WashPost: Using 'Civil War' To Define Iraq Undercuts Public Opinion

In one of those "analysis" pieces reporters love to write, Washington Post White House reporter Peter Baker underlined on Wednesday one reason why NBC might have started using "civil war" to define Iraq: it severely undercuts the Iraq war in opinion polls.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, said Bush would rather frame it in the terrorism context to preserve public support. "If it's a civil war and only a small portion of it involves al-Qaeda operatives, then it's suddenly not the central front in the war on terror, it's a struggle by Iraqis for political power," he said. "That means the rationales for this are severely undercut."

Polls suggest that most Americans have already settled this debate in their minds -- 61 percent of those surveyed in September by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal described the situation in Iraq as a civil war, while 65 percent agreed in a CNN poll and 72 percent in a Gallup poll. Of those who described the conflict as "out of control" and a "civil war" in a later Gallup-USA Today poll, 84 percent called U.S. involvement a mistake, compared with 25 percent of those who did not view the situation that way.

"There's a good deal of research to suggest that the American public is less willing to use troops to intervene in other countries' civil wars than in humanitarian-type missions," said Christopher F. Gelpi, a Duke University scholar who has studied public opinion in wartime. "So even if the facts on the ground are the same . . . the label used has a substantial effect on public opinion. That's why they're fighting over it."

Baker also included conservative analyst Michael Ledeen of AEI arguing that "terror war" would be a term that would work. Baker wrapped up the piece with the idea that calling Iraq a "civil war" could make it more likely to develop along those lines: 

Kurt M. Campbell, a Pentagon official in the Clinton administration, said many key players in Iraq have not engaged in violence but could decide to weigh in if they think the conflict has evolved into an all-out struggle for power -- which means the Iraqis and Americans have a legitimate reason to fear the disputed phrase. "It may trigger the thing you're trying to forestall," he said. "It's not simply a matter of political correctness and trying to avoid harsh reaction."

But Campbell added that it does look like it's heading that way. Liberals have argued that the media are somehow cowed into using administration-approved terminology that's at odds with "reality" on the ground. "A fine example of the American people, through the election process, informing those who should be informing us," one liberal commenter wrote on Think Progress

But as this article shows, these terms are loaded with political impact, and it should be obvious that NBC could also be portrayed as being cowed into new, gloomier terminology in advance of anti-war Democrats like Nancy Pelosi coming to power with ending American involvement in Iraq as their number one priority.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis