Former President Bill Clinton was the keynote speaker on Wednesday at the "Securing the Common Good" event at Georgetown University. It is my opinion that his keynote address was one of the more remarkable and significant political speeches of recent times. In his speech, President Clinton laid out the difference between political philosophy and political ideology:
There is a big difference between a philosophy and an ideology, on the right or the left. If you have a philosophy, it generally pushes you in a certain direction or another, but like all philosophers, you want to engage in discussion and argument. You are open to evidence, to new learning, and you are certainly open to debate the practical applications of your philosophy. Therefore, you might wind up making a principled agreement with someone with a different philosophy.
The problem with ideology is, if you’ve got an ideology, you’ve already got your mind made up. You know all the answers, and that makes evidence irrelevant and argument a waste of time, so you tend to govern by assertion and attack. The problem with that is: that discourages thinking and gives you bad results.
This new Bob Woodward book, State of Denial, is well named, but I think it’s important to point out that if you’re an ideologue, denial is an essential part of your political being – whichever side. If you’re an ideologue, you’ve got your mind made up, so when an inconvenient fact pops up, you have to be in denial. It has to be a less significant fact.
Ron Suskind wrote a related book called The One Percent Doctrine. I don’t know if any of you read that. He also co-wrote former Bush Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill’s memoirs. But the most interesting thing to me in this One Percent Doctrine is not the part that people have talked about, about 9/11. I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but Mr. Suskind says in The One Percent Doctrine that the ideologues within the current government refer to people not just like me, although I’m included, but even moderate Republicans like Colin Powell and Admiral Scowcroft as somehow lesser political mortals, because we are trapped in, quote, “the reality-based world.” And what they mean by that – in fairness to them, what they mean by that is that we are an empire, we’re the world’s only military superpower, and you can use power to change reality. And if you don’t see that, then you will always be condemning your country to a lesser status.
When I was a kid, I grew up in an alcoholic home. I spent half my childhood trying to get into the reality-based world, and I like it here.
In one remarkable passage, Bill Clinton summed up the fundamental failure of the Bush Administration. In one remarkable passage, Bill Clinton turned Mr. Bush’s perceived strength – his "steadfastness" – on its head and exposed it for the weakness that it is. Denial is central to Mr. Bush’s ideology.
Ideology and denial have informed Mr. Bush’s foreign policy – most notably his policy in Iraq. All bad news from Iraq has been ignored because it did not fit Mr. Bush’s reality. So, when researchers from the Johns Hopkins University released a study of Iraqi deaths in the current issue of the peer-reviewed medical journal, The Lancet, Mr. Bush dismissed its results as "just not credible." The study found that 654,965 Iraqis have died as a result of the 2003 invasion. In addition to Mr. Bush, a number of observers have called into question the death toll in the study’s findings as being too high. The study has become a political tool in the context of the upcoming elections – with the pro-war diehards dismissing the death toll as "not credible" and the anti-war crowd hailing it as validation of the ills of this war. However, the study is not a political document, it is a scientific document – and the science is sound.
The Johns Hopkins study used a methodology that has been used to measure death tolls in other modern conflicts. According to a news release by the study’s authors:
The mortality survey used well-established and scientifically proven methods for measuring mortality and disease in populations. These same survey methods were used to measure mortality during conflicts in the Congo, Kosovo, Sudan and other regions.
Previous studies that used the same methodology, such as the Congo death toll study of 2000, were hailed as authoritative. The Congo study found that the death toll in 2 years had been at least 1.7 million. The epedimiologist who supervised the Congo study, Dr. Les Roberts of Johns Hopkins University, is also one of the authors of the current Iraq study. After the Congo study, Dr. Roberts asked the UN and the US agencies to look over the study:
When he finished his survey, Mr. Roberts asked the United Nations relief assistance coordinator for the area and a representative of the United States Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance in the region to look over his findings. They thought that he might have been conservative, Mr. Roberts recounted.
The current Iraq study based on the same methodology is facing a decidedly more polarized audience.
