Politics & Policy

John, Meet Jack

We do have reliable information about how things are going in Iraq.

In his article “You Don’t Know Jack,” John Derbyshire answers the critics of his thesis that the democratization of Iraq will fail who cite his lack of firsthand knowledge of Iraq. Derbyshire points out that visits to foreign countries provide scant evidence for forming foreign-policy decisions, even when the observer is knowledgeable, experienced, and honest.

On the same day his article was published, a group of Iraq War vets, speaking in the Murrow Room of the National Press Club, made the case that the democratization is succeeding–and they explicitly endorsed Derbyshire’s caveat in making that case.

“I saw the good and the bad in Iraq–cooperation and hostility, war and reconstruction,” said Lt. Lawrence Indyk, who was awarded a Purple Heart for his service. “But this war isn’t about my personal experience. U.S. policy in Iraq aims to replace an ultra-aggressive, terror-harboring tyranny with a constitutional democracy, at peace with its neighbors. And to assess our progress on that track, we need metrics that are impersonal.”

Look Who’s Coming to Dinar

For the next hour and a half, Lt. Indyk, Marine Corporal Richard Gibson, and Marine Sergeant J. D. Johannes laid out their case. Lt. Indyk reported Iraqi growth in GDP and personal income. He contrasted the dinar’s stabilization under the Coalition with the savings-wrecking inflations under the Baathist regime. He chronicled the increase in electrical supply, and the doubling of oil revenues in the post-Saddam era. He put numbers to the enormous increase in cell phones, cars, and satellite TVs.

Indyk discussed advances in services as well: the 60 percent decline of infant mortality in post-Saddam Iraq, and the improved access to schooling and medical care. And he described the explosion in business formation that has followed in the overthrow of one of the most regulated economies on earth.

Next he laid out metrics of democratization. First among these is surging participation of all segments of the Iraqi populace in elections, not only in the national government, but in Iraq’s city and state elections as well. He enumerated, too, the growth of political parties, and proliferation of a free press in print and broadcast.

Then he admitted that facts like these, taken on their own, were insufficient for forming an accurate assessment of progress in Iraq.

“If material and institutional circumstances are really improving,” he said, “this will be reflected in the attitudes of the Iraqi people themselves. The polls will either confirm what the official statistics tell us, or they will contradict those statistics.”

Indyk then proceeded to describe the findings of the most extensive and scientific polls of Iraq opinion, performed by Arabic speakers for Oxford Research International near the beginning of 2004, then at the end of 2005. These polls covered all of Iraq’s major regions and demographic groups.

Asked to compare their current lives with their lives under Saddam, Iraqis reported an improvement in availability of necessities, and an improvement in overall economic wellbeing. They reported superior access to clean water, health care, and education. Iraqi respondents believed that their local governments had improved. Asked what form of government they hoped to live under going forward, democracy won handily: four-to-one over the rule of one-man, and ten-to-one over totalitarianism.

Iraqis list security as their most pressing problem. But a plurality of Iraqis feel safer now than under Saddam, and a majority feel safer from ordinary crime. Moreover, better than 60 percent feel personally safe in their neighborhoods.

Marine Corporal Gibson’s presentation sorted out these seemingly contradictory findings. The problem most Americans have, he said, in understanding Iraqi opinions on security, is that we operate from a different baseline. Iraq under Saddam was an incredibly violent place.

Iraq Body Count, an antiwar group that keeps a running tally of Iraqi civilian deaths, reports that the daily toll under the occupation falls in the range of 25 to 28 per day. But under Saddam’s rule, the death toll averaged three times that, including 600,000 civilian executions recorded by the Documental Center for Human Rights, and the 100,000 Kurds killed during the Anfal operation. A violent day under the coalition would be just a routine day under Saddam.

“History is being written by the losers.”

“Today,” Gibson said, “the terrorists attack the government. In Saddam’s day, they ran it.”

Using the same methodology as Lt. Indyk, Corporal Gibson assessed the decline of the insurgency, first in hard numbers, then in the opinions of Iraqis themselves.

Coalition casualties declined by 27 percent in 2005. They have declined by 62 percent in 2006, measured against the comparable period of 2005.

The insurgent strategy of targeting Iraqi police and army units peaked in July of 2005. Since then, casualties among those units have declined by 33 percent.

Attacks on other soft targets are also down. For instance, there were 146 strikes against the oil infrastructure in 2004, compared to 101 in 2005.

The tipping point, Gibson contends, occurred last March, when the number Iraqi boots on the ground–police and army units–surpassed those of Coalition forces. From that point on, the new Iraqi government has proved increasingly able to hold and garrison areas that have been cleared on insurgents.

But more subtly, the growth of native Iraqi security shattered the coalition of Baathist recidivists and Sunni jihadists. The last thing the Baathist factions want is all-out sectarian civil war. “The tactics used to provoke it–mass slaughter of civilians–not only strengthens popular support for the government,” said Gibson, “but threatens to turn that government into a blunt instrument of retribution against them.”

From March of 2005 to September of 2005, the number of civilian tips informing on insurgents increased from 483 to 4,700, as numerous Sunni tribes declared outright war on al Qaeda. “The insurgency in Iraq,” said Gibson, “is being dismantled by the equivalent of a Tips hotline.”

Gibson cited polling of Iraqi opinion to support his thesis. Fifty-eight percent of Iraqis feel threatened by terrorists, compared with 10 percent who feel threatened by Coalition troops. And by 71 percent to 9 percent, Iraqis believe that their own security forces–Iraqi security forces–are winning the fight against terror.

“It is fascinating to contrast the triumphant face of the insurgency in our nightly news to the pessimistic assessments of its leaders in their intercepted correspondence,” said Gibson. “My assessment of their prospects varies little from their own.”

Former Marine Sergeant J. D. Johannes was a soldier during the first Iraq war. He returned to his old unit as combat reporter in the second. He offers this assessment:

Everyone knows that the history of war is written by the victors. But the war in Iraq has shattered that truism. In Iraq, history is being written by the losers. Baathist kidnappers and jihadist bombers are planning their operations not to win the war in Iraq, but to win it in America. To that end, they are assessing what American news organizations are willing to cover, and what American reporters are willing to risk. As an immediate result, many of the feeds on the nightly news are coming from Arabic sources that are either non-professional in their journalistic standards or hostile to American policy aims. As a long-term result, the American public is broadly misinformed on a war that Coalition arms and Iraqi democrats are, in fact, winning.

To summarize what the Iraq veterans said on March 9: We do “know jack” about Coalition progress in Iraq–and we know it the same way that we know other trends in social science–by hard numbers where they are available, cross-checked against the attitudes of those most directly affected by those numbers. “If Iraqis listened to American media,” said Lt. Indyk, “they’d hear that their economy is wrecked and that their services are in shambles. They’d hear that they are less safe now than before the war, and that they are religious fanatics who demand a theocracy. But they don’t get their news on Iraq through the Western media. They live there. And they say the opposite.”

Richard Nadler is president of America’s Majority, the 501(c)(4) policy group that sponsored the March 9 press conference of Iraq war veterans.


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