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Lowering the bar

March 20th, 2006

Miranda Devine’s latest piece has a friend in Iraq reporting from his bunker inside the Green Zone that everything is going fine there, or at least that things are not nearly as bad as “the French Reign of Terror, or the Russian and Chinese revolutions, not to mention the disasters that were Vietnam and Cambodia.” I was going to do more, but, as usual, Tim Dunlop has beaten me to it

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  1. avaroo
    March 25th, 2006 at 12:07 | #1

    As for being pro-war, I guess everyone is, at some level of provocation. We just all have different points of provocation.

  2. avaroo
    March 25th, 2006 at 12:09 | #2

    ooops, make that “more Americans died because we entered WWII than would have died had we not entered the war and left HITLER in power” not Saddam in my post as 12:04pm.

  3. March 25th, 2006 at 12:42 | #3

    “Ian, if Iraq was not a credible threat to anyone, why did the UN keep saying for 12 years, that it was?”

    Well, it didn’t say so in so many words. It came up with a compromise form of words, yielding to US pressure, that the USA subsequently interpreted in the way it wanted to. So all it really was was a repeat of existing US views, not independent confirmation of them.

  4. avaroo
    March 25th, 2006 at 13:09 | #4

    It said exactly that in 17 UNSC resolutions.

  5. Harry Clarke
    March 25th, 2006 at 14:48 | #5

    Ian

    Its not clear that the US have caused more deaths with their invasion policy than Saddam would have.

    See the Davis et al. study:

    http://gsbwww.uchicago.edu/fac/steven.davis/research/War%20in%20Iraq%20versus%20Containment%20%20(15%20February%202006).pdf.

    Apart from torture and repression Saddam killed or caused the deaths of 500,000 of his own citizens. He killed 200,000 Kurds and forcibly relocated 1.5 million of them.

    Davis et al estimate that, under the containment policy introduced after 1991, Saddam killed another 200,000. They estimate 10,000-30,000 Iraqis would have continued to die annually had containment continued.

    This suggests a higher death toll than has occurred with the US invasion.

    Davis et al. acknowledge that this might not continue to be true if full-scale civil war does break out as a consequence of the invasion but, in any event, one cannot assume that the alternative to the US invasion would have been low loss of life.

    The US invasion might not have worked out as plasnned but it is entirely wrong to suppose the situation in Iraq would have been a bed of roses had the US not invaded.

  6. Ian Gould
    March 25th, 2006 at 14:53 | #6

    “They estimate 10,000-30,000 Iraqis would have continued to die annually had containment continued.”

    Actually Harry that does not exceed the likely deaths that have resulted from the US invasion.

    I suggest you visit tim Lambert’s “Deltoid” blog at http://www.scienceblogs.com for further discussion on this issue.

  7. avaroo
    March 25th, 2006 at 15:03 | #7

    Ian, you must be counting every death in Iraq as caused by the US invasion. Civilians deaths caused by insurgents are not on the US’ tab as far as I’m concerned. They are on the tab of the insurgents themselves.

  8. Harry Clarke
    March 25th, 2006 at 15:45 | #8

    I think the Lambert figure of 200,000 is based on a doubling of the Lancet figures which I think most believe are exaggerated. Iraq Body Count (an anti-war group) reckon about 35,000 over the 3 years which is at the low end of the range 30,000-90,000 forecast by Davis et al.

    But I wouldn’t want this to turn on an inequality even if I am right.

    The point is that the ongoing cost of keeping Saddam in power was horrific. If you want to attribute blame to the US for casualties as a consequence of intervention it is reasonable to talk about the counterfactual – what would the killings have been had Saddam remained in power.

    Avaroo I think the majority of the killings are caused by the insurgency not US forces but in so far as the Insurgency is a consequence of US intervention these deaths must be included as a cost of the US intervention.

  9. jquiggin
    March 25th, 2006 at 16:03 | #9

    Harry, since you don’t want the argument to turn on an inequality you should start by accepting the facts

    (1) Iraq body count derives their number from published media reports, and refers solely to direct casualties from violence. It is an absolute lower bound.

    (2) No serious statistical challenge to the Lancet study has ever been made. The “most” who s it overestimated excess deaths are the same “most” who argued vociferously for the existence of WMDs even after the invasion. You are well enough qualified to check the debate on this one. Visit Tim Lambert’s site and you’ll see that the critics are a bunch of amateur (at best) statisticians starting from a predetermined conclusion

    (3) The Lancet study answers your question exactly. It measures excess deaths relative to the baseline of Saddam continuing in power

    (4) Of course, I agree with you that those who start to choose a war are responsible for all the consequences, including those that result directly from the actions of the other side(s).

  10. jquiggin
    March 25th, 2006 at 16:04 | #10

    On (4), of course, that doesn’t excuse the insurgents. More than one party can be responsible for the same crime.

  11. Katz
    March 25th, 2006 at 16:38 | #11

    These death-rates-based moralising debating points both for and against COW bellicosity in Iraq are based on gossamer-like counterfactual foundations.

    More seriously, they are irrelevant in explaining the invasion of Iraq.

    The salient factual issues are:

    1. The COW didn’t seize upon the humanitarian issue until after the repudiation of the WMD pretext. By that time, Iraq had already been occupied. Therefore, the humanitarian issue was never formally asseted as a cassus belli.

    2. Saddam’s atrocities were very serious but they were by no means orders of magnitude worse than contemporaneous events in the Congo, Uganda, Sudan, Burma, Aceh, North Korea. Only the most ingenuous naif would claim that humanitarian motives inspired COW intervention.

    More important now than the historians’ debate over motives for the Iraq misadventure is what comes next.

    I predict that humanitarian concern for Iraqis will play no part in COW disengagement. After the fast-approaching extinction of political support for the Bush administration in the Congress, any COW commitment that could remotely be interpreted as protective of Iraqi life and civil society will evaporate.

    Perhaps, US military will withdraw to secure bases in Iraq in the hope of being dealt back into the power game.

    Certainly a sizeable US force will remain in Iraq until the unlamented demise of Bush misrule in early 2009. But soon thereafter, during the honeymoon period of the new administration they’ll be withdrawn without major complaint.

    The parallel here is the October 1993 withdrawal of US troops from Somalia after the “Black Hawk Down” incident. Bill Clinton was happy to accede to popular demands to terminate a commitment to Somalia that had been made by his predecessor, the first Bush. Clinton suffered no long term political damage from this decision.

    Neither will the GWB’s successor suffer any political damage from Americans demanding that US troops be kept in Iraq after 2009 to protect humanitarian principles.

  12. Hal9000
    March 25th, 2006 at 16:41 | #12

    So, after three years and enough treasure to establish a viable colony of humans on Mars while curing malaria, world hunger and the third world debt, the very best argument war spruikers can come up with is that maybe, with a bit (well, all right, a lot) of creative accounting, a slightly smaller number of Iraqis are dying violent deaths than would have if Hussein had remained in office. What a ripper of an argument that is. Makes you want to go and pump George W Bush’shand, doesn’t it? I’m betting allthose amputee beterans in US military hospitals are weeping with gratitude.

  13. Ian Gould
    March 26th, 2006 at 02:37 | #13

    Let us assuem for the moment that Harry’s claims of of a possible reduction in mortality of up to 60,000 people has occurred.

    As Hal9000 points out that represents a pretty appalling return on an invest of over $500 billion (the exact figure is hard to determine but the allies have expended significant amounts in addition to the US expenditure).

    It works out to around $8 million per life saved.

    For a fraction of that amount we could have written of all thrid world debt, vaccinated every child on the planet and provided clean water to everyone on the planet.

    Harry, go read Tim Lambert’s posts before telling me what you “believe” his position is.

    Avaroo, I hesitate to inflict you on Tim but if you read his blog you will see that he is talking about the increase in fatalities since the invasion not “every death in Iraq”.

  14. Ian Gould
    March 26th, 2006 at 03:30 | #14

    The argument that the US is not responsible for the civil war their actions started is roughly equivalent to “I just busted the homicidial maniacs out of the maximum security prison for the criminally insance and gave them the automatic weapons, I’m not responsible for what thye chose to do with them.” or the bartender who serves someone five whiskeys and watches him drive off.

    We are all of us, responsible for the reasonably foreseeable consequences of our actions.

