Posted tagged ‘Iraq’

Porcine Flight 476, You Are Cleared For Landing

June 20, 2014

Go check on your friendly neigbhorhood Sus scrofa.  Examine the potbellied porker ambling down your too-hip avenue.  Make sure the boar in the corner sty (you could name it Dick Cheney if you’re that kind of person) is still properly rooting about in his muck.  Now look extra carefully:  any ailerons, flaps, wings?

Max_Liebermann_-_Schweinekoben,_Wochenstube

They’ve got to be there.  See this, from our old friend BoBo:

The Iraqi state is much weaker than the Rwandan one, but, even so, this quick survey underlines the wisdom of the approach the Obama administration is gesturing toward in Iraq: Use limited military force to weaken those who are trying to bring in violence from outside; focus most on the political; round up a regional coalition that will pressure Iraqi elites in this post-election moment to form an inclusive new government. [Emphasis added.]

Now I confess to deep uneasiness about everything David Brooks writes, given the argument from negative authority.*  I lack the knowledge to assess but have no faith at all that his potted history of post-genocide Rwanda is reliable.  And then there’s Brooks’ usual reflexive nod to the political value of elite authoritarianism.   Most of all, nowhere does Brooks acknowledge explicitly that the Bush years were a colossal f**king mistake/moral disaster, nor that he was a complicit cheerleader in that catastrophe.

But here you see Brooks implicitly acknowledging the failure of the neocon adventure and, mirabile dictu stating without a hedge, an “on the other hand” or any qualifier that President Obama is getting it right, is wise.

Smacked in the gob am I.

All I can say is:  be careful standing under today as those flocks of pigs fly by.

*I.e. While it’s never reliable to say that because someone is labelled an expert in something, anything they say is likely right (see, e.g. Shockley, William…), it is a very useful heuristic to assume that someone who is wrong a lot is going to be similarly wrong going forward.  That’s especially true for someone — so many in our pundit class — who are wrong for a living.

Image:  Max Liebermann, Schweinekoben, Wochenstube [My German sucks, but the Google machine tells me that this could be read as “Pigsty, Maternity room” — any help from the commentariat gratefully received], 1887

Things To Think About Before We Blow Sh*t Up

March 27, 2012

James Fallows pointed me to this depressingly smart piece by Stephen M. Walt, up now at the Foreign Policy website.  Walt gives us 10 lessons we should learn from our Iraq fiasco, from number 1 — we lost — through the point Fallows highlights, number 3, in which we learn what happens when the political and media Villages rush to outdo each other in feckless groupthink and morally bankrupt cheerleading folly.*

Me, I’ll  pony up Walt’s conclusion:

Because it is not clear if any U.S. approach would have succeeded at an acceptable cost, the real lesson of Iraq is not to do stupid things like this again.

The U.S. military has many virtues, but it is not good at running other countries. And it is not likely to get much better at it with practice. We have a capital-intensive army that places a premium on firepower, and we are a country whose own unusual, melting-pot history has made us less sensitive to the enduring power of nationalism, ethnicity, and other local forces.

Furthermore, because the United States is basically incredibly secure, it is impossible to sustain public support for long and grinding wars of occupation. Once it becomes clear that we face a lengthy and messy struggle, the American people quite properly begin to ask why we are pouring billions of dollars and thousands of lives into some strategic backwater. And they are right.

So my last lesson is that we shouldn’t spend too much time trying to figure out how to do this sort of thing better, because we’re never going to do it well and it will rarely be vital to our overall security. Instead, we ought to work harder on developing an approach to the world that minimizes the risk of getting ourselves into this kind of war again.

In between Walt’s insistence that we honestly confront our loss in Iraq and this rather pious last hope, this short essay examines many important, depressing truths.  Read the whole thing.  We’ll need to keep reminding selves and others of these desperately hard-won realizations, given that the usual suspects, only to willing to spend somebody else’s blood, are urging us into the next war.

(And yes. I know I’ve posted this tune before. You gonna make something of it?)

*No matter how often I watch the Mustache of Understanding talk about “American boys and girls going house to house from Basra to Bagdad,” his faux-macho willingness to send other folks kids to blow up still other folks and their kids makes me mouth vomit.

Image:  Jacob Cornelisz. van Oostsanen, (attr.) Laughing Fool, c. 1500.

Live Blogging Andrew Bacevich at MIT’s Starr Forum, 9/14/2010

September 14, 2010

To begin in a couple of minutes, a live blog of BU Professor (and former career US Army office) Andrew Bacevich, speaking at MIT on his new book, Washington Rules.

Actual blogging to come as the events unfold….

4:30 MIT Poly Sci Professor Barry Posen kicks off the proceedings, usual props for the speaker, acknowledging Bacevich’s formidable productivity, and a quick sideswipe at Princeton. (“Neither of us were too badly damaged by the experience [of teaching/studying there]

4:35 Bacevich [B henceforward] begins.

2 questions:  Why are we in Afghanistan? Why were we in Vietnam.

B says:  Both questions have common answer.  Washington stubbornly adheres to a security consensus

first — we adhere to what he calls the American credo, and second, we accept the strategic trinity.

The credo holds that the US and the US alone should lead, save, liberate, transform the world.  Not, he says, arbitrary choices of words — this is what our leaders say, the same vocabulary.

Trinity — about power, and power projection to support global interventionism.

Together credo and trinity drive American attempts to police the “American century.” Trinity gives credo teeth; credo gives trinity legitimacy

Problem is that hte rules of this interaction don’t work — in fact these “Washington Rules” are counterproductive.

