America has been consumed by semantic silliness over whether the catastrophe in Iraq is a civil war. It has been clear for almost a year that a civil war between Shia and Sunni factions is in progress, but the White House remains in denial, just as it previously refused to admit there was an insurgency.
There are good reasons for not admitting to a civil war. During our own internal conflict, Southerners spoke of "The War of Northern Aggression." In the graveyards of New England, you find monuments honoring those who died putting down "The Great Rebellion." Neither side wanted to admit to any moral equivalence that the neutral term civil war might imply. Both sides wanted grander terminologies to justify their losses.
In contrast, the Bush administration wants to minimize Iraq's struggles because insurgency and civil war spell failure. A burgeoning insurgency implied that "mission accomplished" had been nothing more than a chimera. A civil war suggests that the victory that President Bush still talks about may be just wishful thinking. Thus the president says the disintegration of the Iraqi state is simply a touch of Al Qaeda-instigated sectarian violence.
Wishful thinking and its hand-maiden, deliberate deception, have been the common denominators for the Bush administration's failures -- starting with the original concept that imposing democracy by force could transform the Middle East.
Wishful thinking is not new. It deceived the White House during the Vietnam War with lights at the end of the tunnel. Evan Thomas, in his new book "Sea of Thunder," explains how the Japanese at the end of World War II were incapable of admitting they were losing, and felt it important to maintain morale "even by false reports." The Japanese "never used the word 'defeat.' They spoke of 'tenshin,' changing the course. A 'divine nation' could not be defeated."
The modern equivalent is the unshakable belief in the ability of American military power -- the holy grail of the Bush administration. The last superpower cannot be defeated, so facts must be denied and terminology changed.
Perhaps the most bizarre example of the administration's wishful thinking is described in George Packer's book "The Assassin's Gate." "Shiite power was the key to the whole neo-conservative vision for Iraq," Packer wrote. The more numerous Shiites had always been ruled by Sunnis in Iraq, but in the new dawn of neo-conservative power the belief arose "that the Shia and the Jews, oppressed minorities in the region, could do business, and that traditional Iraqi Shiism. . . could lead the way to reorienting the Arab world towards America and Israel. . . This thinking ran high up the policy chain at the Pentagon," according to Packer. Today, Shiite militias are the bane of American designs for Iraq.
As Iraq's society falls apart , other potential civil wars could rise to haunt us. Iraq's Kurds are unified at the moment and uninvolved with the Sunni-Shia wars. But they could come in conflict with Iraqi Arabs over territory and oil reserves if they expand south.
Today Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdish Democratic Party under Massoud Barzani are at peace with each other. But they have fought bitter battles for control and territory in the recent past and could do so again as Iraq falls apart.
In the south, the "Badr Organization," loyal to Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), has clashed with Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army more than once. A Badr vs. Sadr showdown over spoils in the ruins of Iraq is a clear possibility.
Tensions between Shia and Sunni are rising throughout the region. Palestinian efforts to unite are getting nowhere. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to fester. Lebanon is on the brink, thanks in large part to the unsuccessful Israeli-American summer war.
At home the long-awaited Iraq Study Group report will be released with a whimper rather than a bang, for downward-spiraling events have already overrun its timid conclusions, and Iraq has already spun out of Washington's control.
America has already been fighting in Iraq longer than it took to absorb the blow at Pearl Harbor and then go on to defeat the Axis powers. And very soon more Americans will have died in Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, than died in the World Trade Center that day.
The president's only truth on the matter came when he said "a graceful exit out of Iraq . . . has no realism to it whatsoever."
H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.
© 2006 Boston Globe