President Bush is now in the midst of an overseas trip that will take him later this week a meeting in Jordan with Iraq's prime minister. But behind in Washington, D.C., the nation's Capitol is now gripped by a ferocious debate over the term "civil war."
Today, as Air Force One was halfway over the Atlantic Ocean, a White House spokesman protested a decision by several American news organizations, including NBC News, to call the violence in Iraq a civil war.
"While the situation on the ground is very serious, neither Prime Minister Maliki or us (Bush White House) believe that Iraq is in a civil war," said National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe
However, the U.N. reported last week that an average of 120 Iraqi civilians are getting killed every day. This weekend, the violence in Baghdad claimed the lives of 215 people in one day. Several experts say Iraq reached civil war status months ago. And now, the Los Angeles Times is calling Iraq a civil war and so is NBC News.
This morning, on the Today Show, Matt Lauer said, "NBC News has decided a change in terminology is warranted -- that the situation in Iraq with armed militarized factions fighting for their own political agendas -- can now be characterized as a civil war."
Bush administration officials fear that when most Americans hear the term civil war, they associate it with our own war between the states 140 years ago. That was a conflict between the Union North and the Confederate South that produced 650,000 casualties, or one out of every 50 Americans at the time. To this day, the U.S. Civil War remains a force in America's historical identity and psyche.
So, the Bush White House has consistently argued against using that same terminology for Iraq. Last March, for example, President Bush undercut the credibility of Iraq's then-interim prime minister. A reporter referred to Mr. Allawi's comments and asked President Bush, "Do you agree with Mr. Allawi that Iraq has fallen into a civil war?" President Bush coldly responded, "I do not."
This fall, press secretary Tony Snow declared Iraq does not qualify as a civil war because the violence is different. "You do have a lot of different forces that are trying to put pressure on the government and trying to undermine it,” Snow said. “But it's not clear that they are operating as a unified force."
Several historians and analysts, however, say that a unified force is not a requirement in a civil war. Others argue that the roaming militias and death squads in Iraq constitute a unified force.
In any case, this is not the first time U.S. troops have found themselves on foreign soil and caught in the middle of warring factions. In 1993 in Mogadishu Somalia, 18 U.S. Army Rangers were killed in a firefight with local warlords. The infamous “Black Hawk Down” episode, which includes the horrifying images of American bodies being dragged through the streets by an angry mob, came as U.S. troops were trying to help the United Nations police a civil war and distribute food and relief supplies.
Ten years earlier, U.S. Marines got entangled in the civil war in Lebanon. They were part of a multinational force trying to cool tensions between Lebanese Christians and Muslims in Beirut. On Oct. 28, 1983, a truck bomb blew up the marine headquarters in Beirut, killing 241 marines. It was the largest single day loss of life for the U.S. military since Vietnam.
Most recently, before Iraq's civil war, U.S. troops were in Bosnia trying to separate Croats and Serbs in what used to be known as Yugoslavia. That U.S. ground presence, however, was part of a multi-national force and came after U.S. air strikes had already pushed sectarian leaders to the negotiating table.
In Iraq, U.S. forces are mostly on their own. And they are caught between rival Sunnis and Shiites as well as government security forces whose loyalties are often split. Meanwhile, the bombings, kidnappings, torture and execution-style killings are all getting worse. Some of the video we bring in to MSNBC these days from Iraq can not be broadcast on-air because it is too graphic.
Against all of this, U.S. troops in Iraq continue to die. The total number killed is now almost 2,900. Whether Iraq is a civil war or worse, the terminology doesn't really matter to U.S. service members. For them, Iraq is a chaotic killing field that has no end in sight.
Watch 'Hardball' each night at 5 and 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC.
© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints