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Hard Numbers Still Needed

Yesterday, I noted strong anectodal evidence of real improvements in Iraqi security forces' performance, but suggested there was a need for credible hard data. Today, the anectode is looking a good deal shakier. This business of monkeying around with the engagement reports is incredibly pernicious, and I don't really even see the point. I doubt that the President's political standing is seriously affected by these kinds of stories at this point, and the man isn't even going to be on the ballot again. Arguably, the most politically advantageous thing for the GOP to do at this point would really be to just get the policy right, so that by the time Summer 2008 rolls around we'll be totally disengaged and Iraq will be stable and at least semi-democratic. There seems to be a kind of pervasive culture of spin and dissembling that can't grasp that the week-to-week press coverage doesn't make a difference at this point, except insofar as confusing people leads us to make confused decisions about Iraq and create trouble down the road.

March 24, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

When you are a member of a large organization that has performance criteria, you make your performance measurements look good by whatever means necessary. You do this for (a) promotion (b) self-image.

See Vietnam, War, US Forces In for an example, but there are plenty in the corporate world too. Sunbeam anyone? Enron?

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer | Mar 24, 2005 10:54:57 AM

Image is still everything with this administration. I half agree with Matt's statement that "I doubt that the President's political standing is seriously affected by these kinds of stories at this point." While his standing is not affected by continued reports of the insurgency keeping the chaos level high, any reports of improvements in the Iraq situation give him greater credibility in handling other conflicts in the Middle East (Iran, Lebanon, Syria), and even North Korea.

Posted by: Barringer | Mar 24, 2005 11:00:51 AM

Matt, I think it's strange that you would immediately relate the discrepancy over numbers to the remote influence of US domestic politics, and Washington-based spin. Maybe that played some role in helping the fudging along here in the US, but this sort of deceit is a matter of course in wartime, and emanates mainly from the theater of war itself.

As Cranky notes,local commanders are motivated by self-interest to inflate these numbers. But it is also the case that as in most conflicts, each side is engaged in a non-stop psychological and propaganda war against the enemy - for reasons that go beyond scoring political points with their own people. They inflate their successes in an effort to convince the enemy that the latter are losing, and to get them to lose heart, give up and go home.

During the Gulf War, the coalition lied about the success rates of the Patriot anti-missile system. Of course those lies may have produced a temporary side benefit for Raytheon domestically, but the immediate aim of the lies was to convince Iraq that its SCUD attacks were ineffective. The SCUD attacks ceased, so perhaps the strategy of deception worked.

Sometimes the press is able to correct the disinformation, but more often than not the disinformers get away with it because there are too many engagements, too few reporters and insufficient security for the reporters to do their job.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Mar 24, 2005 11:23:51 AM

The 'anectode'- I love it! Presumably the anectode would be a naturally resonating point that Washington DC silliness reverbates around, producing sound waves that come from the mouths of white male journalists caught in the notorious Beltway Maelstrom.

Late at night Matt should collect his daily language misadventures- he has a natural gift, like Yogi Berra or Casey Stengal (or even, god forfend, like George Bush) for mangling the language creatively.

Posted by: serial catowner | Mar 24, 2005 11:32:00 AM

I don't this has as much to do with American politics (though shoring up Bush's poll numbers might be seen as a straw to grasp at in the Social Security fiasco) as with Iraqi politics.

I wrote the day before yesterday's raid story (http://www.needlenose.com/node/view/1221) that there seemed to be a conscious PR campaign to boost the image of the Iraqi military trained under Allawi -- probably to forestall an effort by the Shiite alliance to essentially replace it with their party militias in a re-de-Baathification effort.

Posted by: Swopa | Mar 24, 2005 11:43:50 AM

Oh, and by the way, Matt, aren't Dan Drezner and Spencer Ackerman starting to make you feel a little like Charlie Brown and the football? A good classical education is supposed to prepare you to ignore pundits who can't really know the answer to the question- and give you some good ideas about how to tell when they can't really know.

Posted by: serial catowner | Mar 24, 2005 11:46:08 AM

OK, I'm going to invoke Orwell's point that perpetual war is useful to administrations. Churchill and GHWB won their wars and got creamed in the next election. There is no reason to suppose it would be any different with the GOP. Expect this war to continue through 2008, with more bemused commentary. I sure do.

Posted by: John Isbell | Mar 24, 2005 11:46:58 AM

The details of the story were implausible in the first place. Why did you take it seriously?

Posted by: gcochran | Mar 24, 2005 11:50:49 AM

A bunch a terrs got killed, the rest escaped. Some stuff got captured. Some terrs came back - I fail to see what the big deal is.

