The decision by the Associated Press -- the world’s most influential wire service-- to begin calling the conflict in Libya a “civil war” is worth noting since it’s where most newspapers (and websites, and television networks) across the United States and many outlets around the world derive their foreign news.
The move is more than a mere semantics debate, as the Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone explains:
“The White House may find it tougher to sell the public on taking sides in a North African ‘civil war’ rather than getting involved in a NATO-supported, limited military campaign to protect democracy-seeking rebels from a dictator's brutality”.
A recent memo from Tom Kent, the AP’s deputy managing editor for standards, to editors and reporters explained the rationale.
We avoided the term initially because of the short duration of the conflict. But it has gone on now at length, and shows no sign of ending.
It also has become more than an insurrection by a small group or region. The rebels, led by the National Transitional Council, are well in control of nearly a third of the inhabitable part of the country.
The term civil war also implies a conflict in which each side consists of a coherent group with a clear concept of what it’s fighting for; each side has some real military power; the fighting is basically over internal issues; and the conflict is protracted.The conflict in Libya has met those standards. Although the rebels represent a broad base of ideology, they are united in their desire for an end to Gadhafi and the system he established. The rebels have a degree of military power apart from NATO's air assets. They also appear to have the outlines of a coherent military strategy. And armed resistance to the regime is approaching its fifth month.”
Calderone noted that Bloomberg News and the Wall Street Journal already have a similar policy, while the New York Times “has no set policy” on language of the conflict, according to the paper’s standards editor Phil Corbett.
The media had a similar debate over the fighting in Iraq back in 2006. NBC News became the first major outlet to refer to that conflict as a civil war.
Meanwhile it seems that the White House doesn’t even think the United States is at “war” there.