Foreign policy is already looming much larger in the 2016 election than it did in 2012. When Obama ran for re-election, the inescapable fact that Osama bin Laden had been killed on his watch (after Bush had admittedly lost interest in him) essentially foreclosed any serious foreign policy challenge from the Republicans. Hence the profound silliness of their Benghazi obsession, and Obama's cool, detached debate invitation to “Please proceed...”
But the trajectory of resurgent international conflict during Obama's second term—epitomized by ISIS, though not limited to it—has already infused the 2016 election with much higher levels of foreign policy concern. If 2012 was all about trying to blame Obama for not adequately fixing Bush's spectacular domestic economic catastrophe, then 2016 is shaping up—at least in part—to be about blaming him for not adequately fixing Bush's spectacular foreign policy catastrophe, either. It will only be further complicated by the fact that Obama himself won't be on the ballot—the more hawkish Hillary Clinton almost certainly will.
At the moment, Obama's historic nuclear deal with Iran is center stage, but the much more widespread geopolitical problem typified by (though not limited to) ISIS has a much more pervasive political influence. Case in point: the emergence of ISIS, with its provocative spectacles of violence have unexpectedly renewed American's willingness to send troops to fight overseas, completely forgetting that this was precisely bin Laden's reason for 9/11 in the first place: to lure the U.S. into a “holy war” with Islam. Election year dynamics being what they are, there's no telling how badly this could turn out. So before we go off and blow several trillion dollars recruiting the next wave of terrorists, perhaps it would be a good idea to reconsider what we did the last time around.
First, though, an observation about framing arguments. Republicans, naturally, want to blame the rise of ISIS on Obama, which is absurd. Three extremely foolish actions undertaken by Bush were absolutely crucial for the emergence of ISIS: First, by responding to 9/11 as an act of war, rather than a crime, Bush gave al Qaeda and its future ISIS off-shoots the holy war and the status of holy warriors they so desperately craved, but could never attain on their own. Second, by invading Iraq—which had nothing to do with 9/11, and was actually a counter-weight both to al Qaeda (ideologically) and to Iran (both theologically and geo-strategically)—Bush destabilized the entire region, creating a tinder-box of multifaceted incentives for sectarian violence. Third, by disbanding Iraq's Sunni- and Bath-Party-dominated army, Bush both ensured an intense power struggle and civil war in Iraq (with vastly more power in Iran-friendly Shiite hands) and provided Sunni terrorist ideologues with hardened, experienced military command personnel. (The government Iraq ended up with, and the subsequent U.S. withdrawal, were also results of Bush policy which Republicans have tried to blame on Obama, but they were relatively late-stage decisions, severely constrained by these earlier disastrous decisions.)
The combined effect of all three Bush actions was to turn Iraq into a virtual hell—along with various portions of several other countries as well. America had one 9/11, one massive loss of 3,000 innocent civilian lives, and that was enough for us to lose all sense of proportion, restraint, and good judgment. Why should the people of Iraq, Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan respond any better? How many Middle East civilians have died in America's “war on terror” as a result? How many 9/11s worth? And what difference does that number make? Would you believe that around 400 Iraqi, Afghani, and/or Pakistani civilians have died for every American who died on 9/11? That's what the best analysis suggests, according to Body Count: Casualty Figures after 10 Years of the “War on Terror”, a recent report produced in part by the Nobel Prize-winning group International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. It puts the total dead in in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan at around 1.3 million, roughly two orders of magnitude more than most Americans realize. Even if it's an over-estimate, as some have argued, the ballpark range of the destruction involved should do more than give us pause in doing it over again.
Given how heavily the drums of war have been beating lately, this is a timely reminder what a huge role Bush's post-9/11 response played in creating the current violent conditions throughout the region and beyond—and also how far Obama-era corrections have fallen short, or even made matters worse in some ways. If we think the world is too violent and dangerous today, we need to take a good hard look in the mirror before we double down on another round of fighting overseas, whatever form that might take. If the past is any guide at all, the current enthusiasm for taking on ISIS will inevitably fade, but the lasting damage will grow exponentially.