  15. Harry Clarke
    March 26th, 2006 at 03:58 | #15

    Well Ian I did follow your link to Tim Lambert and this is what I got:

    “Note for visitors from Daily Kos: 120,000 is an estimate of the number of violent deaths. The total number of extra deaths as a result of the war is very roughly 200,000 once you include the increase in disease and accidents since the invasion. This number is more likely to be too low than too high since it comes from doubling the 100,000 estimate from the Lancet study (which just covered the first eighteen months) and violence has worsened since then”

    My statement:

    “I think the Lambert figure of 200,000 is based on a doubling of the Lancet figures ”

    Sorry, where did I get it wrong?

    Of course as part of the Davis et al study are other counterfactuals relating to the cost of the war. The policy of containment which was widely viewed as an alternative to invasion (including I think by many who read John’s blog) was found to yield costs that were comparable to the costs of the war at $350-$700 billion (inclusive of costs of failures in the policy, possibility of limited war with the policy etc). Thus the opportunity cost of the war to Iraq is not high given this alternative.

    They also consider other counterfactuals such as the fact that Saddam drove the Iraq economy to 25% of its output.

    I tried to spell out the Davis et al arguments here:

    http://kalimna.blogspot.com/2006/03/invading-iraq-versus-containment.html

    And why the narky tone, Ian? Is it because someone dares question your priors? The claims I made in what concerned an issue of assessing the costs of the war were not strong. Again I quote in relation to the mortality costs:

    “Davis et al. acknowledge that this might not continue to be true if full-scale civil war does break out as a consequence of the invasion but, in any event, one cannot assume that the alternative to the US invasion would have been low loss of life.

    The US invasion might not have worked out as plasnned but it is entirely wrong to suppose the situation in Iraq would have been a bed of roses had the US not invaded”.

    By the way checking on the original Lancet study the estimated deaths had a confidence limit in total from under 10,000 to 194,000. One commentator described them as ‘dartboard’ estimates.

    I am not sure the Lancet figures do account for the killings by Saddam or just background mortality of the general population. These were then subtracted from an estimate based on a sample survey of deaths after the invasion. After spending some time looking at the various figures (including UN data which provides estimates close to Iraq Body Count and to Davis et al.) my feeling is that the true figure is somewhere between 10,000 and 200,000!

    Supporters of the invasion seem to go for a figure at about 3Xbottom of this range while opponents go for the top. My guess is that we really don’t have a clue what the actual death figures, post invasion are. Certainly not from the Lancet study.

    Ian if you are going to tell me to check out sources why don’t you do it yourself?

  16. Katz
    March 26th, 2006 at 09:10 | #16

    Harry,

    You support the conceptual model adopted by the Davis, Murphy, Topol (DMT) study:

    “DMT criticize the notion that the invasion can be rejected as a mistake because of its ‘high’ costs. They argue it is opportunity cost that matter – the cost of invasion compared to the cost of the next most plausible policy option, containment.”

    However, very correctly, and in my opinion somewhat understatedly, withhold support for the way in which DMT limit inputs on the cost side of the cost-benefit analysis:

    “… But I am unsure about specific assumptions attached to events that DMT envisage as possible and which they attach costs too.”

    1. How would a proponent of such counter-factual analysis go about setting realistic limits to the domain of costs resulting from pursuit of a particular course of action?

    2. Having established those limits, how would this proponent then arrive at justifiable estimates of the costs of these consequences of a particular course of action?

    To be specific:

    Is any damage that the Iraq adventure has imposed on the diplomatic credibility of the US within the domain of opportunity costs?

    If so, then how does one justify an estimate of actual costs that may be weighed against any hypothesised benefits that may eventually accrue?

    Necessarily, whenever human beings make any plans this seat-of-the pants thinking about costs and benefits must inform any decision.

    But there are so many imponderables and the units of measurement are so imprecise that one can perceive only the most indistinct outlines of what may lie ahead.

    Therefore, to rely on this methodology as a critical tool for implementation of policy, it seems, is rash.

    Interestingly, however, this methodology does have its uses for historical analysis. Historians can rake through the debris of failed ventures and ask themselves the questions:

    1. What consequences were unforeseen?

    2. What resources were overvalued?

    3. What barriers were underestimated?

    Historians then ask themselves the question: “How did the actors fail to learn from previous mistakes?” (Which has been my refrain during the entire Iraq misadventure.)

    And you are correct in assuming that Bush administration policy makers are contemplating the opportunity costs of different courses of action. The problem is that up to now they have proven to be particularly inept.

    Which brings us to the central point about counter-factual analysis: if it has proven so difficult for policy makers to learn from experience, how on earth can we trust their cost-benefit analysis of events that haven’t even happened yet?

  17. Ian Gould
    March 26th, 2006 at 11:28 | #17

    “Sorry, where did I get it wrong?”

    Whyen you went on to claim that “most believe the Lancet figures} are exaggerated”.

  18. Ian Gould
    March 26th, 2006 at 11:30 | #18

    “And why the narky tone, Ian? Is it because someone dares question your priors? ”

    I don’t know, people who cheer-lead for mass murder just irritate me.

    Obviously an irrational character flaw on my part.

  19. avaroo
    March 26th, 2006 at 12:56 | #19

    “Avaroo I think the majority of the killings are caused by the insurgency not US forces but in so far as the Insurgency is a consequence of US intervention these deaths must be included as a cost of the US intervention. ”

    Actually, the insurgency would exist even if the coalition left, since the goal of the insurgents is to rule Iraq. They cannot permit a democratic government to be established in Iraq. You’ll notice that the insurgents kill far more Iraqis than they kill coalition troops. If their goal was to eliminate the coalition, why would they purposely target Iraqis? And they do. The deaths at the hands of insurgents are no more on the coalition’s tab than the deaths of German civilians at the hands of Nazis were in WWII.

  20. avaroo
    March 26th, 2006 at 13:08 | #20

    Does anyone have an explanation for how it could be the coalition’s fault if an insurgent targets and kills an Iraqi civilian? Simply because the coalition is IN Iraq? Is that it?

    Let’s think about this. Say you kill an innocent person, someone you don’t know, just pick someone out of a crowd and slaughter them. When you get your day in court, your excuse is “I targeted and killed this person because some other person did something that made me angry.” Does anyone seriously believe that defense would fly?

  21. Hal9000
    March 26th, 2006 at 18:33 | #21

    Avaroo, when you invade and occupy someone else’s country you are responsible for what happens, including what the resistance gets up to. The resistance to the German occupation was pretty good at soft targets – collaborators, civilian transport etc too. I don’t think the ‘they did it, so we aren’t responsible’ defence worked too well for Goering, Doenitz and the rest of the lads in the dock at Nuremburg. I seem to recall it was the waging aggressive war rap that trumped all the others.

    Do you remember the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia to overthrow the Pol Pot regime? Now, despite the fact that the Viets had all manner of provocation as causus belli they were sent to the international sin bin for a decade by Saints Ronnie (with Bush pere at his side) and Maggie and all the rest. Now let me see, no provocation, no Security Council imprimatur, laughably bogus pretexts, – who’s responsible for turning Iraq from merely one of many sad middle eastern tyrannies into a facsimile of Somalia, then? Mightn’t it be the people who invaded the place, torture and bomb its inhabitants and continue to behave like the US cavalry in injun country circa 1875? No wonder George W is so down on international tribunals…

  22. Harry Clarke
    March 26th, 2006 at 21:25 | #22

    Katz, I think drawing the boundaries on this type of inquiry is difficult – yes and the further you push the more pure guesswork becomes part of the analysis. I think trying to attach numbers to things can teach the analyst something even if you don’t believe very specific conclusions.

    And yes I am sure you can learn from things you have overlooked.

    On costs of current policy for future credibility, Stiglitz and Bilmes mention this but don’t do any empirics. Obviously at the time of the invasion the US was trying to teach ‘rogue states’ a lesson but, as it turned out, the difficulties experienced mean the US is cramped in terms of dealing with Iran. Its an issue.

    Ian I showed both the claims you made were wrong – your claim that I hadn’t read the Lambert piece and your claim that the death statistics were irrelevant because of the costs – Davis et al considered counterfactuals both w.r.t. deaths and costs. Your response – an incredible piece of abuse that labels me and/or the authors I was considering cheerleaders for mass murder. My feelings about your statement, if expressed, would probably have me banned from this blog forever – so I’ll just remark that your views are inaccurate and foolish.