By promising safety, permanent war reduces it; by promising to defend the American way of life, adherance to the credo/trinity pair bankrupts it.

What should replace it, asks AB?

Turns to the preface of the Constitution — pointing to the need to secure “the blessings of liberty” for ouselves, much less our posterity.

IE — he says America should be America; if that makes us an exemplar, great, but should not make such side benefits the primary goal.

He argues for new trinity:  what is the primary duty station for American soldier:  America.

He concedes (his word) that we may need to send US soldiers abroad and keep them there at times.  But the assumptino should not be that primary duty station should nto be chain of bases around the world.

Second:  We should reserve the use of American power for the defense of American vital interests.  Admits that the term “vital interests” is a tricky one — but insists that whatever the final list should be limited one. Shouldn’t do what we are doing now, to define every damn thing (my word) as such an interest.

Third thing:  need to emphasis the just war tradition to justify the use of American force…In that tradition, we should employ force as a last resort, in self defense.  Crucial thought:  keep in mind the “limited utiltity of the us of force” and must keep in mind the “unintended conseqquences” and keep in mind that the costs will be much greater than initially anticipated in each entry to war.

Next question:  how likely is it that we will switch from current “Wash Rules” to BAcevich’s formulation?

Not likely:  status quo benefits Washington establishment, MSM, the whole usual suspects, even if it does not do so for the country.

But second, perhaps more troubling reason:  that has to do with us, the American people.  We have been too long conditioned to the idea that departure from these rules will lead to disaster, isolationism.  We don’t, thus, have the capacity to ask crucial first order questions about whther or not the status quo works.

4:45 — question time.  (Boy, does AB know how to deliver a brief.  Once you learn how to get on that bicycle, I guess you never forget how to ride.)

First question:  Have matters changed, e.g. in such historcal examples as the Spanish American War — there was not a great deal of debate about intervening to liberate Cuba, but there was plenty of debate about the annexation of the Philippines that followed.  This not just about strategic implications, but was informed by a deep seated sense that this form of expansion was somehow different.  Questioner follows up by saying that debate did not stop the decision to annex from going forward.

AB replies that yes, policy is made in Washington, but the only way that DC can truly be challenged, given the benefits that accrue w./in the village, then that opposition will have to come from outside.  See, for example, the debatees about interventions in both WW I and WW II. The issue is not whether when hte people speak they are right or wrong, but that there were times when the hinterland’s deference to Washingoton did not hold as strongly as now.

Q: What do your critics say against what seems to this questioner is a strong case. AB :  they say that the world needs policing, and only the US can play that role.

Posner steps in and says, that yes, this is one of the stock answers. People do say that when we aren’t involved, the world does go to hell, and we ahve to intervene anyway, and its more efficient to pre-emptively get involved.

AB picks up:  people try to cite history to support such arguments. They say that the successes posl 1945 should be creditied to US willingness to use military power.  There is evidence that there is some truth, that US projection of power did work post ’45 in many instances. But the argument is that post early Cold War, these Washington Rules are not subjected to scrutiny, and if they don’t hold (my extension of the argument) we wouldn’t/couldn’t know it.

Goes on to say that 2 party system is failing, because instead of getting a real in-Washington debate, because Dems and Repubs both have, for different reasons committed themselves to internationalist intervention.  Plenty of empirical support for that view in your humble bloggers view.

Q: Why don’t the Democrats do bette r– and could you critique the Obama adminstration on this regard.  Also, what about the CIA memo released via Wikileaks that said biggest help to US policy in Afghanistan was US and European apathy:

AB:  Why do Democrats subscribe to the national security consensus. Cynically, because Democrats have come to believe that they cannot afford to look like national security wimps.  We have the lesson of McGovern, and Carter, sort of (though aB thinks the charges against Carter are specious) …and then on the ohter side Bill Clinton, the draft dodger (said archly) who said again and again in speeches said he could use military as needed, maintaining the strongest military.  Democrats are unprincipled and cowardly. Repubs, unprincipled and lunatics. Not a happy situation.

What about Afghanistan — apathy as al Quaeda’s friend?  The problem is that there is this bizarre notion that staying or “winning ” in AFghanistan is the key to preventing the next 9/11.  Think for three seconds and you realize that this is bogus.  Not true that radical jihadism is concentrated in AFghanistan.  If magician David Petraeus could wave a wand and make Afghanistan a liberal democracy tomorrow — would that end threat of radical jihad?  There is a threat , AB says, but don’t think it’s existential, nor does he think that occupying this or that country is the solution to that limited threat.

But ever since George Bush declared GWOT, we’ve somehow lost hte ability to think coherently here.

How to reduce apathy?  Got to have skin in the game. Could shut war down in heartbeat if people in DC told rest of us how much the war would cost each of us to keep running the war.

The disgraceful, irresponsible, immoral policy we follow is to put the cost of this war on to future basis. If we actually paid for wars as we go, we’d get very different outcome.

Christopher Lydon stands up to ask about the Philippines example again, pointing out how anti-Imperialism then included folks like Mark Twain, William James (who anticipated Jeremiah Wright by saying “God Damn America for what it is doing in the Philippines”)? What would it take to get that kind of anti interventionist movement now.

AB:  Don’t know what it would take.  Look in the last election 2 candidates, Paul on the right and Kucincich on left and the MSM dismissed them.  MSM is at least largely at fault — e.g. when NY Times asks Wolfowitz what he thinks about the end of combat mission in Iraq. Why? What can Wolfowitz say — why not some thoughtful reflection at that time.

