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A Few Reactions to the First 36 Hours of Wikileaks Spin

[ 39 ] October 24, 2010 |

I see a few conceptual problems in the media coverage of the Iraq War Diaries leak (useful roundup here) and people’s reactions to it.

1) More than half of the atrocities detailed in the diaries were committed by Iraqis against one another, but I think the media’s frame makes more of that than it ought to, in a way that feeds into a dangerous political narrative about culpability in armed conflict. For example the NYTimes claim that “Detainees Fared Worse in Iraqi Hands” misleads us into thinking that somehow that makes the US record in Iraq a little more excusable. I have often heard precisely this argument from students and colleagues when insisting that the US be held accountable for its own crimes – that they’re nothing compared to what others are doing. You also hear echoes of this from DOD spokespeople like Geoff Morell:

“We have not always been perfect but we have been far better than anyone else has in the history of warfare.”

But international law, of course, compares states’ behavior to the standards in the treaties themselves, not to one another’s least common denominator.

2) To take the opposite tack, the argument, such as that made by Daniel Ellsberg, that US misconduct in Iraq “proves” the war was a unethical because it was a “bloodbath” is also, I think, conflating jus in bello ethics (regarding how we fight) and jus ad bellum ethics (regarding the conditions under which it is legitimate to fight). If the war was unnecessary for the reasons fought, a violation of the UN charter, and sold to the public through misinformation, it was unethical regardless of how well US troops may have behaved in the field (always at any rate a relative measure). And even if the war had been justified, this wouldn’t excuse the new evidence – now heaped upon the existing historical record – of detainee abuse, failure to ensure security during an occupation, and rules of engagement that put civilians at risk.

3) Though I agree with many commentators that there’s not a lot here we didn’t know about (short of the gory detail), it must be said there are some new stories in this set of documents. Of the five “bombshells” reported by the Christian Science Monitor, one that actually is kind of a bombshell is the US’ denying it had kept a secret death count. It should be emphasized that as far as I know this is not illegal: the US was never required by the Geneva Conventions to keep such a count or to publicize it. But I would argue governments should be (many others agree) and perhaps this new data will help that movement gain ground. The evidence here suggests it is feasible as well as appropriate to expect belligerents to collect casualty data, and that the better part of valor for belligerents is to make this part of the historical record of wars in advance rather than only when brought to heel by public opinion. In fact, I can think of no better initial mechanism for putting some much-missing teeth into the regime protecting war-affected civilians than to expect governments to account for their record in this regard.


Oh Right, This Is Why I Thought He Was A Moron

[ 27 ] October 23, 2010 |

I should probably be enjoined from criticizing Charlie Manuel again, since I’ve never been more wrong about a manager. He is, on balance, very good. But tactically…ye gods. One worked and one didn’tm but…the IW of Huff was bizarre; depending on how much weight you put on Huff’s dismal 2009 it’s possible that Posey is a better hitter, and neither Posey nor Madison have extreme platoon splits — there’s no way that can be worth giving up a baserunner and moving the Giants one player closer to turning the lineup around. But I think the Ruiz bunt was even worse. You’re going to bunt 2nd to 3rd with a guy with a .940 OPS against lefties? To set up the bottom of the lineup? At home in the 6th inning? If the Phils go on to lose this game, you have to look carefully at that sequence.

…Congrats to the Giants. Nice to see that we’ll have to have at least a quasi- first-time champion this year…

“War Diaries 2.0”: Is Wikileaks Moving Down the Learning Curve?

[ 11 ] October 23, 2010 |

In a number of respects the Iraq War Diaries constitute a repeat of the Afghan War Diaries – a massive data dump bringing to light few unknowns but casting knowns in much sharper relief. And as in July, Julian Assange is predictably being hailed or harangued by different corners. However, a few things that are different this time ’round: Read more…


[ 14 ] October 23, 2010 |

Less than ideal time for this to happen:

The Royal Navy hastened to assemble an official inquiry Friday evening to explore why Britain’s newest nuclear submarine, H.M.S. Astute, ran aground while undergoing sea trials off the coast of northwest Scotland on Friday morning and remained stuck on a bank of sand and shingle for nearly 10 hours before a tug pulled it free at nightfall. A spokesman for the Royal Navy said divers would be deployed at first light on Saturday to check concerns that the submarine’s rudder had been damaged.

The episode was particularly embarrassing for the navy because the vessel, one of the most technologically advanced submarines in the world, was designed for maximum stealth and use in such delicate operations as delivering special forces troops secretly and eavesdropping off the coasts of hostile nations. Its design features and propulsion mechanisms are considered top secret, naval experts said, but both were on display during the grounding.

Galrahn has some more detailed and productive thoughts about the incident.

Iraqi Casualties

[ 8 ] October 23, 2010 |

I gave up on the Lancet fight a long time ago; I can’t remember now whether the flurry of allegations and counter-allegations about error and fraud raised sufficient question in my mind about Lancet’s conclusions, or if the entire discussion just became too technical and complicated for me to follow.  In any case, I was pretty sure then and I’m pretty sure now that we’ll never have a reliable number for the total Iraqi death toll from 2003-2010, and that we’ll probably never even have a very good estimate.  In large part, this is because the holders of the relevant data all have strong incentive to deceive.

