Saturday, 7 February 2009

Iraq parallax

As the vantage point changes, opinion changes on Iraq, at least in some places, to some degree. The election has been well-covered on lots of other blogs, but one reaction I found particularly curious was this from Andrew Sullivan. First, some sense: having acknowledged the “relatively peaceful democratic elections” as cause for celebration, he goes on to describe much of the  American policy debates as “narcissistic”, and writes “it is silly to get too exercized about a withdrawal in 16 months or 18 months or two years.” But then he goes on to give the flimsiest argument against any deal beyond the SOFA involving permanent US military basing in Iraq:
What is not silly is a clear determination to leave - and by leave, I mean leave - before the end of Obama’s first term. If the Iraqi government wants military assistance and support, fine. But the notion that Iraq should become a permanent outpost of the US military is one we should reject. Iraq has destroyed every foreign power trying to occupy, control or sit on it. And the US is not, despite neocon dreams, a colonial power in the classic sense.
 I have no opinion on whether or not there should be permanent US bases in Iraq in future, because unlike Mr Sullivan I don’t fancy myself as a clairvoyant. The issue would depend on the future views of both the sovereign government of Iraq and the US government as to their strategic needs. But the really silly part is drawing an equivalence between permanent basing and trying to “occupy, control, or sit” on Iraq. Is this what the US is doing in Britain, Japan, Germany &c?

The world is turning, and Mr Sullivan is running to keep up. I hear the guy used to be good, but I came in late, so I wouldn’t know. More recent Sullivan silliness here (via Roland).
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Following up my earlier Signals and Noise posts (one and two) on the upcoming troop withdrawals, here’s a NY Times piece on the issue from a week ago that focuses on the political as well as military implications for Obama.

I would have thought the political calculation should be simple to work out: If Obama pulls out troops in line with the 16 month campaign promise but against the best advice of military advisers and it goes wrong, he gets blamed. If he pulls out in line with the longer SOFA timetable then he’s following a treaty commitment entered into by the previous administration and is not open to blame to the same degree if it goes wrong. Either way he withdraws well before his re-election campaign, so where is the political benefit in risking withdrawing faster than the SOFA timetable?
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Turning to a related thread in recent posts, on whether there is something to be gained from comparing the occupation of Iraq with Israel’s longer running occupation of the West Bank and Gaza (one and two), The Contentious Centrist recently linked to an interview with Benny Morris talking about the recent fighting in Gaza, which was strong on many points, but to me seemed to fall short on others. Particularly he stated his belief that the introduction of democracy in Arab societies was doomed (29:20), predicting failure in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the Palestinian territories. I hope the recent evidence to the contrary from Iraq may yet broaden the view of what is possible, not just for Iraqis but also for Palestinians, Egyptians, Jordanians, Syrians . . .

Also on making comparisons, a post on Michael J Totten’s blog, A Minority Report from the West Bank and Gaza, was followed by many comments, amongst which an attempt to find lessons in recent Iraqi experience applicable to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was met with some skepticism. But the substance of the actual post once more underlined the necessity of focusing on the needs of populations, not just on political leaders, something re-learned in Iraq and overdue greater application in Israel’s approach to the Palestinians. It’s a lesson that was understood long ago by Hamas, however cynically they applied it.
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Finally, via Harry’s Place, another indication of shifting perspectives, the American Association for Public Opinion Research criticises Dr. Gilbert Burnham, author of the extraordinary estimate of Iraqi war casualties published in The Lancet medical journal in 2006. From the AAPOR press release:
AAPOR found that Burnham, a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, repeatedly refused to make public essential facts about his research on civilian deaths in Iraq. In particular, the AAPOR inquiry focused on Burnham’s publication of results from a survey reported in the October 2006 issue of the journal Lancet. When asked to provide several basic facts about this research, Burnham refused.

AAPOR holds that researchers must disclose, or make available for public disclosure, the wording of questions and other basic methodological details when survey findings are made public. This disclosure is important so that claims made on the basis of survey research findings can be independently evaluated. Section III of the AAPOR Code states: "Good professional practice imposes the obligation upon all public opinion researchers to include, in any report of research results, or to make available when that report is released, certain essential information about how the research was conducted."

Mary E. Losch, chair of AAPOR's Standards Committee, noted that AAPOR's investigation of Burnham began in March 2008, after receiving a complaint from a member. According to Losch, "AAPOR formally requested on more than one occasion from Dr. Burnham some basic information about his survey including, for example, the wording of the questions he used, instructions and explanations that were provided to respondents, and a summary of the outcomes for all households selected as potential participants in the survey. Dr. Burnham provided only partial information and explicitly refused to provide complete information about the basic elements of his research.”
The Lancet reportedly had no comment. The Lancet’s editor has been a very public supporter of the UK anti-war movement.

The Lancet has had problems with other stories related to statistics, most notoriously MMR, but also more recently with a story on sexual abuse statistics, debunked on BBC Radio 4’s More or Less last December 5th.

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