That doesn’t mean it will inevitably spiral out of control. The wars of the Balkans in the 1990s were civil wars as well, but the West managed to intervene to promote a stable, if imperfect, settlement that ended the killings and prevented the violence from spreading more widely. ~National Review

Part of the problem here rests with the failure to use precise definitions of what constitutes a civil war.  People seem to use the phrase to refer to everything from a battle for control of one polity (as in, say, Spain, c. 1936-38) to secessionist wars (such as the War of Secession, 1861-65) to irregular guerrilla insurgency to sectarian bloodletting.  What is essential to the definition of “civil war” is that it is a fight between citizens of the same polity–in this sense, Iraq clearly is enduring a civil war, whereas Yugoslavia in the ’90s was by and large, as far as most of the belligerents were concerned, not.  Unlike, say, a Roman civil war, the secessionists were not trying to take Belgrade and create a new Yugoslavia more to their liking, but to get out all together.  This may seem pedantic, but false definitions lead to false concepts and false understanding.

Now I know that history isn’t necessarily the strong suit of the editors at NR (perhaps Condi, the “student of history,” could help them out from time to time), but could they have made a less accurate description of the fighting in Yugoslavia in the 1990s?  There were secessionist wars all over Yugoslavia, and there were attempts throughout the decade to prevent secession in Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia, but let’s remember a couple other things about the “civil wars” of the Balkans: it was the West, starting with Germany and then coming to include the U.S., that encouraged and then legitimised the secession of Slovenia and Croatia in 1991 and then did the same thing again with Bosnia in 1992.  It was the West that legitimised the seceding republics’ actions and turned the conflict overnight into an international war.  It was the West, and particularly the U.S., that insisted on supporting the unitary state of Bosnia when its constituent populations wanted to secede from that state.  In short early Western involvement precipitated the break-up of Yugoslavia, ensured that it became an international conflict and also sustained the most vicious fighting in Bosnia through Western support for the government of Sarajevo.  Then later, once the region had calmed down somewhat, NATO aided secessionist insurgents in Kosovo in their drive to break away from Serbia.  So whatever else the West may have done in the interim to patch up the country that it helped to destroy, it is hardly an encouraging precedent or model for what the future holds for Iraq policy.