That said, there are still a couple of relevant points.  The first is that we should start with the assumption that IBC is an undercount, and perhaps a very serious one; that they’ve determined in a very short period from a limited release that they were at least 15% off is rather a problem.  Second, I find the decision to avoid including military and insurgent Iraqi deaths in overall summations infuriating, for a couple of reasons:

1. There appears to have been minimal effort in some cases to distinguish between military and civilian deaths:

And even when Americans were at the center of the action, as in the western city of Falluja in 2004, none of the Iraqis they killed were categorized as civilians. In the early years of the war, the Pentagon maintained that it did not track Iraqi civilian deaths, but it began releasing rough counts in 2005, after members of Congress demanded a more detailed accounting on the state of the war. In one instance in 2008, the Pentagon used reports similar to the newly released documents to tabulate the war dead.

2. Soldiers in the initial part of the conflict, and insurgents killed from 2003 on, were still human; they had families, jobs, contributed to their communities, had skills, and so forth. With the exception of a relatively small number of foreign fighters, very few of the insurgents would have been fighting if the United States hadn’t invaded Iraq, and consequently very few of them would have been killed. Their deaths, whether or not they were fighting the United States or the Iraqi government or even on behalf of Al Qaeda, have the same damaging effects on Iraqi society and the Iraqi economy as the deaths of civilians. Even if they were “bad guys,” they still leave a hole in the community when they die. An appropriate measure of the damage inflicted on Iraq has to include soldier and insurgent deaths as well as civilian.

The Iran Bits…

[ 12 ] October 23, 2010 |

There’s obviously much of interest in the Wikileaks Iraq release; for the moment the Iran stuff holds the bulk of my attention:

But the field reports disclosed by WikiLeaks, which were never intended to be made public, underscore the seriousness with which Iran’s role has been seen by the American military. The political struggle between the United States and Iran to influence events in Iraq still continues as Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has sought to assemble a coalition — that would include the anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr — that will allow him to remain in power. But much of the American’s military concern has revolved around Iran’s role in arming and assisting Shiite militias.

Citing the testimony of detainees, a captured militant’s diary and numerous uncovered weapons caches, among other intelligence, the field reports recount Iran’s role in providing Iraqi militia fighters with rockets, magnetic bombs that can be attached to the underside of cars, “explosively formed penetrators,” or E.F.P.’s, which are the most lethal type of roadside bomb in Iraq, and other weapons. Those include powerful .50-caliber rifles and the Misagh-1, an Iranian replica of a portable Chinese surface-to-air missile, which, according to the reports, was fired at American helicopters and downed one in east Baghdad in July 2007.

As the article notes, the release doesn’t provide conclusive evidence as to the extent of Iran’s role in Iraq over the past eight years (although I think that both the direct and circumstantial evidence of such involvement is exceedingly strong) because we don’t have Iranian or Iraqi documents; the release is simply the view of the US military. It does confirm, however, that US claims of Iranian influence weren’t simply strategic; the US military really believes that Iran has supported Iraqi militias, conducted operations based on such belief, and isn’t exclusively using such claims to either blame US failures or Iran or lay the foundation for military action against Iran.

This last part is particularly interesting, because as far as I can tell there has been relatively little support within the uniformed military for direct action against Iran. Almost all such calls have been made by hawkish civilians, and not through the channels that the military normally uses to make its views known. I don’t doubt that there are some within the military who believe that direct action within Iraq would be sensible, but there doesn’t seem to have been an institutional consensus to that effect. This is mildly surprising, because in other cases where an insurgency has derived support from actors across international borders (Taliban using Pakistani havens and receiving support from ISI, NLF and PAVN using Cambodian sanctuaries in the Vietnam War) military attitudes on the appropriateness of cross-border strikes have been rather strongly affirmative. Indeed, in a non-COIN case, civilian reluctance to escalate the Korean War across an international border provided the setting for one of the most dangerous civil-military conflicts in American history.

In this case, the military seems to have been resigned to fighting Iran within Iraq, in spite of the presence of a civilian faction strongly in support of direct attacks on Iran. I find that somewhat surprising; if there’s any evidence to the contrary (that the military did support cross-border operations against Iran), I’d like to see it.

…to be clear, while I’d be reluctant to suggest that Iran had a moral or legal right to intervene in Iraq, I consider it utterly unsurprising that Iran did so; attempting to manage the political situation in a neighboring country, while simultaneously weakening a potential enemy, is something that countries do.  Indignation about Iranian intervention is absurd.

Iraq: The Bottom Line

[ 13 ] October 23, 2010 |

Depressing but true:

Well the latest Wikileaks disclosures ought to shut them up for good (it won’t, of course). “Our” side has both committed war crimes directly and has acquiesced, enabled, and covered up for the commission of such crimes by others. The incidents are not isolated episodes: rather we have systematic policy. The US government has a duty to investigate and to bring those of its own officials and military responsible to justice. Of course, this won’t happen and the Pentagon will pursue the whistle-blowers instead. So it goes.

