Ten Fallacies About the Violence in Iraq
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The escalating violence in Iraq's civil war is now earning considerable attention as we pass yet another milestone -- U.S. occupation there, in two weeks, will exceed the length of the Second World War for America. While the news media have finally started to grapple with the colossal amount of killing, a number of misunderstandings persist. Some are willful deceptions. Let's look at a few of them:
1. The U.S. is a buffer against more violence . This is perhaps the most resilient conjecture that has no basis in fact.
Iraqis themselves do not believe it. In a State Department poll published in September, huge majorities say the U.S. is directly responsible for the violence. The upsurge of bloodshed in Baghdad seems to confirm the Iraqis' view, at least by inference. The much-publicized U.S. effort to bring troops to Baghdad to quell sectarian killing has accompanied a period of increased mortality in the city.
2. The killers do it to influence U.S. politics . This was the mantra of right-wing bloggers and cable blowhards like Bill O'Reilly, who asserted time and again before November 7 that the violence was a "Tet offensive" designed to tarnish Bush and convince Americans to vote for Democrats. This is American solipsism, at which the right wing excels. If anything, the violence has grown since November 7.
English-language sources have more than 1,000 dead since the Bush rejection at the polls. Bill, are the Iraqi fighters now aiming at the Iowa caucuses in '08?
3. The "Lancet" numbers are bogus . Since the only scientific survey of deaths in Iraq was published in The Lancet in early October, the discourse on Iraqi casualties has changed. But many in media and policy circles are still in denial about the scale of mayhem.
Anthony Cordesman, Fred Kaplan, and Michael O'Hanlon, among many others, fail to understand the method of the survey -- widely used and praised by leading epidemiologists -- which concluded that between 400,000 and 700,000 Iraqis have died in the conflict. One knowledegable commentator describes the Lancet survey as "flypaper for innumerates," and the deniers indeed look foolishly innumerate when they state that there was "no way" there could be more than 65,000 or 100,000 deaths. As soon as that bit of ignorance rolled off their lips, the Iraq Health Ministry admitted to 150,000 civilians killed by Sunni insurgents alone, which would be in the Lancet ballpark. Much other evidence suggests the Lancet numbers are about right. (See "The Human cost of the War in Iraq" here; fyi, I commissioned the study. More on this another time.)
4. Syria and Iran are behind the violence . There is no compelling reason why the two neighbors would foment large-scale violence that could spill over to threaten their regimes. Iran is in the driver's seat -- as everyone not blinded by neo-con fantasies knew in advance -- with its Shia cousins in power; Syria has its own regime stability problems and does not need the large influx of refugees or potential jihadis. That both are happy to make life hard for the U.S. is not a secret (call it their Monroe Doctrine). But are they organizing the extreme and destabilizing violence we've seen this year? Doubtful. And, there's very little evidence to support this piece of blame-someone-else.
5. The "Go Big" strategy of the Pentagon could work . The Pentagon apparently is about to forward three options to Bush for a retreat: "Go Big," meaning more troops for a short time, "Go Long," a gradual withdrawal while training Iraqis, and "Go Home," acknowledging defeat and getting out. Go Big is what McCain and Zinni and others are proposing, as if adding 20,000 or 30,000 troops will do the trick. The argument about more troops, which speaks also to the " incompetence dodge" (i.e., that the war wasn't wrong, just badly managed), has one problem: no one can convincing prove that modest increments in troop strength will change the security situation in Iraq (see #1 above). One would need 300,000 or more troops to have a chance of pacifying Iraq, and that is neither politically feasible or logistically possible, and is therefore a nonstarter. So is "Go Big."