Category: Global Issues

Global Issues, US Politics

The human cost equation

In Tuesday’s most deadly attack, two pedestrians wearing vests made of explosives blew themselves up near a restaurant outside the walls of the Green Zone, within a few hundred yards of three busy entrances, Iraqi and American officials said. Soon after the initial blasts, a hidden bomb was detonated nearby, adding to the carnage, the American military said. Some Iraqi authorities said the third explosion was caused by a car bomb.

At least 15 Iraqi civilians and an Iraqi police officer were killed in the explosions, and 4 people were wounded….

In a predominantly Sunni area of Dawra, a district in southern Baghdad, gunmen ambushed a bus carrying Shiite mourners from the holy city of Najaf, where they had buried a relative, government officials and family members said. The gunmen pulled 10 people from the bus and executed them, the Interior Ministry official said.

An hour earlier, in Taji, north of Baghdad, gunmen ambushed another bus, killing one person and wounding five, the official said.

Two mortar grenades hit a Shiite mosque in Dawra, killing 9 and wounding 11 civilians, the Interior Ministry official said.

In other violence, a family of five–a father, mother, grown daughter and two teenage sons–were found beheaded in a predominantly Sunni sector of Dawra, according to an official at Yarmouk Hospital, the main medical facility in western Baghdad.

The police and hospital officials also reported that four car bombs around Baghdad killed at least 7 people and wounded at least 18.

Gunmen raided a company’s offices in the upper-middle-class Mansour neighborhood, killing three employees and wounding three, officials said.

According to the official at Yarmouk Hospital, five bodies were discovered early Tuesday in Jihad, the neighborhood where dozens of people were reportedly executed by marauding gunmen on Sunday. It was unclear when the victims had been killed.

In Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, a time bomb exploded in the clinic of Ameera al-Rubaie, the wife of the governor of Salahuddin Province, according to Agence France-Presse, which quoted the local police. Dr. Rubaie, a gynecologist, was killed and four of her patients were wounded, the police said, according to the wire service.

In Baquba, north of Baghdad, the mayor of the Um Al Nawa district was assassinated by gunmen, the ministry official said. In the Shiite holy city of Karbala, a drive-by shooting killed two workers in the central market, according to the Interior Ministry official.

An engineer and his bodyguard were assassinated on their way to work in Kirkuk on Tuesday morning, according to Col. Adel Zain Alabdin of the Iraqi police. A car bomb in Mosul l killed two people and wounded four, the police said. [emphasis added]

The above is a NYT report on one day of violence in Iraq – Tuesday of this week – as noted by Michael Crowley at the Plank. Some days have been better, some much worse. This Times of London report, as AS right states, is equally as grueling. My comment is not so much about these incidents per se, but rather the sum human cost of the war. In many respects, I can sympathise with the humanitarian rationales for the war. Particularly those expressed on this site. I am a strong supporter of humanitarian interventions, under strict conditions and with the types of coalitions, and skill sets, that I believe are essential to the post-conflict nation building process.

On balance, at the time, however, I was against the war based largely on an equation of the human costs. Or more accurately, the combination of the risk of an incredibly difficult post-invasion period, combined with a lack of planning, capability, desire, and coalition to effectively deal with this nation building project. UN support, for me, was not a matter of ‘what the world thinks’, but rather a combination of getting access to the necessary skill sets (imperfect but evolved over numerous post-cold war missions), and local/regional legitimacy, that is essential in post-conflict environments. The humanitarian equation, for me, did not add up.

Of course others had different equations. There has been much talk lately about the 1% doctrine, for example – this is not really a humanitarian argument though. One of Blair’s many calculations was that he could convince the US to accept the greater UN involvement that he knew was needed, immediately after the fall of Baghdad. This of course, for numerous reasons, proved incorrect.

If one’s goals are humanitarian, then this human cost equation is of primary relevance.

My question then is this. For the war’s supporters, is the human cost of the war academic? Do the causalities, or the many days like this past Tuesday, alter the overarching rationale for the war? Or, do the intentions of the war, and the eventual end state (if positive), trump any number of deaths, or any amount of brutality, in the interim? This question is at the center of much of the debate on humanitarian intervention more generally, and I think can, and should, be asked of Iraq.