Reinforces AB’s concern/disdain for media that does not or cannot accept or recognize the degree to which tehy are captive to conventional thinking.

Q:  Should US get out of Afghanistan entirely? What is US responsibility given US prior record of training of mujahaddin against the Soviet Union, those who have now mutated, (some of them) into Taliban.

AB:  Don’t think leaders of a great power sit around a coffee table and ask “what is the right thing to do here” — self admitted cynic.  Shouldn’t kid ourselves that our leaders see moral issues as more than peripheral.  But what are those obligations in the case of Afghanistan? Given all the places we’ve been involved and have done harm, and presumambly have obligations to make harm good — why should Afghanistan come first. In my view, Mexico should come at the top of the list.  We’ve been involved there for longer, more intimately there than in Afghanistan.  Took TExas ec. from Mexico, and they are now under seige because of our drug appetite and our lax gun laws arms the Mexican drug bosses.  Why not Mexico?

And even if you think that Afghanistan should come first — why do you think war is the right way to discharge that obligation.  Should we continue to wreak violence in that country.  Why not a policy that said any Afghan woman (e.g. reference to the woman on Time magazine who had her nose slashed) turn themselves in to a US authority and get flown to SF to be safe.  You know that’s not going to happen…

But if perpetuating the war is the right way to go?  Will you go? Will you pay for it?  Or is the argument about k eeping war going really about “my conscience is bothering me and it will make me feel a bit better to send someone else’s kid over for his of her fourth or fifth tour.”  Let’s have a serious conversation, not one that is about maybe sleeping a little bit better if we just keep war going…

5:15:  Veteran for peace speaks…talks about US as pooerly informed about history; engages in state sponsored terrorism; and folks never get the true cost of war, the deaths and disasters that attend on modern war.  How do we get folks to deal with cost of war.

Answer:  Asking the same question as Chris Lydon did.  Deeply troubling one.  Why don’t we do so? Part of the answer is that life is tough.  We have 9.6 % unemployment; people struggle to put 3 squares on teh table and raise kids; want to find a job, or keep it. I can empathize with the idea that Americans have lots on their minds other than worrying about the latest UAV attack on Afghanistan.  That’s not a satisfying answer….(he says).

In defense of history, though — history as it is being written now is not cheerleading.  Vast amount of literature that is critical and informative about how we have blundered into the conflict w. Islamic world.

But historians do not have much influence.  Even that which does get read does not do much to dislodge mythic history that we imbibe w. mother’s milk and that politicians repeat endlessly.

I (AB) was just reading Hilary Clinton’s speech to Council on Foreign Relations – awful, full of cliches.  You say to yourself that without question H. Clinton is very intelligent, how can she say such things?  And the answer is I don’t know.

Q:  What about the new phenomenon of the rise of the right — Tea Partiers and folks like Glenn Beck — what are the consequences of such a rise?

AB:  I hesitate to answer …but what the hell:   My bet is that the Tea Party is an epiphenomenon. Despite all the hooptedoo (sic) and the expectations that the TP will have an impact on the elections this November — don’t think that they will be around much longer .  The substance is so thin, and is so based on anger that it isn’t enough to sustain a lasting organization.

you may have heard Trent Lott the other day — “We need to co-opt these people.”  And I think that reflects the cynicism of the Repub party –but the GOP is not going to become the Tea Party [TL here  — pretty sure this is too optimistic]

Also can’t divorce subject of race from all of this — and is the most troubling part of our current politics.  Seems to me that too many of our fellow citizens refuse to accept the legitimacy of this presidency because it is unacceptable to have a black man as President.  Republicans woudl deny this, but I think they are lying through their teeth.  Race has not been left in our rear view mirror.

Q: What about grand strategy implications for a reduction of US military power to where AB thinks it ought to be — in reference to Europe etc.  Wouldn’t it be a waste to give away our military power.

AB:  true that we spend less now as a % of gdp on money at height of cold war.  Spending much more in constant dollars.  Also, then we had balanced budgets now trillion dollar defictis.  (Now spending 5% of GDP vs. 10% of 50s GDP)  This statistic is often trotted out — is BS.

To the larger grand strategy question — do so gradually, not in one fell swoop.  Survey the world and see where security threats are at a low ebb and where the existing capactiy of nations to manage their own security is high…and the answer is Europe.  Not nothing, but not much threatens Europe. They have an aversion to paying for their own security; we need to wean them of that.  If we gave them 10 years to figure out how to defend themselves, and then we withdraw form NATO and NATO devolves into a regional security alliance.

Asia —  not so clear.  The Chinese, Japanese, Koreans all want us there. If we were to rapidly withdraw, could trigger an arms race and other bad things — and I wouldn’t so quickly pull out there.

I’m not as concerned about Chinese rise to pwoer.  They are not historically expansionist.  They are not the one establishing 4 star commands in Latin America and Africa. We are.

5:30:  Question about what AB thinks about the surge as an unearned propaganda bonus to the right.

AB:  Advocates of Iraq war want to talk about surge rather than missing WMDs  — “let’s not adjudicate the war”.  Surge itself was successful in some limited sense — some violence reduction occured in its context, but not clear if more troops or more bribes to Iraqi leaders did the job.

But purpose of surge not simply to reduce violence, but ot bring about political reconciliation — and that’s where the jury is still out.  Everyone knows that the insurgency is still there; may be growing in strength. But question is whether the Iraqi security forces can handle it,a nd can political classes govern themselves.  Not yet a victory…could be but can’t know now.

