My antenna went up when Matt Lauer opened this morning's "Today" with these words: "Good morning. Civil war. A bloody weekend of sectarian clashes in Iraq and no sign it's letting up."
"Civil war"? I was certain I hadn't heard Today employ the term before. And sure enough, Lauer shortly thereafter declared: "For months the White House rejected claims that the situation in Iraq has deteriorated into civil war. For the most part news organizations like NBC hesitated to characterize it as such. After careful consideration, NBC News has decided the change in terminology is warranted and what is going on in Iraq can now be characterized as civil war."
Lauer later brought in retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey to make the case for the change in terminology.
Lauer: "Is the situation in Iraq a civil war or is it something else? Retired general Barry McCaffrey is a military analyst for NBC News. . . We should mention we didn't just wake up on a Monday morning and say let's call this a civil war.' This took careful deliberation. We consulted with a lot of people. You were one one of the people we talked to. Why did you weigh in on the side of calling this a civil war?"
McCaffrey: "I have been calling it a civil war, a low-grade conflict, for 18 months. Now it's on the verge of spinning out of control. We clearly, without question have massive levels of violence. Thousands are being killed each month. And it's a struggle without question between two factions -- in this case Shia and Kurds [sic, Sunni?] -- who have separate political agendas. It's a fight for power and therefore survival in the world the Iraqis expect to encounter after we withdraw which they now expect to happen in the next year or so."
Lauer: "I am going into the definition of civil war here. 'Must be at least two clearly-defined and unified groups,' and we talk about the Sunnis and the Shia. We have 'groups using violence as a means to gain political supremacy' and we've got not only a government in place that is unable to protect the Sunnis and Shia from each other but innocent civilians civilians as well. Any of that bother you in terms of the criteria?
McCaffrey: "No, not at all."
And later, Lauer: "The White House objects to the terminology that NBC News is now using, and here is part of the statement that they've released: 'While the situation on the ground is very serious, neither Prime Minister Maliki nor we believe that Iraq is in a civil war.' It goes on to say that 'the violence is largely centered around Baghdad, and Baghdad security and the increased training of Iraqi security forces is at the top of the agenda when President Bush and Prime Minister Maliki meet later this week in Jordan.'"
"What about that idea, General, that the violence is primarily centered in Baghdad, that the country hasn't erupted into all-out civil war?
McCaffrey: I think a lot of that is nonsense. Baghdad is 25 percent of the population of the country. It's the central battlefield."
Video of McCaffrey's "nonsense" comment here.
The MSM has experienced embarrassing episodes of premature declaration before, notably in Florida 2000. Is the case stronger here? Is this quibbling over terminology, or is there something larger at stake?
Note also Lauer's statement that NBC News consulted with "a lot of people," and that McCaffrey chose to "weigh in on the side of calling this a civil war." That seems to suggest that there was another "side" among people NBC consulted who took the opposing view. But Today never told us who they were or what they had to say.
Finkelstein recently returned from Iraq. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org