Thursday, March 23, 2006

2 thoughts on cole on civil war

i was reading this article by juan cole about whether there is a civil war in iraq. two things i found particularly interesting and wanted to inflict on you, my dear readers.

first, this paragraph:
The real question for politicians like Allawi is not whether Iraq is in the midst of a civil war, but whether it is politically more useful to sound an alarm or to downplay the seriousness of the situation. Allawi, as a representative of the Shiite (and some Sunni) urban middle and upper middle classes in Baghdad and Basra, sees the old Iraq he knew as a young man slipping away. His National Iraqi list garnered only 9 percent of seats in parliament in the Dec. 15 elections, as he saw himself outmaneuvered by fundamentalists of various stripes, including Shiite ayatollahs and Sunni Arab clerics. He therefore wishes to signal that the status quo cannot hold, that sectarianism is the biggest danger, and that only his brand of secular Iraqi nationalism can hope to hold the country together. It is a plea for a minority government under his leadership, with the clear message that Iraq needs a strongman like himself to avoid chaos.
i've been guilty as anyone else of pointing to allawi's declaration that there already is a civil war in iraq as some kind of proof that there is, in fact, a civil war in iraq. but it is important to question just what allawi's motives might be. at one time, he seemed poised to because the leader of iraq--perhaps a kind of "saddam light" after chalabi fell out of fashion. but, like chalabi, iraqi voters hate allawi. as cole noted his party did horribly in the elections. it's only through his political connections in the iraqi bureaucracy and remaining influence with the occupational authorities that he still manages to command a bully pulpit.

so it's important to remember that it's in allawi's interest to have a civil war in iraq. that's really the most plausible scenario in which he has a political future. it doesn't mean his pronouncements are wrong. only that they should be taken with a grain of salt. like everything should, for that matter.

the other thing i found interesting is the definition of civil war that cole includes in his essay:
J. David Singer and his collaborators at the University of Michigan (where I also teach) have studied dozens of such conflicts and have offered a thorough and widely adopted definition of civil war. It is:

"Sustained military combat, primarily internal, resulting in at least 1,000 battle-deaths per year, pitting central government forces against an insurgent force capable of effective resistance, determined by the latter's ability to inflict upon the government forces at least 5 percent of the fatalities that the insurgents sustain." (Errol A. Henderson and J. David Singer, "Civil War in the Post-Colonial World, 1946-92," Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 37, No. 3, May 2000.)
i don't buy the definition. i don't think the sense of the word "civil war" requires an artificial thresholds of "1,000 battle-deaths per year" or the "5 percent of the fatalities."

juan cole suggests that the 1,000 deaths and 5% fatalities numbers are necessary because a civil war requires "that the insurgent forces offer effective resistance." fair enough, but that doesn't mean that the numbers and percentage aren't completely arbitrary. why not just say the definition requires that insurgent forces offer "effective resistance." the effectiveness of resistance can only really be judged in a broader context. if you attach arbitrary numbers to the definition, weird things happen. like, for example, under singer's definition pitcairn island (population: 45) can never have a civil war. okay, that's just a colonial possession. but the vatican can't either.

i guess i'm being a little nit-picky. that's how i am with definitions. but that's because i really do think definitions are important. working out what all the critical terms mean is the only way to have a reasonable discussion without just talking past one another.

and now to contradict myself. in this case, the numbers element of the definition of civil war may not make a difference. as cole argues, even with those thresholds, iraq is probably in a civil war now. but since when has not mattering stopped me from posting about it here?

(cole article via the liberal avenger)