What about Cuba policy?  AB:  Cuba policy has long been stupid becuase it has been a domestic political football.  Long been known that Castro revolution is a failure.  Our job is to do whatever we can, which may not be much, to make sure that the chaos of the passing of that revolution is minimized.  (Returns to quesiton of moral obligations….what do we owe the Cuban people.  Tough question.)

Q:  Are we playing Bin Laden’s game? A: yes.

I don’t know that I would credit everything that has happened since 9/11 to Bin Laden’s strategic genius.  Our bad judgment has something to do with it.  But yes :  we are spending ourselves into the poor house. We are losing a lot of American lives and ruining more — and it is difficult to understand the sense of it all.

Q:  Do you think it possible that the consensus lasts because the American people approve of this belief.

AB:  yes, beacuse there is a tendency to defer to Washington and a tendency that national security experts have real expertise, adn that they have access to info we don’t, and therefore we should trust Washington’s consensus…and that there is no alternative to playing this forward role, for fear of isolationism and an increasingly chaotic world.

AB argues that this belief is not supported by evidence, but we can’t see that evidence in front of faces.

Q: What are Washington Rules (AB — “did you come in late?”) and if you say we should keep troops in Asia when we shouldn’t in Europe, why not stay in AFghanistan, which is so obviously volatile?

Wash rules:  1 US exclusively called upon to lead shape liberate transform orld.  @2 trinity must maintinat global mil presnece, configured for power projection and should do so.

Re AFghanistan:  yes, it’s volatile, but US interests are fairly small there. Doesn’t make sense to spend lives and money when we have more important interests elsewhere.  Have a limited number of chips, and have to choose where to spend them.  Some do say that Afghanistan is a vital interest — but AB does not have much regard for that view.

Q: given that Tea Partiers are elements of Christian nationalism, what is the role of Christianity in this debate.

AB says that he is a practiciing Catholic, (a church, he says, that is so thoroughly discredited by pedophilia scandal that it has nothing to say to thworld, which depresses him greatly).  But Christians should just be Christians, he says — Do justice and love neighbor. (Props to Unitarians and Quakers).

Q:  Why did we invade Iraq:

AB — Wolfowitz told truth in VF  that bureaucratic consensus  was made up of many parts, of which WMDs were just the one they all agreed to foreground.

That said, there was an overarching strategic ambition:  the GWB admin was committed to preventing another 9/11, without withdrawing from ambitions to exert hegemony over greater middle east.  In order to both, given their high level of confidence of US military power, they calculated they could employ that power to transform middle east.  Afghanistan is not the place to begin such a transformation, but Iraq was perfect:  Saddam was a bad guy, with a weak military, and that there was (remarkably erroneously believed) that Iraq was largely secularized with a nascent middle class that could serve as the basis for a new Iraq.  That all this was grossly misunderstood doesn’t change, AB says, the fact that the GWB administration pursued the war in the context of these beliefs.

And with that, we end.

Dog Bites Man: Tom Friedman Mischaracterizes US Interventions.

July 15, 2009

Atrios sent me in search of Tom Friedman’s latest, and, like its author, it’s a bizarre piece of work.

Backstory:  back in the dawn of time, when giants still walked the earth (Mays in center field; McCovey at first base, Marichal on the mound), and humans preserved their communications in scratches on clay, Tom Friedman was a real reporter and a good one.  He spent time in country, he worked sources, he could write.

Somewhere along the line, though, during the Clinton years, I believe, he seems to have convinced  himself that his wealth of experience had given him the key to all mythologies.

Hence such trifles as his “argument” that we should invade Iraq to show that the US could punch somebody,* the endless iteration of “Friedman Units” and so on.

And now, with the war in Iraq now in its Pilate phase…

…Friedman comes up with a column that captures so many of his deficiencies in one place.  There is the complete abandonment of the reportorial function.

He doesn’t talk to folks, he tags along (his phrase) with US JCS Chairman Admiral McMullen.  Nice company, to be sure, but not that in which you will find unvarnished opinions being expressed.

He doesn’t seem even interested in testing his assumptions against any possibility of contrary information anymore:

“In the dining hall on the main base, I like to watch the Iraqi officers watching the melting pot of U.S. soldiers around them — men, women, blacks, whites, Asians, Hispanics — and wonder: What have they learned from us?”

Wonder?  WONDER? You’re a journalist — or rather you used to be!  You don’t blow wonder through your ass.   You go find out what they have learned from us.  But no…that would be (a) heavy lifting and (b) dangerous…so much so that it might render this kind of conclusion not merely pathetic, but simply unsayable:

We left some shameful legacies here of torture and Abu Ghraib, but we also left a million acts of kindness and a profound example of how much people of different backgrounds can accomplish when they work together.

Well, how much have we and they accomplished?  Some, I’m sure…but given this kind of news, buried in what used to be called the b section, but popping up with depressing regularity, perhaps not as much as Friedman’s breezy tour with the brass may indicate.

And in any event — how is it possible that a Serious Foreign Policy Thinker™ no matter how burnt out, overly comfortable, and generally hackified could actually bring himself to write such a Hallmark Card notion:  that the events of the last six years (12 F.U.s, if you’re counting)are coming to rest in a satisfactory state because, hey, we can all work together?

I guess there is a thread of naivete left to me.  I grew up thinking that there was something special about the New York Times. I met Tony Lukas when I was 18, Tony Lewis some time later — and people like that impressed me for the fire they had, that seemed to come from that newsroom.  You didn’t get comfortable there, it seemed to my juvenile eyes.  Even when you got big, you felt the pressure the place forcing you to make that last call to get it right.

