Iraq, Civil War and the Partitioning Question

Bloggers react to Donald Rumsfeld's suggestion that violence in Iraq is "a highly concentrated thing," and therefore not a civil war.

To shift the focus further east for a few minutes, we turn today to that other Middle East conflict, Iraq, and a question whose answer one might think was already pretty clear: Has the country’s conflict devolved into a fractious, bloody civil war?

Asked that question yesterday, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld … punted. Rumsfeld’s answer: “Oh, I don’t know. You know, I thought about that last night, and just musing over the words, the phrase, and what constitutes it. If you think of our Civil War, this is really very different. If you think of civil wars in other countries, this is really quite different. There is — there is a good deal of violence in Baghdad and two or three other provinces, and yet in 14 other provinces there’s very little violence or numbers of incidents. So it’s a — it’s a highly concentrated thing. It clearly is being stimulated by people who would like to have what could be characterized as a civil war and win it, but I’m not going to be the one to decide if, when or at all.”

Andrew Sullivan did not take kindly to the secretary’s words, writing, “His detachment from his own responsibility is breathtaking. The glibness with which he describes the mass slaughter of innocents in a country whose security he is responsible for is astonishing.”

But we like the humorous take over at Internal Monologue where Zachary Drake tries to imagine what Rumsfeld might have said during the American Civil War: “Well, there was a lot of violence at Antietam today, and in some other areas, and yet in many states there’s very little violence or numbers of incidents. So it’s a — it’s a highly concentrated thing.” Or how about World War II: “Well, there was a lot of violence on the beaches of Normandy today, and on the Eastern Front, but to call it a World War is ridiculous, because many regions of the globe are relatively calm.”

Drake’s conclusion: “[I]ts not a civil war unless everyone is killing everyone else everywhere at once. What’s even scarier than his ridiculous definition of a civil war is his cavalier attitude [toward] whether it is a civil war or not. You’d think this would be a matter of grave concern to the Secretary of Defense. But he brushes it off as if it’s an academic debate about some obscure term nobody feels that strongly about.”

But Rummy does have his defenders and over at Cagey Mind, this point is made: “Rumsfeld’s answer was the only one he could give. Outsiders — and that is what the US is, no matter what we want to believe — can’t declare a civil war. It makes sense for him to back away from being the one who says Iraq is engaged in a civil war. If anyone is going to do that, it should be the new Iraqi government.”

The only intelligent solution to the situation might be the one that’s been floated by Peter Galbraith in the London Times for three years now, and is only now gaining traction: Why not partition Iraq into three separate countries — Shiite, Sunni and Kurd? “There is no good solution to the mess in Iraq,” Galbraith writes. “The country has broken up. The United States cannot put it back together again and cannot stop the civil war. The conventional wisdom holds that Iraq’s break-up would be destabilizing and should be avoided at all costs. Looking at Iraq’s dismal history since Britain cobbled it together from three Ottoman provinces at the end of the first world war, it should be apparent that it is the effort to hold Iraq together that has been destabilizing.”

Reactions to his proposal run the gamut. But many bloggers are surprisingly positive about it, even if only as a last resort. Here’s Seth Williams from Taken as Read with the majority view, sad but true: “This is a civil war, and it’s time to do what many have long advocated: end it by partitioning the country. It would indeed be an admission of failure, and that’s because we have failed. The honorable thing now is to use what authority is left us to give another approach a chance to succeed.”

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.