Ten Fallacies About the Violence in Iraq
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."
6. Foreign fighters, especially jihadis, are fueling the violence. This was largely discredited but is making a comeback as Washington's search for scapegoats intensifies. By most estimates, including the Pentagon's, foreign fighters make up a small fraction of violent actors in Iraq -- perhaps 10 percent overall. (This is based on identifying people arrested as fighters.) Some of the more spectacular attacks have been carried out by al Qaeda or its imitators, but overall the violence is due to three forces: U.S. military, Iraqi Sunni Arab insurgents, and Shia militia, with minor parts played by Kurdish peshmerga in Kirkuk and the foreign bad boys.
7. If we do not defeat the violent actors there, they will follow us here. This is now the sole remaining justification for U.S. involvement in the war. If the numbers about foreign fighters are correct, then it is plainly wrong. The main anatgonists are Iraqis, and they will remain there to fight it out for many years. That does not mean we have not created many "terrorists" who would do us harm, as U.S. intelligence agencies assert, but killing them in Iraq is not a plausible option. It's too difficult; aggressive counterinsurgency creates more fighters the longer we stay and harder we try; and they might not be there.
8. The violence is about Sunni-Shia mutual loathing; a pox on both their houses. This is the emerging "moral clarity" of the right wing, that we gave it our best, we handed the tools of freedom to Iraqis, and they'd rather kill each other. That there was longstanding antagonism, stemming from decades of Sunni Arab domination and repression, is well known. But the truly horrifying scale of violence we see now took many months to brew, and is built on the violence begun by the U.S. military and the lack of economic stability, political participation, etc., that the occupation wrought. Equally as important, sectarian killing found its political justification in the constitution fashioned by U.S. advisers that essentially split the country into three factions, giving them a very solid set of incentives to go to war with each other.
9. The war is an Iraqi affair, and the best we can do now is train them to enforce security. This is the more upbeat version of #8, the "Go Long" strategy that sees training as a panacea. Despite three years of serious attempts, the U.S. training programs are bogged down by the sectarian violence itself, or by incompetence all round. No one who has looked at this carefully believes that training Iraqis is a near-term solution. It's a useful ruse as an exit strategy, blaming the victims for violence and failure.
10. Trust the same people who caused or endorsed the war to tell us what to do next. We know who they are: Bush, Cheney, McCain, and other cronies; the neo-cons now increasingly on the periphery of power but still bleating (Wolfowitz, Feith, Perle, Adelman, Lieberman), the liberal hawks, and the right-wing media (Krauthamer, Fox News, Glenn Beck, phalangist bloggers, et al). They say, "just finish the job." Just finish the job... at a human cost of how many more dead? How many lives ruined? How much more damage to U.S.-Arab relations? How much anti-Muslim racism fomented to justify the killing?
The distortions about the violence in Iraq persist even as the mayhem increases. Yesterday there was a report about 100 widows a day being created in Iraq. A Times of London report from last summer notes that gravediggers in one Baghdad cemetery are handling 200 bodies daily, compared with 60 before the war. The situation of the displaced is becoming a humanitarian crisis that will soon rival the worst African cases; the middle and upper classes have fled, leaving the poor to cope. So the poor from the U.S. go to beat up the poor in Iraq, or stand by helplessly as the Iraqi poor ravage each other.
That is the harsh reality of violence in Iraq. A half million dead. More than two million displaced. No end in sight.
Beware the delusions.