I know that’s a fantasy, and I’m sure it was never as true as I wanted it to be.   And even with the decline of the Times (Judith Miller, anyone…Ross freaking Douthat?) it’s still better than the whatever that other emblem of journalistic moxie, the Post has become.  But that’s kind of like saying that liver is better than spam…

But still…Friedman could once actually do the job he mails in now.  It’s painful to watch.  He should pack it in.  Otherwise it’s just going to go ever further down hill.  For, in this column as in this post, he and I save the best/worst for last.  If Friedman hopes to hang on above Kristol territory, he has to find a way to stop writing stuff like this:

After we invaded and stabilized Bosnia, we didn’t just toss their competing factions the keys.

Except, of course, we did not invade Bosnia.  The American led NATO intervention in the Bosnian War occured in 1995, just as Friedman was making his ultimately disastrous move to the NYTime’s Opinion pages, so he perhaps may have been distracted, but the military action taken by the US and its allies consisted of 3515 aerial sorties:  a hellacious bombing campaign.

If this seems like a distinction without a difference, think again:  many DFHs without Friedman’s bully pulpit tried to suggest that the range of analogies being drawn to justify the Iraq War back in 2002-2003 were false.  Iraq wasn’t Japan in August 1945; Bagdad was not Berlin; displacing Saddam was more like witnessing Tito’s death and the start of the Yugoslav disintegration than it was our ratification of Balkan partition in 1995 — and not much like that either.  Friedman chose then not to know any historical complexity.  He still does.  And as he continues to scrabble to find justifications for his own disastrous cheerleading for the Iraq war,  he’s willing to get basic facts wrong to prevent the slightest dissonant fact from disturbing the eternal sunshine of his mind.

If it were me, or any other mere blogger, or even one of the deranged commenters at Redstate thus deluded — who cares.  But despite the evident decline of even the flagship mass media organizations, the power that comes with the NYT platform and the inertial weight of Friedman’s own brand means that when he says stupid sh*t, he can get people killed.  And that’s why this matters.

*From Wikipedia:

In an interview with Charlie Rose in 2003, Friedman said:

What they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, um and basically saying, “Which part of this sentence don’t you understand?” You don’t think, you know, we care about our open society, you think this bubble fantasy, we’re just gonna to let it grow? Well, Suck. On. This.[23][24][25] ..We could have hit Saudi Arabia. It was part of that bubble. Could have hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could. That’s the real truth…

Similarly, in NPR’s Talk of the Nation, September 23, 2003:

.. and sometimes it takes a 2-by-4 across the side of the head to get that message.

Image:  Gerolamo di Romano called Romanino, Christ Before Pilate (detail of Pilate Washing his Hands), 1533-34

Andrew Sullivan and Eric Posner are Dangerous Fools: Numbers and Iraq redux edition.

November 26, 2008

Andrew Sullivan is innumerate.

This is, of course, the blog-equivalent of the dog-bites-man story, except that this time his ignorance of matters quantitative does not merely encompass the manipulation of numerical objects, but their rhetoric, the use and abuse of selected quantities to minimize the perception of human suffering.

The occasion for this arrant blindness comes from a blog entry on the University of Chicago Law School faculty blog by Eric Posner, in which Posner argues that the Iraq invasion was a humanitarian and human rights success.

The arguments for human rights advances is based on a number of criteria — freedom of the press, democratic behavior and so on, and I’m not going to quarrel there.

But the claim that the American led invasion has reduced the violence, murder and injury suffered by the people of Iraq over that imposed by Saddam Hussein’s regime is marked by such sleight of hand as to be both (a) deceiving and (b) strongly suggestive of bad faith.

Andrew framed Posner’s claim thusly:

In short: if we never invaded, Iraqi civilian deaths due to sanctions may well have been greater than the wartime deaths.

Andrew’s culpability here is simply that he used his bully pulpit — by some measures the most bulliest in the blogosphere — to promote an argument that turns on a critical weaseling of the data to preserve that very point.  Posner’s commenters on the original post do a very good job of dissecting the numerous, elementary errors in his use of mortality statistics; its the very simple mindedness of Posner’s gaming of the numbers that make me see this as pure propaganda, rather than mere stupidity.

But those critics focus on errors of method, mostly, Posner’s habit of picking useful baselines, his comparing of incomparables and so on.  I just want to bring one more fault up, one that I believe even a completely numerically challenged Andrew Sullivan should have been able to pick up.

That’s this one:

Let’s suppose that the sanctions regime had continued for 10 years, from 2003 to 2013, and further that security flattens out—it doesn’t get worse, but it doesn’t get better. Under these assumptions, 400,000 Iraqi children would have died if the war had not occurred and the sanctions regime continued. Now, almost 100,000 Iraqis died during the war, and so one of the war’s benefits is that it saves the lives of 300,000 Iraqis (over 10 years).

There is a great deal that is wrong with this passage.  The assumption of a continued sanctions regime for a decade is highly questionable, given that one of the stated pretexts for war in the beginning was that the sanctions path was unlikely to hold indefinitely — in part for exactly the same humanitarian concerns that Posner professes here.

But while that error is real, and is of a piece with much else in the post that most charitably can be deemed sloppy thinking (again — check out the comments, the glaring lie-by-citation comes in the 100,000 number.

Posner is right:  there is a reputable project — Iraq Body Count — that states that as of this writing between 89,369 and 97, 568 civilian deaths by violence have been documented since the war began.  Problem number one is that IBC itself acknowledges that its belt-and-suspenders approach to documenting a death, necessary to preserve its credibility as the arbiter of the floor, or minimum number of deaths evoked by the war, produces a substantial undercount.  In 2006, an IBC presentation stated that the total deaths could be as much as double their published number.

