In an interview with NPR’s On The Media, New York Times Deputy Foreign Editor Ethan Bronner had this to say about what it would take for the Times to decide that Iraq has finally turned into a civil war (question is 3:10 into the interview):
I don’t think I could answer that you know, sort of, we need to see X, Y and Z. I think that broadly speaking if it seemed that the sides of conflict in Iraq had separated themselves into full-blown millitias / armies and war was the full-time occupation in Iraq, that would be a civil war and I imagine that’s when we would start calling it that.
At a certain point it will, if in fact it grows to the point where the sides have divided into clearly defined groups fighting one another, I mean the government for example is a mix of Sunni, Shia and Kurd. Is it a player in this “civil war” that other people see? It’s not clear to me.
I wonder how the Times reconciles this whole Blue vs. Grey definition of civil war with the fact that wars are increasingly being fought by networks of loosely-affiliated like-minded allies rather than clearly defined armies. If they can accept that the US is at war with a “transnational movement of extremist organizations, networks, and individuals” (to quote a recent Defense Department publication) why insist on clearly-defined armies in the case of a civil war? If anything, civil wars have historically been messier and more complicated than other wars, not simpler.
If the Times is waiting for the situation in Iraq to congeal into a simple pie chart before they decide it’s in a state of civil war, I expect they’ll be waiting quite a while.