Once again, we have an "Arab" issue to discuss.
Pick up a newspaper right now, or turn on cable news, and you will almost certainly run into a story or two about the White House efforts to recruit "Arab" nations to join in the sort-of-fight against the Islamic State. This is slightly confusing, when you stop and think about it. As I wrote the other day:
What is the most important uniting characteristic in the governments being courted by the Obama White House? Is "Arab" the most accurate label to assign, when pondering the common structures and influences in cultures such as Turkey and Egypt (as well as Lebanon)? What unites them?
The bottom line: Journalists must be careful when using the term "Arab." Often that word does not mean what journalists seem to think that it means.
Now, a new story from the Tribune Washington Bureau, which has appeared in many newspapers from coast to coast, has quite precisely illustrated the tricky issues journalists are facing in this case.
The problem? A missing word -- "league." More on that in a minute.
The A-word shows up right at the top:
ZAGREB, Croatia -- The U.S. plan to step up attacks against militants in Iraq and Syria is being delayed until more Arab governments agree to contribute to the operation, the Pentagon’s top officer said Sunday.
President Barack Obama wants more specific pledges from allies to join and help pay for the military operation against militants of the Islamic State organization before he will give final approval to the Pentagon’s war plan, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told reporters traveling with him in Europe.
“The president has not yet approved the campaign plan in part because we’re not yet completed with our work of building the coalition,” especially with Arab nations, Dempsey said. “I think that would be the point at which the campaign plan would go into its next phase.”
Now, I will argue that this story is -- in the end -- better than most we are seeing right now. Why is that?
Yes, this report says that Turkey is an Arab state, even though that's a fighting-words statement to many if not most Turks (who speak Turkish, rather than Arabic, for starters). Yes, over and over it talks about "Arab nations," when dealing with Arab cultures and non-Arab cultures.
However, the story eventually includes the following kind of language. Read carefully:
The U.S. is counting on governments in the region to participate in airstrikes, contribute to the cost of the operation and provide advisers to help train Iraqi troops and Syrian rebels.
Two major U.S. allies in the region, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have said they support the operation against Islamic State, but they have so far been ambiguous in public about how they intend to contribute, other than to assist in training Syrian rebels to take on the militants. Turkey, another key regional power with a powerful military, has also said little about whether it intends to join the fight. All three are Sunni-led countries.
U.S. officials are especially focused on getting those governments to help, believing that the participation of Sunni governments in the region would undermine Islamic State’s claim to be fighting apostates -- whether Shiite Arabs, Kurds or Christians -- and counter the perception that the U.S. is once again intervening in Iraq largely alone.
There is the key. The White House is trying to get Sunni-led governments to help it fight the Islamic State, which is claiming to speak as the ultimate Sunni power in the region. Note that this story also notes that ISIS is consistently attempting to purge its region of religious groups that it considers apostate.
In other words, the key defining lines here are matters of religion, not ethnicity, not whether a culture or a government is "Arab" or not. The "Sunni government" language is used consistently in the rest of the story, which is helpful to readers who actually want to know what is going on.
Now, about that crucial word "league."
The nations in question, even those that are not "Arab" at the level of culture and ethnicity, are members of the regional collective that is called the Arab League. If journalists want to refer to these nations as Arab League nations, that would be accurate -- even though that wording would offer readers the key insight that they need in order to understand the challenge the White House is facing.
This may seem like a very picky point. It is not. By focusing on the religious fault lines in this hellish conflict, especially noting the battles INSIDE Sunni Islam, this Tribune Washington Bureau story has added crucial content to the news flow.