That same presentation then took up the then-controversial Lancet/Johns Hopkins study that suggested that between 300,000 and 900,000 civilian deaths had occurred by 2006 as a result of the war, charging that a number of methodological flaws marred the results. The arguments are off point, as the underlying claim in the study is that it is measuring excess deaths rather than deaths by violence.

The distinction is crucial, as Posner’s claim, echoed by Sullivan, is that the number of Iraqi deaths due to the war is less than those from all causes due to the direct or indirect consequences of Saddam Hussein’s continued rule and the continuation of sanctions.  If you want to compare violent deaths — those the IBC counts — with violence imposed by Saddam’s regime, that’s an apples to apples pairing. If you want to count all the suffering of children lacking food or medicine due to the sanctions regime and Saddam’s manipulation of the UN Oil for Food fiasco, then the proper comparison is to all the suffering induced by the social disruption, the lack of services, the failure of governance that flowed in the wake of the invasion — those the Lancet study and others sought to estimate.

Those numbers are huge.  They range from over 300,000 (as of 2007) to over a million.  Most of the estimates run well above Posner’s highly suspect extrapolation of 400,000 deaths. Both totals are grotesque, of course.  It is better to preside over the slaughter of 400,000 than a million only in the most curdled of calculations of moral responsibility. Iraq before and after 2003 offers ample scope for pondering how the international approach to that country and its governance for decades has failed its people.

But it is simply wrong — and dangerous, and morally bankrupt — to defend the invasion of Iraq on the grounds that it saved lives.  No reasonable assessment of the data on hand support that claim, and its making serves to grease the skids for the next, ever hopeful essay in defense of American exceptionalism and the uses of violence for good.

I don’t know much about Posner.  He has the fact of a famous father behind him, but this does not mean that he is merely a self-made son in the manner of such luminaries as Kristol, W. or Goldberg, J.  At the same time, the real accomplishments to be found on his resume beg the question of why he would publish such a clearly false claim about the number of deaths to be considered.  I don’t know the answer.

As for Andrew.  It’s odd.  He’s someone who I think is a sentimental naif a lot of the time.  He is obviously smart, obviously enormously prolific in his reading and his writing, and he has fought the good fight over these last several years on a bunch of issue. He certainly has noted the increasing weight of evidence that the Iraq war was a fiasco, and a bloody one at that.  At the same time he does seem to freeze every time he faces a claim that has numbers in it.  This number, the total of Iraqi dead, is hardly a hidden datum at this point; he should have remembered the controvesies and responses to a number of claims.  And yet he gave the props of his influential blog to Posner’s nonesense.

Again, I don’t know why Sullivan refused to think for a moment about Posner’s claim before posting.  It may be a residual reflex to find some way to defend his initial support for the war: kind of a “hey, it bankrupted this country; devastated that one; brought America into moral jeopardy (see torture, inter alia) and diminished our soft and hard power throughout the world, but at least it saved some kids” thought.  Except it didn’t, and there is still no excuse for the moral and strategic error commited in 2003 and compounded since.

Image:  Francisco de Goya, Los Desatres de la Guerra, plate 30, during and after 1810.

No Comment Needed: Sarah Palin/National Security Dept.

October 17, 2008

So, the Bush Administration actually does the conventional, correct thing this week and calls up the major candidates for national office to brief them on the ongoing Status-of Forces negotiations with Iraq.

Good thinking.  As White House spokesman Dana Perino said, “One of them is going to win the election, and they will be taking over and having to deal with these issues,”

So Senator McCain got a call.  Senator Obama got a call.  Senator Biden get a call.

That should cover it….

Wait!

Who’s missing here?

Link on over to Think Progress for the ensuing hilarity.

Image:  Postcard, 1910.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Why understanding e-mail might matter for a President

September 11, 2008

Lovable Liberal has a very smart post up that drills into Bob Woodward’s new book.  LL focuses on the claimt that the reduction of violence in Iraq derives not from the so-called surge, but from, primus inter pares, a targeted assassination program.

That’s part’s been well covered, of course, but LL makes a deeper argument:    such a campaign requires — as Woodward himself implied (see LL’s post for details) — a major technological effort to extract the intelligence needed to track and fix the intended targets.

If so, and I think LL is himself on target here, then this is a genuine success for an approach to war that emphasizes the use of machines, money and smarts instead of our side’s lives to achieve our ends.

It also — and here I’m going past LL’s argument — provides another reason why John McCain would be a terrible choice for commander in chief right now.

That is: by this time I think even the neaderthal wing of the blogosphere would be forced to concede that McCain is not exactly what you would call a technology-savvy indivdual.  I mean, we’re not talking about a mad lack of gaming skillz, or a peculiar lack of interest in Python coding. E-mail, man, e-mail.  This is someone who as of a month or so ago still had to have his staffers explain that he was “aware of the internet.”

I’m so relieved.

*

Now this stuff got a flurry of attention at the time McCain’s chisel-and-slate approach to modern communications first bubbled to the surface, but Woodward’s story and LL’s gloss point to why this stuff actually matters.

Recall that McCain has famously said that he “knows how to win wars.”

Actually, as this latest story suggests, he does not.

What McCain knows  how to do, at its most charitable, is start wars, and then when they go south, to escalate them in the hopes that enough Americans at risk can correct the errors of the old men who sent the first lot of Americans in harm’s way.

In that McCain is fully embedded in what strategic thinkers now somewhat derisively term “The American Way of War.”