On a similar note, O’Hanlon, an advocate of humanitarian intervention for which I have great sympathy, last week had a good op-ed on the humanitarian side of the reconstruction effort – how it has faltered and where it might go. Incomplete, yes, but some decent ideas.

Global Issues

Living Civil War

LIVING CIVIL WAR: While I am in full support of all of the proper attention – if not action – that has been paid to Darfur over the past two years, the conflicts in Congo and Northern Uganda, despite horrific humanitarian costs, have received markedly less attention. I’ll return to Northern Uganda in a later post, but for a number of reasons, it is worth noting a recent, and in my view superb, article on the Congo in April’s Harpers (sorry not online).

Bryan Mealer, until recently, the Congo correspondent for the AP, writes a raw piece that quite brilliantly captures what I perceive to be the reality of living amongst the brutality of contemporary African civil war. I have no doubt that other wars, ongoing and past, have overlapping elements, but there seems to be something particular about the mix of truly dire poverty, humanitarian crisis, and brutal civil war, that distinguishes certain African conflicts from all others.

I have never lived in such a war zone, but my friends who have are changed. They see the world in a fundamentally different way. In a way that makes me feel removed, isolated, artificially sheltered, and naïve.

It is this feeling that I got from ‘Congo’s Daily Blood’. Not because it details particularly unique brutality, although it describes horrors. Not because the problem seems insurmountable, although there is a sense of exacerbated desperation in the authors voice. Not because I/the world know so shamefully little about a conflict that has taken 4 million lives over the past 5 years and continues to kill 1200 a day, although that implication/condemnation marbles the article.

It effected me I think, for amongst others, three interrelated reasons, all of which come to the fore in this very emotional article.

First, because such massive disasters are a shock to ones sense of the world’s interconnectedness. I am ashamed that we do not devote the prescience, resources or attention necessary to ensure that this does not happen in our world. Or when it does, that we do not react with the attention required. I do not buy the human nature argument and I firmly believe that orders of magnitude more can be done to prevent, alleviate, and help rebuild from these disasters. We do not adequately value doing it, so we don’t.

Second, having said that, I am not naïve to the tremendous complexities underlying humanitarian disasters, pernicious underdevelopment and civil war. However, when one spends their time studying international institutions, national foreign/development policies and analytic tools, it is necessary, but jarring, to be brought back to reality. This piece did that. (This point does not in any way negate the first)

Third, on a more personal level, how can one study civil war, as on some levels I claim to do, without having lived in this horror? I am not sure that one can. Living in the developing/southern world on numerous occasions has dramatically effected my view of the world. I am certain that experiencing a truly war-torn country would do so in orders of magnitude. First person accounts of this transformation are a stark reminder of this.

In any case, the article, as well as Mealer’s 2004 Harpers piece, also on the Congo, are very much worth reading.

Global Issues, US Politics

On the strategic costs of civilian casualties

I am currently working on a series of articles, popular and academic, on the US bombing of Cambodia. We have been using some remarkable new data that quite dramatically alters the history of this period – particularly regarding the versions outlined by Kissinger, Nixon and Shawcross, and the link between the bombing and the rise of the Khmer Rouge insurgency movement. Part of the project has involved going through many of the Nixon tapes. Here is a clip from one of our articles, describing a revealing conversations between Kissinger and Nixon and then Kissinger and Alexander Haig:

Telling Kissinger on December 9 of his frustration that the US Air Force was being “unimaginative,” Nixon demanded more bombing, deeper into the country: “They have got to go in there and I mean really go in . . . I want everything that can fly to go in there and crack the hell out of them. There is no limitation on mileage and there is no limitation on budget. Is that clear?

Kissinger, aware of the military assessments concluding that the air strikes were like “poking a beehive with a stick,” responded hesitantly: “The problem is Mr President, the Air Force is designed to fight an air battle against the Soviet Union. They are not designed for this war . . . in fact, they are not designed for any war we are likely to have to fight.