  23. avaroo
    March 27th, 2006 at 00:59 | #23

    “Avaroo, when you invade and occupy someone else’s country you are responsible for what happens, including what the resistance gets up to. ”

    No, I don’t think so. People are responsible for their own actions. If you target and kill women and children shopping in a market in Baghdad or riding a bus in Baghdad, you do so because you are capable of such action, not because of anything anyone else has done. I know the concept of personal responsibility is not popular in all quarters.

  24. avaroo
    March 27th, 2006 at 01:13 | #24

    “who’s responsible for turning Iraq from merely one of many sad middle eastern tyrannies into a facsimile of Somalia, then?”

    Saddam Hussein

  25. Hal9000
    March 27th, 2006 at 10:04 | #25

    Funny, Avaroo, I thought when the statue came down and the ‘mission accomplished’ banner went up the old Saddam’s capacity to inflict ruin ended. Seems if he’s still giving the orders the American prison authorities have a lot to answer for.

    ‘you target and kill women and children shopping in a market in Baghdad or riding a bus in Baghdad’. Or maybe a wedding party, or a family at home in Isahaqi, or an entire city bombed back to the stone age? Saddam responsible for all those deaths too? I take it you’d be sympathetic to those prisoners in the dock who argue that their parents, or school, or bad friends – indeed anyone but themselves – are responsible for their life of crime. Every army of occupation in history has referrred to resistance as bandits and terrorists – the Brits said it about the American revolutionaries and their cowardly guerilla tactics. Me, I fail to see the moral distinction between dropping bombs from aircraft and other more intimate forms of ‘targeting’. Same predictable result.

  26. avaroo
    March 27th, 2006 at 10:44 | #26

    “Funny, Avaroo, I thought when the statue came down and the ‘mission accomplished’ banner went up the old Saddam’s capacity to inflict ruin ended.”

    Saddam’s personal capacity to inflict ruin ended pretty much the day of the invasion.

    “Seems if he’s still giving the orders the American prison authorities have a lot to answer for.”

    Giving orders?

    “Or maybe a wedding party, or a family at home in Isahaqi”

    Neither of those were actually targets.

    “or an entire city bombed back to the stone age”

    like Dresden?

    “Saddam responsible for all those deaths too?”

    Saddam is fully responsible for the invasion and subsequent deaths just as Hitler was totally responsible for the allied invasion and subsequent European and American deaths. What is so difficult for you to understand about this?

    “I take it you’d be sympathetic to those prisoners in the dock who argue that their parents, or school, or bad friends – indeed anyone but themselves – are responsible for their life of crime. ”

    Actually, I’m FOR personal responsibility, you are the one arguing against it.

    “Every army of occupation in history has referrred to resistance as bandits and terrorists – the Brits said it about the American revolutionaries and their cowardly guerilla tactics. ”

    To my knowledge American revolutionaries didn’t target children. Do you really not understand that people who target children are different from other people?

    “Me, I fail to see the moral distinction between dropping bombs from aircraft and other more intimate forms of ‘targeting’. ”

    I know. It’s a huge failing on your part. It’s also why you and people like you will never be entrusted with making decisions about national security.

    “Same predictable result.”

    So the nazis killing jews was the same thing as allied troops killing nazis?

  27. Hal9000
    March 28th, 2006 at 10:56 | #27

    “Saddam is fully responsible for the invasion and subsequent deaths”

    What? By having WMD and threatening to nuke New York? I fail to see how even Hussein is responsible for something he did not do. In fact, he was telling the truth. Someone was, however, telling monumental porkies. The President and government of the United States of America. A lying pretext for aggressive war and invasion of a country that did not threaten them. So Saddam’s responsible for that?

    “It’s also why you and people like you will never be entrusted with making decisions about national security.” Tsk tsk. Touchy! Pangs of guilt perhaps? At any event, it is clear that we are all the less secure because people like you have unfortuately been entrusted with making decisions about national security.

  28. avaroo
    March 31st, 2006 at 10:06 | #28

    “What? By having WMD and threatening to nuke New York?”

    No, by refusing to comply with his ceasefire obligations to the UN.

    “Tsk tsk. Touchy! Pangs of guilt perhaps?”

    Yes, you know ust how devastated I am that Saddam is gone.
    :)

    “At any event, it is clear that we are all the less secure because people like you have unfortuately been entrusted with making decisions about national security. ”

    I’m not. You may be. Tough shit for you.

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