Friday Nugget Blogging

[ 7 ] October 22, 2010 |

“I don’t think he really means to tie her to the bed and set the house on fire. I think he’s just trying to send her a strong signal, probably because she was cheating on him.”

Read more…

Game 6

[ 29 ] October 22, 2010 |

In an homage to the completely impartial commitment to the principle that no pundit can ever be fired for expressing views their employers find objectionable recently displayed by conservatives,  I am proud to renew my eternal, deeply principled support for Dallas area sports franchises.

UPDATE:  This is…not good enough for a game of this magnitude.

UPDATE II:  I didn’t know the Rangers were now being managed by the late Gene Mauch.

UPDATE III:   Don’t keep insulting the Impaler!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

UPDATE IV:  Personal to Joe Girardi:  David Robertson in an all-hands-on-deck elimination game:  a superb choice!    How about a little Mitre for the 6th?   I also can’t resist pointing out that he would appear to be above the greatest pitcher athlete in Yankee known human history on the depth chart.

UPDATE V:   In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t write the post I was planning saying that I didn”t expect Lewis to have much.

UPDATE VI:   Two words:   Woo.   Hoo.   Anybody got one of those perpetual GIFS of Slappy taking the called third strike yet?

Your Moment of Bobo

[ 16 ] October 22, 2010 |

“[L]udicrously wrong, Alessandra Stanley-grade wrong.” In fairness to Stanley, she at least usually confines her inevitable wrongness to a single field…

I Am Outraged That NPR Would Fire This Towering Intellect

[ 30 ] October 22, 2010 |

Shorter Verbatim Juan Williams:  “It leads to people, especially journalists, being sent to the gulag for raising the wrong questions and displaying independence of thought.”

Yeah, the thought that I might be punished — nay, tortured! — by being given a $2 million a year 3-year sinecure keeps me in constant terror.    I’m also sure that the many wingers who were outraged about Amnesty International calling a network of arbitrary torture centers a “gulag” will be even more outraged by Williams…

Yet More Williams

[ 22 ] October 21, 2010 |

In response to Jon Chait and his many other defenders, I think it’s worth making a few points about the Williams firing. Let’s start off by assuming, arguendo, that his comments were objectionable (which they were) but not in and of themselves a firable offense, and also leave aside questions of a double standard. Does this mean that NPR was wrong? Not as I see it:

  • Most important, it’s utterly disingenuous to claim that Williams was fired for a single comment.   This simply isn’t true. Williams had been warned about going on Fox and saying offensive things for years, and the race-baiting nonsense about Michelle Obama being “Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress” is indeed being particularly instructive.   This just wasn’t an isolated incident.
  • Since it’s relevant, allow me to be a sabermetric pedant.   “Replacement value” and “mediocre” are very different things, and while Chait claims that Williams was mediocre he was in fact replacement value.   Mediocre players have value — teams lose pennants all the time because they can’t fill holes with mediocre players.    Replacement-level players don’t — by definition, they can be replaced by players you can acquire for nothing.   Williams is the very definition of “replacement level” — hundreds of people could provide more informative and entertaining commentary for less money.    I challenge any NPR listener to name a single interesting insight or fact that a minimally informed reader didn’t already know from Williams’ interminable career as a pundit.    And the fact is, in any profession, this matters — the more replaceable you are, the shorter the leash you’re on.   If you’re a good teacher and publish several articles in top-flight journals every year, you can probably get away with being a jerk who blows off faculty meetings and committee work — but if you’re a more marginal tenure case I wouldn’t recommend it.
  • Granted, when I say he’s “replacement level” I mean only for news organizations who care at all about informing their readers.    For the role of being a Washington Generals Potemkin “liberal” on Fox News, his former NPR affiliation, lazy sub-mediocrity and uncritical immersion in shallow center-right conventional wisdom are major assets.   So he’s landed on his feet (and how!), making attempts to turn him into a “free speech” martyr especially pathetic.
  • And, finally, I reiterate that the idea that NPR was attacking Williams’ free speech are absurd.   Although the First Amendment is irrelevant here, I agree that there are free speech principles implicated when a relatively powerless employee is fired for expressing political views — but this has nothing to do with Williams, who was very well compensated for expressing his political views.   To claim that his employers can’t evaluate the contents of his views when that’s what his job consists of is silly.    Even more ridiculous is the idea that he has this high level of “free speech” in his new job.   If he thinks this, I invite him to refuse to criticize Democratic officials and positions and to constantly attack Republicans,  or to go on MSNBC and attack Fox News hosts.    Nobody who has a job like Williams’ is afforded a level of “free speech” that Williams and his defenders claim.
  • What “free speech” and opposition to “political correctness” mean in this context, then, is the freedom to express prejudices about unpopular minorities. That’s it.  As Greenwald points out, mainstream journalists didn’t rise up in outrage because Phil Donahue was fired for opposing the Iraq War.    I assume that it doesn’t require elaborate argument to explain why this standard of “free speech” is worthless.

[UPDATE:  Yglesias actually beat me to the punch on the sabermetric pedantry.]

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