Five minutes after his phone conversation with Nixon, Kissinger called General Alexander Haig to relay the new orders. “He [Nixon] wants a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. He doesn’t want to hear anything. It’s an order, it’s to be done. Anything that flies on anything that moves. You got that?” The response from Haig is barely audible, but it sounds like laughing.

Today a continued use of airpower in combating insurgencies raises this same dilemma: perhaps even more than civilian casualties of ground operations, “collateral damage” from U.S. aerial bombing still appears to enrage and radicalise enough of the survivors for insurgencies to find the recruits and supporters they require. If ‘shock and awe’ worked against the regular Iraqi army, does it also nourish the anti-US insurgency? Whatever the moral meaning of inflicting predictable civilian casualties, do the political repercussions of air strikes against an insurgency outweigh their military benefits?

While the munitions are radically different, Kissinger may still be right about the use of airpower against a heterogeneous insurgency. Further, I think the question of the strategic costs of civilian casualties in this context is under studied. Much of the debate is, I believe, wrongly centred on the morality of the deaths and whether they are ‘justified’ in international law. This is an important question, undoubtedly, but one that is devoid of the potential strategic costs of the casualties. I would argue that a very small number of civilian casualties, regardless of the ‘justice’ of the attack or the efforts to limit collateral damgage, can have a grossly disproportionate strategic cost when fighting an insurgency. Those whose family’s are killed will rarely be convinced by our rationalizations, nuances, claims of moral difference etc. More likely they will become, at the least, tacit supporters of the insurgency being fought. When fighting a group that requires this very civilian support, this becomes a serious strategic concern.

I would be interested in readers’ opinions, or recommendations for reading, on the strategic costs of civilian deaths. Again, putting aside the morality or justice of the strikes themselves, are we underestimating the damage done by civilian casualties in asymmetric warfare?

FYI – this is a map (of hundreds we have made) of the bombing of Cambodia. Each point represents one target and usually many sorties (of which there were over 200,000). When the first article is published, (soon), I will discuss the findings of the spatio-historical analysis.

Global Issues

In that way only he can

Hitchens critiques Vietnam-Iraq analogies in a manner that plainly demonstrates why his is a polemical voice to be cherished.

While his argument is fragmented and dangerously absolute (as it often is) and in the form of a response piece (likely scribbled in a mid-night fit of anger), the combination of a ruthless and unabashed critique of the Vietnam war along side a vigorous defence of the Iraq war is, delightfully, enough to make any reader squeamish – whichever end of the political spectrum.

The scope of the typically eclectic argument defies summary, however, some morsels of his pastiche are worth highlighting.
First, he argues, as if undisputed, that there never should have been a war in Vietnam to begin with, that by:

1945 the successive French and Japanese occupations had been discredited and defeated, and if Franklin D. Roosevelt had lived it is unlikely the US would have supported the disastrous restoration of French rule in Indochina.

He cites the war’s atrocities, including “ecocide by chemical weaponry to the indiscriminate bombardment of civilians.” The latter of which I have worked extensively on in Cambodia and will discuss in a post this week.

He holds no punches at contrasting the two in the starkest of ways:

In Vietnam, even president Dwight Eisenhower conceded that Ho would have won any national election. But the US then proceeded to impose a dictator who was so hateful that Kennedy had to have him killed.

In Iraq, the coalition has removed an almost uniquely ghastly dictator and mass murderer, and sponsored the only elections Iraq has had. The only real people’s army in Iraq, the Kurdish freedom fighters, enter combat on our side.

And again:

The tussle in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964, on the other hand (compared with 911), was a minor squabble, distorted and magnified for purposes that were warmongering and imperialistic.

Of course, saying that there are no similarities between Iraq and Vietnam is equally as fallacious as drawing deterministic parallels. Issues of domestic and international, public and political support, and some aspects of fighting the insurgency are certainly similar. The latter is actually much more pronounced in Cambodia, where the shift to air-power in fighting a fragmented rebellion had disastrous strategic and human consequences. Military planners look regularly to Vietnam to frame aspects of Iraq strategy for, obviously, while some are more useful that others, we ignore past lessons to our peril.