Although the study’s findings are significantly higher than other estimates based on counting known fatalities arriving at hospitals and morgues, the current study’s findings are in line with a 2004 study of deaths in Iraq conducted by the same team. More significantly, the trend in the study showing that the death rate has been increasing over time is consistent with both the Iraq Body Count numbers and the US military’s own study.
In a study released by the Pentagon in August 2006 entitled "Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq", the Iraqi "casualty" count between January 2004 and August 2006 is given at just over 50,000. These numbers are based on "casualty" numbers that are "derived from unverified initial reports submitted by Coalition elements responding to an incident". The study warns that these numbers should be used for "comparative purposes" only. The study also does not break down the number between injured and killed and only refers to "casualties". Given that the US military (and the coalition) does not control much territory in Iraq, it is a safe assumption that the numbers of incidents the Coalition responds to is a small fraction of the total number of violent incidents in Iraq. Even so, the upward trend in the violence, especially in the past year, is startling and tells an ominous story.
The Pentagon study paints a gloomy picture of the security situation in Iraq. It also notes that conditions that could lead to civil war exist in Iraq:
During this reporting period, attacks and civilian casualties have risen, characterized by ethno-sectarian attacks and reprisals. Violence escalated notably in Baghdad, which, as the political, population, and media center of the country, is a high-value target for terrorists.
Sustained ethno-sectarian violence is the greatest threat to security and stability in Iraq. Breaking this cycle of violence is the most pressing immediate goal of Coalition and Iraqi operations. Conditions that could lead to civil war exist in Iraq, specifically in and around Baghdad, and concern about civil war within the Iraqi civilian population has increased in recent months.
The Pentagon study also claims that most of the violence in Iraq occurs in Baghdad and a few surrounding provinces, most notably, al Anbar province:
However, the reporting in the Pentagon study is likely skewed in favor of provinces where the US military has more of a presence, namely Baghdad and al Anbar provinces. The Johns Hopkins study provides a startlingly different picture of the distribution of violence in Iraq.
According to the Johns Hopkins study, four provinces (Anbar, Ninewa, Salah al-Din, and Diyala) have a higher death rate than does Baghdad. Also, five other provinces (Basrah, Missan, Qadissiya, Kerbala, and Tameem) have death rates in the same category as Baghdad. Therefore, there are ten provinces in Iraq where the death rate is similar or greater than that of Baghdad. That is a stunning statistic and demonstrates that violence has now spread to 10 of Iraq’s 18 provinces and is no longer isolated to the "Sunni Triangle". By contrast, the Pentagon study claims that nearly 90% of the violence is contained within four provinces (Baghdad, Anbar, Salah al-Din and Diyala). Again, it appears that the Pentagon’s view of the violence in Iraq is limited by where it has boots on the ground. Thus, it appears very likely that the Pentagon is vastly undercounting the actual violence in Iraq.
There are also other startling internal numbers in the Johns Hopkins study. Most notably, since the 2003 invasion, child mortality rates in Iraq have more than quadrupled and nearly 40% of all children under the age of 15 have died due to violence, about half of whom have died due to Coalition airstrikes.
Whether one accepts the aggregate finding of the Johns Hopkins study, it seems quite clear that the study validates trends in the death rates that other observers have noted. It is also quite clear that the scientific approach of the study gives a more accurate picture of the violence in Iraq than what the US military is able to see from its limited on the ground presence. As a scientific work, the Johns Hopkins study is not so easily dismissed.
The Iraq War has always been on the intersection of a bad ideology and bad intelligence. It continues to be so. Mr. Bush’s ideology causes him to dismiss the findings of studies such as the one from Johns Hopkins which contradict his preconceived notion of reality. On the other hand, reports that rely on limited information, such as the Pentagon report, are closer to Mr. Bush’s vision of "reality" and serves to validate his world view. Even so, the latest Pentagon report is very pessimistic and Mr. Bush will find it very difficult to continue ignoring the reality of Iraq. Mr. Bush will soon have to enter the reality-based world and he may find that he doesn’t like it here.