Hans von Sponeck, former U.N. assistant secretary-general and U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, wrote the preface to Body Count. “Officially ignored are casualties, injured or killed, involving enemy combatants and civilians. This, of course, comes as no surprise. It is not an oversight but a deliberate omission,” he writes, adding:
The U.S. authorities have kept no known records of such deaths. This would have destroyed the arguments that freeing Iraq by military force from a dictatorship, removing Al-Qaeda from Afghanistan and eliminating safe-havens for terrorists in Pakistan’s tribal areas has prevented terrorism from reaching the U.S. homeland, improved global security and advanced human rights, all at “defendable” costs.
However, facts are indeed stubborn. Governments and civil society know now that on all counts these assertions have proved to be preposterously false. Military battles have been won in Iraq and Afghanistan but at enormous costs to human security and trust among nations. One must not forget the financial costs. The 21st century has seen a loss of innocent civilian life at an unprecedented scale, especially in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The central truth of von Sponeck's claim—that the costs are not defendable—can be seen from past polling. In February 2007, an AP/IPSOS poll found that Americans had turned against the war—56% called it “a hopeless cause” compared to 39% who called it “a worthy cause”—and that their views of U.S. troop deaths and civilian Iraqi casualties were surprisingly similar. Asked if the number of casualties in Iraq had been acceptable or unacceptable, 19% said the number of US military casualties had been "acceptable", compared to 17% who found the Iraqi civilian casualties “acceptable,” while an identical 77% found both casualty levels "unacceptable."
The only catch was, the estimates of U.S. military casualties were strikingly accurate, while the estimates of Iraqi civilian casualties were wildly under-estimated—by at least a factor of 7, and probably more like 70. Clearly, if Americans had had anything close to a realistic view of the war, their level and intensity of opposition would have skyrocketed—as might their expectations of terrorist blowback, as well. There was nothing defendable about the costs involved—which is why those costs had to be hidden. Tragically, as the new report makes clear, the media itself has been deeply implicated in hiding the true cost of war in its most brutal form—the extent of lives lost.
More specifically, the median estimate of U.S. military deaths in the February 2007 AP/IPSOS poll was 2974, compared to 3004 casualties through December 31, 2006—a surprisingly close estimate. On the other hand, the median estimate of Iraqi civilian casualties was 9,890, compared to 69,574 civilian casualties recorded by Iraq Body Count, which only provides a rock-bottom count of confirmed violent deaths. The IBC figure is troubling enough, and would have clearly impacted US public opinion if it had sunken in, but even it is clearly incomplete—almost certainly by a very large margin. For one thing, Islam requires immediate burial, within a day of death, which means that many casualties simply don't make it into official channels or news reports. A population sample-based study published in the premier British medical journal, The Lancet in 2006 (the second of two such studies) placed the civilian casualty count through July 2006, at 654,965—almost 70 times higher than the median estimate in the AP/IPSOS poll, which took place seven months later.
“The numbers relayed by the media (previously 43,000 and now 110,000) should in themselves be terrifying enough, as they correspond to the annihilation of an entire city’s population. But apparently they are still perceived as tolerable and, moreover, even easy to explain given the picture of excessive religiously motivated violence,” Body Count states. (Even those figures did not sink in, however, as the AP/IPSOS poll figures show.) “The figure of 655,000 deaths in the first three war years alone, however, clearly points to a crime against humanity approaching genocide. Had this been understood and recognized by the public at large, the Iraq policy of the U.S. and its European allies would not have been tenable for long.”
Partly because the figures were so high, and so politically unwelcome, the Lancet study has been severely criticized, and largely dismissed or ignored in the media, but as Body Count points out, the exact same methodology has been used elsewhere, and accepted without controversy. Leading the initial push-back against Lancet were the two leading perpetrators, the US and UK governments. President Bush said, "I don't consider it a credible report," while Tony Blair let a spokesman deride it for him, though the BBC later reported that the UK's Ministry of Defence chief scientific adviser, Sir Roy Anderson, had warned against the government criticizing the study, writing, "The study design is robust and employs methods that are regarded as close to 'best practice' in this area, given the difficulties of data collection and verification in the present circumstances in Iraq."