As should be no surprise, his support for Iraq remains steadfast:

Gruesome as it is, the Iraq war has justice on its side and pits us against a truly wicked enemy; the confrontation was inevitable and long in the making. It is a pity Saddam was not removed in 1991. None of these things can be said about the war in Vietnam, which no revisionist will be able to remove from the annals of disgrace.

Who else could write that paragraph?

Like his line of the day or not, there are very few people who have both ruthlessly critiqued the Vietnam war and unabashedly supported and advocated for the war in Iraq. For this, if nothing else, I am glad he is as extraordinarily prolific as he is.

Global Issues

The not-so-special relationship

According to a recent Telegraph poll (conducted by YouGov), British support for American politics, culture and role in the world is at a possible historic low. Granted there have been an inordinate number of these polls of late, usually conducted after a particularly contentious American action, gleefully reported by the media as further sign of a transatlantic rift. And, having spent a fair amount of time in the UK, I am willing to admit to witnessing my share of the uniquely Oxbridge brand of anti-Americanism. In the end though, most polls seem to reflect the reality that save on Iraq, and Bush I suppose, there is general good will between the two nations. The results from this one, however, are really quite astonishing.

For example:

  • 12% trust the US to act wisely in international affairs.
  • 11% see the US as a beacon to the world.
  • 65%, regard America‘s influence in the world today as predominantly malign.
  • 22% believe that the present American government’s policies and actions make the world a better place to live in.
  • 72% think George W Bush’s desire to spread freedom and democracy is really merely a proxy for American self-interest.
  • 77% think George W Bush is a “pretty poor” or “terrible” leader.
  • 72% believe American society is essentially “unequal”.
  • 73% think the US is “badly led”.
  • 73% think the US is ignorant of the outside world.
  • 83% think the US doesn’t care what the rest of the world thinks (perhaps this one speaks best to the relevance of the poll).

As Anthony King puts it, “the so-called “special relationship” may still thrive in Downing Street and at Camp David but it has obviously atrophied among the British public.”

For what it’s worth, The US Embassy in London responded that their polling suggests a different level of support, and that “With respect to the poll’s assertions about American society, we bear some of the blame for not successfully communicating America‘s extraordinary dynamism.” The Telegraph editorial accompanying the poll rightly asserts that “To dislike a country as diverse as America is misanthropic: America, more than any other state, contains the full range of humanity between its coasts.”

But does any of this matter? At a general level, I tend to think that it does, at least at the extremes, based on a host of liberal internationalist arguments. I have also been finding myself sympathetic to recent Realist articulations on the value of global opinion, Walt’s latest book being a great example.

More specifically, if the sentiments reflected in this poll are representative, they will surely play a role in the next British election. While Blair has paid a heavy cost for his Atlantic alliance, if polls like this continue to emerge, the parameters of the debate will shift dramatically. This has implications for their role in both Iraq and Afghanistan – and hence, to the US. Cameron has already shown that he is willing to diverge dramatically from the Conservative establishment (on the environment for example), and is nothing if not politically astute.

Without getting into the validity of this particular poll, I have no idea how accurate it is or is not, I would be interested in the range of arguments for why none of this matters. Does power simply trump perception? Can the GWOT be fought without widespread public support? Can this all be written off to euro-elitism? While Edward Glick perfectly displayed the US antitheses of this elitisms yesterday, in an argument that I found utterly unconvincing, I am more than open to other arguments.

I know Porter doesn’t loose sleep over the ebb and flow of global opinion. Why not?

Global Issues, US Politics

Iraqi peace deal?

I could start things off with a question and two observations on Iraq. Question: Why has there been almost no coverage of the proposed Al-Maliki government’s peace plan and the positive response from the Sunni insurgency groups?

Observations: 1. The proposed plan runs directly contrary to significant aspects of US Iraq policy. 2. The contrast between the US congressional debate on Iraq last week and the proposed Iraqi plan is extraordinary.

OK, let me elaborate (for the 5 of you who read something similar on my site last week, I apologize).

