Backtalk, July 16, 2008

Fisking Feith’s Faulty Case for War

Mr. Henderson:

You know what simply amazes me is the lack of insight (or maybe it’s just duplicity) of the journalists analyzing or commenting on the rationale for war with Iraq. Not once have I heard anyone question the likelihood of Iraq developing a nuclear arsenal, which was given as one of the premises. Iran, with a much more sophisticated population … in addition to being twice as large, has been at it for more than a decade and still has not been able to master the techniques to produce a bomb. How in God’s name would Iraq, then under the microscope of America and the West, have been able to develop a nuclear weapon? Those who claim to believe this and promulgate it are just engaging in journalistic dishonesty. And that’s my take on the matter.

~ John Kurius

David R. Henderson replies:

Dear Mr. Kurius,

You make excellent points. I’m not sure whether population is key, though. Look at Israel, which has a large arsenal of nuclear weapons and has a fraction of Iraq’s population.


I liked your essay on Feith very much. I would add that before the Gulf War, Saddam asked the American ambassador what the U.S. position was on it, and he got the go-ahead. If she had said that we would act to role back his invasion it would not have taken place.

As you said, shooting at our planes flying over Iraq could not be considered a cause for war. Sending our planes over Iraq had little international justification. Shooting at our planes would have been important to the Iraq government so as to establish the principle that such flights were illegal and not approved. I suspect that Saddam gave orders to shoot at the planes, but not to hit them. He simply needed to establish the fact that the government of Iraq had not agreed to such flyovers.

~ Thomas G. Moore

David R. Henderson replies:

Dear Tom,

Thank you.

You make a good point about the American ambassador, April Glaspie. I didn’t cite that because I’ve read that there’s some controversy about what she actually said, but I’m inclined to agree with you.

You also make two good points about the U.S. and British (and early on, French) planes over Iraq. First, they were not justified. Second, Saddam might have given orders to shoot to miss. I wonder if that latter could be fact-checked.

The Shift

Dear Mr. Raimondo,

Your columns from the last two days – “Fake Flip-Flop Flap” and “The Shift” – bring up an interesting point, one that I wish you would explore more fully. As you point out, seeing Nouri al-Maliki and the other Iraqi leaders show some leadership by demanding a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops is a good sign.

That said, however, what troubles me is how terribly ambiguous words can be. To wit, Maliki uses the word “timetable”; Obama talks about bringing all “combat” troops home in 16 months; and McCain talks about being in Iraq for 100 years or more.

While these seem like three different views, I am not totally convinced they are. Is Obama’s stance really that much different than McCain’s? Obama speaks about bringing out the “combat” troops, but does he plan to maintain a “non-combat” presence in Iraq for years to come? If so, aren’t McCain and Obama really saying the same thing? …

What of Maliki’s “timetable”? While it sounds good, does he really mean all U.S. troops? Does Maliki expect the U.S. to abandon the gargantuan military bases they’ve recently built and just walk away? Does Obama? Given Obama’s affirmation of his commitment to Israel, I highly doubt it.

Basically, while I share some of your enthusiasm about Maliki, I am not sure what it really means. It’s hard to tell whether he is just grandstanding for the Iraqi people, whether he thinks he’s got Bush and the Americans over a barrel and is taking the opportunity to sweeten the deal, or whether he truly wants the Americans out for good. To the extent that it’s the latter, a cynic might wonder how long the neocons put up with it before finding a replacement who will play along.

Sadly, many people talk about the American “withdrawal” or “getting out of Iraq” without ever bothering to define what it means. While getting our combat troops out of Iraq would be a good thing, I fear far too many Americans would find that satisfactory and lose any remaining interest or connection with Iraq. All the while, America will have cemented itself in Iraq for the indefinite future and expanded its empire even further.

Like I said, it’s nice to see Iraqi leaders calling for America to leave, and I can only hope they really mean it.

~ Eric Spiess, Los Angeles

Being Walter Duranty

Dear Nebosja,

It is a bit disappointing that you only use very old data for the “number game” on the number of dead in Kosovo. Just to remember you there are three sets of data:

  • At present about 3,000 bodies have been found and 2,000 are still missing, according to the Red Cross. …
  • Patrick Ball of the AAAS made an estimate of 10,000. This was based on interviews by different aid organization among refugees during the war. Ball tried to meld these lists together – taking into account both doubles and the fact that not every death had been reported. Although he has only about 5,000 names, he claimed on the basis of statistics that due to many unreported deaths the real number should be 10,000. It seems that the ICTY believes this number.
  • The Lancet published a study in which they claimed 12,000 deaths. This is based on a study of a limited number of people (10,000, if I remember well) and looking at how many of them died during the war. That number was then extrapolated for the whole population. This is the number that the Albanians prefer.

I think that the differences between the numbers are smaller than they seem, as they have different ways of dealing with “collateral deaths” (people who died from heart attacks, bad healthcare, and superficial wounds). …

~ Wim Roffel

Nebojsa Malic replies:

Thank you for answering my rhetorical question (“where did that number come from?”). I’m familiar with Ball’s work enough to not treat it seriously, and while I wasn’t aware that the 12,000 figure was from Lancet, how come it’s a credible source when Kosovo death tolls need to be inflated, but suddenly not a reliable source when it reports that the invasion and occupation have resulted in 1 million dead Iraqis?

And let’s also remember that statisticians have been projecting a quarter-million dead in Bosnia as well, but the final number was just over 90,000 (still terrible, but that’s beside the point). Projections are one thing, facts another. But in Kosovo, if facts don’t fit the narrative, sucks to be the facts. And that was my point.

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