The Lancet methodology was analogous to polling—a representative sample of the total population was selected, they were closely queried, and the results were projected to the population at large. It's the same method used more broadly to study a range of demographic trends. One striking example where such a method was similarly employed to estimate war deaths concerned the Sudanese occupation of Darfur. Body Count explains:
The number of casualties in Darfur was estimated on the basis of a representative study – the same method that was used in Iraq. The resulting death figure of 200,000 in the Sudanese province was then used by international NGOs as the basis of their Sudan campaigns, and also made its way into UN Security Council resolutions. Les Roberts, one of the scientists who directed the surveys in Iraq, had already conducted a similar study in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 2000. The shocking result of 1.7 million war deaths that the study arrived at was also met with broad acceptance and was cited as one of the rationales for a UN resolution. The Lancet study on Iraq, however, was immediately attacked by politicians and the media in the West as being speculative and biased, and its shocking results were soon shelved as “controversial.” This number is not even mentioned in mainstream media anymore; they only quote figures given by the pro-U.S. administration in Iraq or by the project Iraq Body Count (IBC), which by now has basically established itself as the “standard.” Over the same time period that was used in the Lancet study, IBC registered around 43,000 civilian deaths.
There is probably no other war that has seen such a fierce and drawn-out controversy surrounding the number of its victims. One main reason for this is the lack of legitimacy for the U.S.-led attack on Iraq – even in the U.S. itself. The original pretexts for going to war quickly turned out to be spurious, and from then on only the “liberation of the country from a violent dictatorship” and the “democratization” and “stabilization” of Iraq remained as justification for the war and occupation. This picture, laboriously constructed with the help of the media, is of course impossible to reconcile with the many hundreds of thousands of war casualties.
Elsewhere, the report notes that the Darfur death toll of 200,000 passed into general use, in stark contrast to the figures for Iraq:
While the U.S. media watchdog organization FAIR found this number quoted in more than 1,000 articles in major U.S. newspapers during the year 2007, they could find barely a trace of both the Lancet and the ORB studies [more on this below]. The pattern of differential treatment is simple: “Journalists question or outright ignore studies that reveal the humanitarian costs of U.S. military policy,” FAIR says, “while those estimates that reflect badly on official enemies, as in Darfur, take on the solidity of undisputed fact.”
If it were just Tony Blair and George Bush attacking the Lancet study, that alone would not account for how marginalized it quickly became. In fact, there were a broad range of forces arrayed against getting at the truth. As with global warming, creationism or post-crisis macro-economic policy, these involved a mix of scientific facts difficult for scientifically illiterate journalists to get a grasp on, a hardline phalanx of pseudo-certain know-nothing ideologues, and a diverse mix of mostly well-intentioned, but politically naive scientists groping around in an ill-defined, intensely politicized problem space. The exact mix of these different elements varies widely from case to case, but a similarly unenlighted discourse has gotten a tenacious foothold in all of them. Unfortunately, in this case internecine disputes within the broader anti-war community have greatly, if inadvertently, assisted the wars defenders and apologists, and made it more difficult to comprehend what has been done.
The most basic hard-to-grasp scientific fact in this instance is that passively-recorded war deaths gathered from news reports and morgues represent only a small fraction of actual war deaths in modern wars, and cannot be relied on as the most accurate measure, simply because they are specific and concrete. Trusting them above all is akin to a presidential candidate trusting their voter-contact figures, rather than the polling aggregates of Sam Wang or Nate Silver. Yet, a 2008 study lead by Harvard medical school research scientist Ziad Obermeyer, “Fifty years of violent war deaths from Vietnam to Bosnia,” covering wars in 13 nations, found that Lancet-style active survey methods produced an average of three times the death rates recorded by passive methods, with the ratio in one case rising as high as 12 to 1. The survey source Obermeyer employed, the 2002-3 World Health Surveys, uses the same sort of demographic sampling method demographers world-wide rely on every day.
