that might be a little unfair, Ethan, and throw this list of people at you who have said they are in the midst of civil war: former Iraqi P.M. Iyad Allawi, Senator Chris Dodd, Senator Chuck Hagel, your own reporter, Dexter Filkins, and apparently the majority of the American people, according to a USA Gallup Poll this month.
ETHAN BRONNER: You know, it is not that I'm here to say, under no circumstances, is this a civil war. The question is, do we want to use it as a term of art in our coverage day in and day out? I mean, there is a certain conservatism or a cautiousness inherent in writing news copy at The New York Times. We're not eager to sort of lead the debate but to try to reflect it as best as possible. And my guess is that we could construct an equally long and impressive list of people who say we're not quite there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right. Ethan, thank you very much.
ETHAN BRONNER: [LAUGHS] My pleasure, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ethan Bronner is deputy foreign editor for The New York Times.