Numbers from the Iraqi forces are likely to be somewhat fuzzy, and the opposition is certainly going to make their own claims - and, this being a guerilla war, holding onto turf doesnt matter very much.

Lets keep our eyes on the big picture - include this, even minus 40%, say, AND the Haifa Street, AND the shopkeepers, AND the two "ambushes" and the data from Brookings, and see where it all leads.

Posted by: liberalhawk | Mar 24, 2005 12:20:11 PM

Seems to me that the more successful the right is in justifying Bush's invasion of Iraq the worse off society. The acceptance of war as a solution doesn't bode well. By the by, I come to think that most historian seem to rather like war; am I wrong?

Posted by: ken melvin | Mar 24, 2005 12:28:00 PM

the week-to-week press coverage doesn't make a difference at this point

You in the reality based community really do believe in this objective stuff, don't you?

Posted by: epistemology | Mar 24, 2005 2:39:11 PM

...Iraq will be stable and at least semi-democratic...

Will you settle for stable, semi-populated and quarter-democratic?

Posted by: abb1 | Mar 24, 2005 3:20:34 PM

On an article about Iraq, TNR's Lawrence Kaplan is now telling us we could've won in Vietnam if it wasn't for the journalists.

Posted by: Dan the Man | Mar 24, 2005 4:23:38 PM

On an article about Iraq, TNR's Lawrence Kaplan is now telling us we could've won in Vietnam if it wasn't for the journalists.


Sure, and the Kaiser could've won WWI if only those socialists and jews hadn't stabbed Germany in the back.

Posted by: David | Mar 24, 2005 6:15:28 PM

people not paying attention

Why are you blaming the initial raid report on Bush or any of his administration people? The report came from the Iraqi government, not the U.S. government and for good reason since the operation was conducted by Iraqi forces not U.S. forces.

Posted by: Brad | Mar 25, 2005 4:57:14 AM

Brad, trying to reconcile the various reports, here's what I come up with: 240-some iraqi soldiers were on the road in trucks when they stumbled on this camp; the first they knew of it was when the insurgents at an outpost close to the camp shot at them -- perhaps destroying 3 trucks. It's plausible this is when the 10 army casualties happened.

The iraqis jumped out of their truck=targets and started returning fire. They called for US air support. Meanwhile the insurgents fought a shaky rear-guard action while trying to run away. Perhaps a lot of insurgents left by boat; presumably the US helicopters didn't blow up the boats on the open water -- or maybe they did. So the army dug into defensive positions and waited for air support, and after it came and the insurgents had definitely run away they searched the camp and took some trophies.

We have good reason to think it was truly an insurgent camp instead of something else because people claiming to be insurgents said it was. They probably wouldn't do that unless they really were insurgents.

What does it all mean? Not very much. Insurgents run from airstrikes. There are actual iraqi convoys traveling now, going places they haven't been before.

Posted by: J Thomas | Mar 25, 2005 10:13:37 AM

serial - I think 'anectode' is one of those bolt thingies that Frankenstein's monster has sticking out of his neck.

liberalhawk - Quite so. The plural of anecdote is data.

Seems to me that the more successful the right is in justifying Bush's invasion of Iraq the worse off society.

I dunno, Ken. Which society did you have in mind?

The acceptance of war as a solution doesn't bode well.

For what, Ken? Wars aren't much fun for the participants, true, but they can pay long-term dividends for decades; even centuries. For instance we're just weeks away from notching up the 60th year since Nazis last ran a country. I think those responsible would find that a satisfying streak; especially as there's an excellent likelihood it'll keep on going.

Posted by: Dick Eagleson | Mar 26, 2005 7:02:51 AM

For instance we're just weeks away from notching up the 60th year since Nazis last ran a country.

Exactly, that's the whole point. It didn't work well for the Nazis to try war as a solution.

Posted by: abb1 | Mar 26, 2005 7:40:51 AM

It didn't work well for the Nazis to try war as a solution.

It's kind of built into the nature of warfare that at least half of the participants are going to come out on the short end of the sharp stick. What's important is that the fighting back part of warfare should find the good guys on the plus side of that balance sheet. Fortunately, that's the way the breaks have been going.

Posted by: Dick Eageson | Mar 28, 2005 4:50:34 AM

Back to the topic, why would anybody think we'll ever get any hard numbers on iraq until after the war is over?

Any hard number that looks useful will be censored *because* it looks useful.

Posted by: J Thomas | Mar 29, 2005 9:07:25 PM

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