December 8, 2006

posted by Jay Livingston

If you blog about the news, things keep cycling back. This week, thanks to the report of the Iraq Study Group, the news reminds us that the Bush administration still refuses to talk with Iran and Syria. (You can download a .pdf file of the report here.) I blogged that such a refusal seemed silly (“Can We Talk?”, Nov. 1). The ISG puts it more soberly: it’s detrimental to us. It quotes an Iraqi official saying that already “Iran is negotiating with the US on the streets of Baghdad,” (p. 25 of the .pdf file, probably p. 33 in the actual report).

And then there’s the controversy over just how much violence there is. Two months ago, the British journal The Lancet published an article estimating that 600,000 people had been killed in Iraq, twenty times the figure President Bush had mentioned.

The numbers obviously had political implications, and war supporters (yes, there still were some back in October) insisted that the numbers were greatly inflated. After all it worked 470 a day, when even the big massacres reported on the news— car bombings and the like— rarely killed more than fifty. Some social scientists and anti-war bloggers defended the research— its sampling technique and its conclusions.

Shaping the data to fit political goals seems to have been a tool more used by the administration than by the social scientists. The ISG has this to say (p. 62 in the .pdf file).
In addition, there is significant underreporting of the violence in Iraq. The standard for recording attacks acts as a filter to keep events out of reports and databases. A murder of an Iraq is not necessarily counted as an attack. If we cannot determine the source of a sectarian attack, that assault does not make it into the database. A roadside bomb or a rocket or mortar attack that doesn’t hurt U.S. personnel doesn’t count. For example, on one day in July 2006 there were 93 attacks or significant acts of violence reported. Yet a careful review of the reports for that single day brought to light 1,100 acts of violence. Good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimizes its discrepancy with policy goals.

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