The fact that he has now embraced the simplest end of counter-insurgency and “small-wars” ideas does not correct for the underlying problem that (a) he has no grasp of the historical, political and social context of the conflicts he wants to fight (which is why the “success” of the surge ™ has not actually produced the political outcomes sought, nor the commercial benefits we once sought) as even a few of the more honest of his supporters will now agree….

And that (b): Experience doesn’t help if it’s the wrong experience.

I’m just saying:  you can’t be ready on day one to be Commander in Chief running conflicts in Afghanistan, the Pakistan borderlands, North Korean nukes and all the rest if you can’t send your grandchild a birthday e-mail.  Sometimes it really is that simple.

*reposted because it is (a) right on target and (b) too quantitatively fascinating** not to watch twice.

**40 rods*** to the hogshead is the equivalent of 10.48 feet to the gallon, which may or may not say volumes about McCain’s energy policy.

***It is worth noting (really? –ed.) that a rod is also a pole or a perch.  You heard it here first (or second.)

More Tragedy: Brain and Mind, Iraq Suicides edition.

July 8, 2008

In this post, published here and over at Cosmic Variance, I looked through the story of Iraq veteran suicides to speculate on the implications of the spread from the neuroscience profession to the public of the idea that what we perceive as mind, as our selves, is actually a phenomenon of our material brains.

That’s an important notion, one taken as a commonplace by just about every neuro researcher I know that will, I still think, have a profound cultural impact, potentially as great as that of the concept of the descent of man from prior forms.

But then this story appears. Another man gone, to remind me and anyone who reads this of fact of tragedy that is the reality, the hard ground of fact and loss.

I have no deeper scientific argument that I want to pursue here, and I am not going to express any of the political thoughts that this story does evoke in me.

This is just a pause, to think about Joseph Patrick Dwyer, and those whose loss should not simply be aggregated into the accumulating totals — both the official count of war dead, and those, like Dwyer who have paid such a terrible price outside the neat categories of conflict caualties.

My deepest sympathy to the family and friends of PFC Dwyer.

Image: Francisco de Goya, “Desastre de la Guerra (Disasters of War)” 1810-11. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Program Notes: Iraq disaster/NY Times does good edition…

July 1, 2008

Read this on the fate of wounded Iraqi soldiers. (h/t TPM)

Weep, then think.

Two issues related to the themes of this blog come to mind. The first is that this is an example of the kinds of issues that lie behind the broad point I tried to make in this post about why we have alreadly lost whatever was worth “winning” in Iraq.

There, I used the most simple minded of quantitative arguments to assert that the destruction of life in Iraq had already topped the threshold that other experiences — the Civil War, World War I — suggested produced lasting, conflict-perpetuating damage to the societies that suffer them.

Behind the blunt statistics — the fact that 2 percent or more of the Iraqi population have died as a direct or indirect result of the conflict — lie the individual stories that produce their individual quanta of grief, shame and rage. Today’s New York Times article, the well written and wrenching work of Michael Kamber, does what good journalism should do: tell particular stories that provide the specific human experience that drives the larger trend of events.

What does it do to an army to know that it’s wounded are left on the heap? What does it do to a society if the best organized and armed group assumes its polity and its generals are willing to abandon them? Nothing good. If you are looking for places where the seeds of future conflict sprout, this is a good place to start, IMHO.

The second point is the one that should be obvious by now within our public discourse, but strangely isn’t. Kamber writes that “In the United States, the issue of war injuries has revolved almost entirely around the care received by the 30,000 wounded American veterans.” That’s true — but what has been missing from that coverage is the issue that lies at the heart of this account of Iraqi problems: the ongoing cost of caring for the novel populations of wounded soldiers in modern war. It happens for American soldiers more than for Iraqis, I believe, but broadly, more seriously wounded soldiers survive now than did in previous wars due to advances in frontline and later medical care.

As Linda Bilmes and Joseph Stiglitz have documented in their insufficiently well publicized studies, the cost of caring for US wounded is going to drain hundreds of billions of dollars from the Treasury for decades.

That cost, of course, is the reason wounded Iraqi vets are receiving such a poor shake; it helps explain at least some of the disgraceful lapses in care US soldiers have endured. It also leads directly to the bigger story that Stiglitz and Bilmes have tried to tell: the true cost of major modern conflict is a disastrous burden for any society to bear.

When they actually added up all the numbers, the indirect cost of the war to the US economy turned out to by conservative reasoning to double the direct costs — on the order of 1.5 trillion dollars over time.

That’s about 11 percent of the total output of the US economy in current dollars — and while that seemingly devastating cut in our wealth is eased by the decades-long schedule over which the money will be fed to the maw of war, ask any economist what compounding does to seemingly small cuts (or gains) in output. Again, nothing good in this case.

This post could go any number of directions from here. One stray thought: all that missing US money could have done a lot of good in taking care of the Iraqis we arguably most need to think well of our presence in their country.

But there is a much more important point to be made than yet one more plaint about tthe venality and corruption of the war here and there: Governments — and empires — fall when the economic cost of maintaining control over resistant or even indifferent satrapies rises too high.

I don’t give long odds for an Iraqi administration that cannot take care of its army; if the kind of indifference Kamber documents in today’s piece persists, I’d bet that power will fragment, flowing to those people and groups that promise and deliver the kind of social web that have so aided Hezbollah and Hamas in their ascents — not a good prospect for all kinds of reasons.

And as for us: whether or not we meet our moral obligation to take care of our own soldiers and those Iraqis who we led into in the conflict we initiated, the American imperial adventure in Iraq has already demonstrably weakened us within a world with rapidly shifting centers of influence, wealth and power. It has done so in all kinds of ways, as Andrew Bacevich expertly and efficiently documents in today’s Boston Globe. (Again, h/t TPM).