Is this proposed peace deal potentially one of the more striking (and potentially positive) developments from Iraq in some time? The 28 point package, developed by the Al-Maliki government, is aimed at including the Sunni insurgency in the political processes and isolating them from the international fighters.

The government concessions offered in return for insurgent amnesty are actually quite extensive, and I think are a pretty clear indication of how dire the situation really is. For example:

The Government will promise a finite, UN-approved timeline for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Iraq; a halt to US operations against insurgent strongholds; an end to human rights violations, including those by coalition troops; and compensation for victims of attacks by terrorists or Iraqi and coalition forces.

It will pledge to take action against Shia militias and death squads. It will also offer to review the process of “de-Baathification” and financial compensation for the thousands of Sunnis who were purged from senior jobs in the Armed Forces and Civil Service after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Does this not run almost completely contrary to US policy over the past 2 years? Are they not suggesting a reversal of the majority of US policy and tactics? Are they not making the distinction between different types of terrorists, a distinction this administration is absolutist against? Imagine if a Democratic Senator were to propose such a deal.

Even more poignant is the call for a timeline for withdrawal. This coming from all involved in the negotiations, including Khalilzad, the US Ambassador. On timelines, the document states:

We must agree on a timed schedule to pull out the troops from Iraq, while at the same time building up the Iraqi forces that will guarantee Iraqi security and this must be supported by a United Nations Security Council decision.

This is in marked contrast to the current debate in the US congress, where any discussion of timelines is ridiculed.

The response from the insurgency to the Al-Maliki government’s tentative peace deal is no less remarkable – offering to halt attacks.

Eleven Sunni insurgent groups have offered to halt attacks on the U.S.-led military if the Iraqi government and President Bush set a two-year timetable for withdrawing all foreign troops from the country, insurgent and government officials told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

The disconnect between the US domestic debate, and the negotiations IN IRAQ could not be more poignant. One has to wonder if the former, in an election year, will limit the success of the latter? Will the administration agree to a deal that goes against the bulk of its Iraq policy, makes a deal with elements of an insurgency it has refused to nuance, and sets a firm timeline for complete withdrawal (including the 12 permanent military bases), all of this in an election year? The thing is, they may not have a choice.

UPDATE: Phew – tough first day.

The Times piece linked to above details elements of a peace plan in progress. While early versions were quite widely reported, a significantly and hastily revised version was made public on the 25th. Despite my journalistic carelessness, the last minute changes to the deal do not substantially alter my argument.

First, overviews of this deal are found here, and here. The main thrust of the change is detailed in the latter Newsweek piece:

Under intense pressure from leaders of the Shia-dominated United Iraqi Alliance, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki offered a greatly softened national reconciliation plan when his National Assembly met Sunday. The UIA, which includes Maliki’s own Dawa Party, met in an emergency session late Saturday night to hammer out the changes, removing any explicit mention of amnesty for insurgents, or of a timetable for withdrawal of coalition forces.
Four key clauses were taken out, including one that insisted on distinguishing between “national resistance” forces and “terrorists”, and another one that would reverse the dismissals of many former Baathist party officials under the country’s deBaathfication program. Explicit language about controlling party militias and “death squads” was missing as well from the final draft. That left a much vaguer statement of principles, but one that everyone could agree to put on the table.
Maliki’s aides insisted that they would press to restore the deleted principles as the National Assembly continues to debate the plan, and said that an amnesty is implicit in calls to negotiate with all segments of Iraqi society. (emphasis added)

A few quick points (I’ll address some of the other critiques in the opinions section):

First, these changes came “under intense pressure”. While we can of course debate where this pressure really came from, it’s pretty safe to say that this answers one of my questions regarding how the US would react to such a deal.

Second, the fact that the deal changed (at the last minute and under intense pressure), does not alter the fact that a close to finalized version does indeed contradict significant aspects of US policy in Iraq.

Third, the contrast between the negotiations in Iraq, and the US Congressional debate remains stark. This is not a partisan critique, as neither party line evolved much beyond “Cut and Run” vs. “More of the Same” nonsense.

Fourth, and related, there has indeed been very little coverage of this deal, at any of its stages.