Ironically, the anti-war team at Iraq Body Count, who take a passive-recorded approach, have played a leading role in attacking the Lancet study and others who have produced similar survey results, yet, as Body Count points out, there are obvious gaps in IBC's data, which simply reflect the limitations IBC works within—it is passively recording and collating media and morgue reports gathered by others and has no coordination or control over how they do their jobs.
Some gaps clearly trace back to complex issues of which aspects of the war were better covered than others. Others simply illustrate that how incomplete passive record-keeping is in general. There are clearly-identifiable geographical gaps. For example:
In June 2006, for example, not a single violent death was reported from the province of Anbar, even though most battles between the occupation forces and its opponents took place in this stronghold of the resistance.
There are huge gaps in reporting deaths among known sub-populations:
The fate of Iraqi physicians is one area that is very well documented. According to data from the independent Iraqi Medical Association, of the 34,000 registered physicians, almost 2,000 have been killed and 20,000 have, by now, left the country. In its database, IBC lists only 70 Iraqi physicians. Even though this may in part be due to a lack of data on the profession of the victims, this piece of evidence alone suggests very large gaps in IBC’s calculations.
There are also gaps revealed in comparison to other data sources, most notably, U.S. military Iraq War Logs exposed by WikiLeaks:
A group of 23 students from a course on epidemiological methods at the Columbia University School of Public Health checked 2,300 randomly selected entries on civilian victims in the Iraq War Logs to see how many of them could also be found in the IBC database. They found matching entries only for 19.3%, with a further 8.7% – mostly individual murders in Baghdad – perhaps corresponding to IBC entries. Correlation between the sources was mostly found in important events with many deaths, which is unsurprising given the broad coverage of these incidents. Generally, however, the students found that only every sixth individual death in the Logs had a match in the IBC database. They also found strong evidence for the severe underrepresentation of the country as a whole compared to that of Baghdad; for most of the deaths registered in the Logs that occurred outside of Baghdad, they could not find even a similar case in the IBC database for the days and the province in question.
None of these flaws in IBC's data—or many more cited in Body Count—should be held against them. They come from the sources that IBC relies on—and has to rely on, given its lack of independent resources and capabilities. But they strongly indicate that IBC's data very likely is a severe undercount, and that the Lancet data, along with others in line with it, is substantially correct. These include an earlier 2004 Lancet study, as well as a 2008 survey placing Iraqi casualties at over one million, conducted by the respected British firm ORB, as well as a 2013 study, "Mortality in Iraq Associated with the 2003–2011 War and Occupation," published in the medical journal PLOS, which estimated the war dead at roughly half a million. As Body Count notes, this lower number was in part politically determined—it responded to widely-circulated criticisms that the Lancet figures were too high, though not to plausible criticisms (touched on shortly below) that they were too low:
Its authors applied more refined and conservative statistical methods and, by taking into consideration the objections leveled against past studies, they attempted to counter any criticism against their methods from the outset. Thereby, they produced an estimate that can be barely “attacked” but one which is also relatively low.
Nonetheless, Body Count argues, “Despite the discrepancy with the estimates provided by the Lancet studies, the PLOS study is buttressing rather than refuting them,” adding in explanation:
On the one hand, the latter’s extrapolation far exceeds the number usually cited by the media. On the other, the involved scientists themselves consider their result as an underestimation. One problem lies in the long period that has passed since the war’s hottest phases. A more serious problem consists in the more than three million refugees that have not been adequately accounted for in the study – precisely those families who have extraordinarily suffered from war.
This is hardly surprising in light of one additional point: Gilbert Burnham, the lead author of the Lancet study, was a contributor to the PLOS study. He could have easily removed his name from the latter study if he felt uncomfortable that it refuted his earlier work. Clearly, he did not.