One of the most obvious ways that this is taking place, one which is (as Bacevich points out) strangely absent from our politics right now, is that the kind of cold-eyed quantitative analysis provided by the likes of Bilmes and Stiglitz strongly suggests that the Iraq war could be the kind of pure econmic drain that kills empires. Derangement of state finances and overextended military adventures have afflicted empires both old and new.

For a cartoon tour through the controversial history of imperial decline, think the Syracusan fiasco that doomed the Athenian empire, the fate of the Qing dynasty after half a century or more of devastating internal rebellion and sustained external conflict, and then the collapse of the European empires under the weight of the material and moral costs of wars large and small. Go on one step more, and ponder the impact of the twin costs of the mostly cold conflict the Soviets waged to retain control of their western provinces — the Warsaw Pact nations — and the hot one fought and lost in Afghanistan.

The US weathered Vietnam with its global position largely unchanged, perhaps even strengthened, given what happened to its leading rival for power.

The world is different now.  To draw out the political point that I hope is obvious even unstated:  the cost of John McCain’s vision of indefinite war in Iraq  may well turn this conflict into our Somme.  Even if we “win” in Iraq, in the sense that we retain a compliant client in power, basing rights and contractual control of that nation’s oil, we are well on our way to losing the larger and much more important conflict.

How do I know? The fact that we cannot, or will not pay for the proper care of soldiers who fought on our behalf tells me so.

Images:  Francisco Goya, “The Disasters of War (Los Desatres de la Guerra),” plate 56, c. 1810.  Source Wikimedia Commons.

John Singer Sargent “Gassed,” 1918. Location:  Imperial War Museum, London.  (The painting is huge, and no internet reproduction can create the effect of seeing the real thing.  IOW:  Stop in to the IWM if you have the chance.)  Source, Wikimedia Commons.

Thinking Like a Scientist: Surge/John McCain edition

June 11, 2008

How do scientists think?  Lots of ways, of course, as any human being does, drawing on intuition, visual reasoning, leaps of analogy, hard, slogging calculation, day dreaming…anything that works.

But what distinguishes scientific habits of mind from the everyday interpretation of experience is that there are certain rules scientists learn to follow to transform initial ideas into reliable conclusions.  Among them is the notion of a metric, a standard of measurement that you can use to compare one state of a system with another.  Absent some reliable set of measuring sticks it is impossible to draw more than impression, a feeling out of any observation.  Instead of data, you have anecdotes, and the dangerous license to draw any lesson you want from that absence of solid information.

All of which leads to today’s back-and-forth on the campaign trail.

Much has been made around both the campaigns and the blogosphere about John McCain’s Today interview in which he said that the timing of US troops homecoming from Iraq was “not too important.

The furor has mostly raged around the question of what exactly McCain meant by that eye-popping remark.  But I think that the more important claim McCain made has been missed, and it is, IMHO, the key both to his campaign and to one of the most significant problems with the idea of a McCain presidency.

Just before the “not too important” line, McCain repeated what’s becoming common “wisdom,” that the surge is working.  In his words, he said “anyone who knows the facts on the ground says that” [the surge is working].

In order for McCain to have any hope of winning the presidency, that has to be true — there have to be “facts” throughout the hard ground of Iraq that tell us the surge has been and continues to be effective.

But the phrase “the surge is working” is meaningless without a metric.  Working how?  By what standard?  What does it mean to “work” in the context not just of the facts on the ground, but intended goals of the policy, the baseline metrics established before the surge took place?

In fact, McCain is or ought to be aware that the surge has not worked by those original metrics.

There were two established at the beginning of the policy:  to create a security environment in which normal life could resume;  and with that cessation of violence, to create a  window of opportunity during which the incumbent Maliki government could achieve the political reconciliation that would ensure that improvements in security would outlive the surge.

Of those two, the first, the military goal of quelling violence, was instrumental; the second, more fundamental one of establishing a stable polity, was the essential, ultimate purpose of the surge.

So far, only the military one has been partially achieved; the political one, the one that actually counts, remains a mess — perhaps growing yet worse as the Maliki government’s army has confronted the Sadrist’s political and armed power bases in what has at times verged on a full internecine civil war.

The only way to say that the surge is working as established fact is to ignore the more important of the two metrics and to give the best possible gloss on the ongoing violence in Iraq.

Now — none of this matters in the first order politics of McCain’s statement.  He’s trying to say that a policy he has championed is the right one, and at the same time to make the barely coded claim that his opponent who has yet to visit a Baghdad marketplace in the usual kind of street clothes one wears to go shopping, doesn’t know what’s going on.  All that is going to get lost anyway in the back and forth on the homecoming gaffe.  (I know — Josh Marshall argues that this wasn’t a gaffe, and he’s right.)

But one of the features of an endless campaign is that over time you get a sense of how the candidates competing for the job actually think — how their minds work.

Here McCain is losing the long war. One of the most basic tasks of a leader is to set goals and then recognize whether or not the actions taken to achieve such ends have done so.  You have to set your metrics and pay attention to the data as they are, not as you wish them to be.

If, however, you choose to shift the goalposts so that any outcome is a success — you may have a smile on your face, but you don’t become a president worth having.

PS:  Shame on the Today interviewer who uncritically put to Senator McCain the unqualified claim that the surge is working.

Image:  Ford Maddox Brown “The Proclamation Regarding Weights and Measures 1566 A. D.” Source:  Wikimedia Commons.