When NBC News and the Los Angeles Times decided recently that the ongoing mayhem in Iraq fits their definition of civil war, other media outlets treated this as big news. True, to insist otherwise -- as President Bush continues to do -- is to find oneself in the company of those still clinging to the view that Saddam Hussein conspired with the 9/11 hijackers and expecting Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to turn up any day now.
Yet fixing the label "civil war" to Iraq doesn't get us very far. Exchanging one oversimplified description for another may only feed a new set of illusions.
Gauging the reality of present-day Iraq requires a taste for interlocking conundrums. We should see it as a civil war coupled to an insurgency exacerbated by rampant criminality. For good measure, call it a front in President Bush's global crusade against "Islamofascism" as well.
But even this will not suffice. Grasping the nature of this sectarian-struggle-cum-"resistance"-and-crime-wave becomes impossible without an appreciation of the political, historical, and cultural context from which this bloodletting springs.
Iraqi politics have fostered a propensity for instability. To persist, as the Bush administration does, in seeing Iraq as a genuine nation-state is to indulge in a monumental fiction. Better to think of Iraq as imperial residue. The place we now call Iraq has no more claim to permanence than the place we used to call Yugoslavia.
Invented by the British after World War I, Iraq made a handsome addition to the once-impressive map of the empire. But Britons arrived in Baghdad with little interest in actually building a nation. Their purpose was to exploit, not to endow. As a consequence, Iraqi institutions never acquired real legitimacy, and Great Britain's chief bequest to the Iraqi people turned out to be chronic internal dysfunction. Whatever precarious cohesion post-colonial Iraq managed to achieve derived from two factors: megalomania and oil, which combined during Saddam's reign to produce a brutal police state.
The larger history of the postwar era further aggravated the Iraqi predicament. The collapse of European empires following World War II left a vacuum in the Middle East. Efforts to fill that vacuum by forging a pan-Arab identity failed spectacularly. Arab nationalism accomplished little apart from raising up militaristic kleptocrats who squandered the region's wealth on expensive arsenals shoveled their way by the United States and the Soviet Union. As the Arab people languished in poverty, their leaders blamed everything on that made-to-order scapegoat: Israel. All of this too remains part of today's Iraq.
Adding to this stew of discontent are sundry religious and cultural complaints. These include ancient animosities between Muslims and Christians and irreconcilable schisms within Islam itself along with various ethnic and tribal rivalries. In recent decades, the intrusion of secularism and modernity has triggered a new wave of resentment, providing fertile ground for radical Islamists like Osama bin Laden. These too complicate the situation in Iraq.
So, yes, Iraq qualifies as a civil war, which unfolds in tandem with other forms of violence. But the violence itself matters less than the factors that underpin it.
Back in 2003 the Bush administration expected the vast Iraqi desert to serve as a highway for US forces driving on Baghdad. But concealed within that desert lay a thicket of political, historical, and cultural contradictions.
Those contradictions now entrap us. They also render laughably inadequate the proposals currently on offer to save Iraq and salvage American honor. Dispatch a few thousand additional US troops into Baghdad? Take another stab at creating a viable Iraqi army? Lean on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to make "hard decisions?" One might as well spit on a bonfire.
Those still determined to devise a single phrase to describe Iraq should try this one: Pandora's box.
In a remarkable display of recklessness laced with naiveté, President Bush imagined that he could lift the lid on that box and rearrange the contents, liberating Iraq and then remaking it in our own image. Alas, the president succeeded only in unleashing furies that have long since escaped his control.
To imagine at this late date that we retain any ability to tame those furies is nonsense.
Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, is the author of "The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War."
Copyright 2006 Boston Globe