There's a further point to be considered. From a statistical sampling perspective, the uncertainty of results is always assumed to be symmetrical. But under these sorts of conditions—where air strikes can produce sharp mortality spikes, and leave few, if any, family members to report them, and where families most impacted by violence are most likely to move and not be counted, for example—there is a very strong likelihood that missing deaths are far more probable. There may be no sound methodological basis for capturing this reality, but that doesn't mean it's not true.
A similar situation long seemed to plague scientists studying global warming, with an easily perceived, but unquantified asymmetry of catastrophic risks, obscured by a misleading rhetoric of “uncertainty”. I wrote about Stephan Lewandowsky's innovative resolution of this dilemma for Salon last year. In two related papers, on uncertainty regarding emissions and mitigation, his analysis showed that “certainty can never be too great for action,” he told Salon. “On the contrary, uncertainty implies that the problem is more likely to be worse than expected in the absence of that uncertainty.” A rigorous parallel argument may not apply in this this context, but the indicated probability should be clear. A conservative counting methodology may thus be justified by scientific norms, but those norms, in turn, are being used by others to obfuscate, rather than enlighten—which is to say, for unscientific ends.
Even so, treating both studies even-handedly, and comparing their 95% confidence intervals, Body Count notes:
[T]he two intervals overlap within the wide spectrum of 390,000 to 570,000 and [this] makes it likely that the number of victims up until June 2006 lies within that range, i.e. lower than the estimated figure in the Lancet study, but significantly higher than that in the PLOS study.
It also notes that the Lancet figures miss a lot of the war's devastation:
Unfortunately, the second Lancet study ends in June 2006, at a time when the violence literally exploded. Between 2006 and 2008, presumably the highest number of lives were lost due to the war and civil war-like conditions.
Which helps explain why Body Count goes on to say:
Taking the time period of the Lancet study, the confidence intervals are overlapping over a wide range. While the numbers provided by the PLOS study appear to be too low, those of the Lancet study can be deemed a bit too high. Therefore, the number of roughly one million victims for the time period until the December 2011 U.S. troop withdrawal unfortunately remains realistic.
That said, on Democracy Now von Sponek warned against getting too hung up on arguing over numbers, and missing the forest for the trees. “What I very much hope is that the Body Count publication will not—will not lead to a futile debate on the accuracy of data,” he said, “We have enough credible data from different sources,” adding that what's important is “that we use that as a basis for a long-overdue debate in Washington, in London, and certainly at the United Nations in New York, as to why this all happened and how one can try and prevent this from recurring in the future.”
In his forward to the report, Robert M. Gould, MD, of Physicians for Social Responsibility, made a similar point:
A politically useful option for U.S. political elites has been to attribute the on-going violence to internecine conflicts of various types, including historical religious animosities, as if the resurgence and brutality of such conflicts is unrelated to the destabilization caused by decades of outside military intervention.
As such, underreporting of the human toll attributable to ongoing Western interventions, whether deliberate, or through self-censorship, has been key to removing the "fingerprints" of responsibility.
This is not to say that the Sunni/Shiite conflict, or other long-standing tensions and animosities are not real, they most certainly are. But neither do they exist in a vacuum. Tensions that have existed for generations, centuries, even, but only rarely flared into war cannot be convincingly used to ignore our role in setting that part of the world on fire—for reasons we still cannot honestly face up to.
Perhaps, if we think of how America rallied behind George Bush after 9/11, and we think of 400 9/11s (or maybe “only” 200 9/11s) being suffered through since by the people whose countries we've invaded, perhaps then the horrific, barbaric savagery of ISIS might begin to become comprehensible—not, of course, excusable, but comprehensible, meaning something we can figure out and respond to effectively. More importantly, if we actually understood how we got where we now are, we might begin to figure out how to get out, get someplace else, someplace better. The question of how to get someplace better has been staring us in the face at least since 9/11. It's high time we began to face up to it.
Otherwise, we will simply be repeating the same foolish response to 9/11 that bin Laden was counting on. It's bad enough that he outfoxed us once, with the results chronicled in Body Count, and exploited to the hilt by ISIS. But if we ignore the evidence once again, he will have outfoxed us a second time—this time, from beyond the grave.