March 28, 2007

Iraq Catastrophe Index, Revisited

" As many as 654,965 more Iraqis may have died since hostilities began in Iraq in March 2003 than would have been expected under pre-war conditions, according to a survey conducted by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Al Mustansiriya University in Baghdad. The deaths from all causes—violent and non-violent—are over and above the estimated 143,000 deaths per year that occurred from all causes prior to the March 2003 invasion." Guardian, March 28, 2007

The study was originally published in the Lancet last summer, not exactly a fly-by-night medical journal, and it is back in the news now because it was recently confirmed as methodologically sound by a group of British government scientists who undertook a thorough review of its sampling and analytical approach. George W. Bush, as you may recall, dismissed the study out of hand as "methodologically flawed," or his words to that effect. Presumably this followed an all-night session in the Oval Office in which Bush, armed only with pencil, paper, a pocket calculator and his own keenly honed skills in statistics and probability theory, deconstructed the study and found major errors in the cluster sampling (he would have preferred a stratified mode) and covariance approach of the Johns Hopkins and Iraqi experts.

Okay, that last part is a joke. Actually, Bush pulled his objection to the study out of his asshole. He had no idea what he was talking about, and wouldn't know a covariance from an oversized Texas belt buckle. However, the reemergence of the study seems to come at a dicey time for L'il George, who is already throwing tantrums about Congress's insistence on playing its Constitutional role in budgeting federal expenditures. In the good old days, he got "emergency funding" whenever he asked for it, even though after four years of fighting the same war, it ought to be pretty obvious in advance that the Pentagon is going to need $100 billion or so every 12 months to keep the Humvees humming and the soldiers dying.

If we add to the 650,000 "surplus" Iraqi deaths, which appears now to be a real number which policy makers ought to use as the real number, the flight of 2 million Iraqis out of the country because of the violence (often estimated as about 40% of the middle class - in other words, the stable Iraqis), we reach a number equal to about 10% of the entire Iraqi population before the invasion. Imagine if the United States underwent the death or displacement of 30 million Americans as the result of a foreign incursion. No one would be seriously discussing the "stabilization" of the United States following such a catastrophe, certainly not for a long time. The U.S.A. would break up regionally or fall under martial law, and it would be every man, woman and child for himself.

More or less exactly like Iraq, in other words. But it is beyond bizarre there is such a fundamental variance between the Iraq which is talked about in American politics and commentary and the real Iraq described in the Lancet study. Which is it? The difference between the Bush "estimate" of 50,000 Iraqi deaths and 650,000 deaths (a factor of 13) is brushed off as if it were a simple difference of opinion. 650,000 deaths. That is a different world, a different frame of reference, presenting a completely different order of reality. How can Congress and the mass media treat the Lancet study as if it were some arcane academic exercise without relevance to policy? If the Lancet study is accurate, we have destroyed the country. The approach we take to a country in which 650,000 people have died violently as a direct result of an invasion to "liberate" them is very different from an approach based on 50,000 deaths assumed to be the unfortunate collateral damage of an otherwise worthwile enterprise. But the huge uncertainty itself strongly indicates we have no idea what the hell is going on in Iraq day-by-day; and it escapes me how "policy makers" can talk about rational approaches when no agreement even exists about so fundamental a fact.

Scandal Train now leaving on Track 1

Bush recently passed the 666 days-to-go mark, and with April's approach now has about 22 months remaining in his second term. At the current pace of scandal investigation, it seems unlikely that there will ever be a day when some part of Bush's Administration is not under Congressional assault from a House or Senate Committee. The U.S. Attorney fiasco demonstrates how fecund the Bushies are in producing specimens for dissection. No one even thought of that one before the ascendancy of the Democrats to two-house rule, which means the traffic jam of prior high crimes and misdemeanors from Bush's first six years will have to wait till the road up ahead is cleared.

Ordinarily a President would have a credible argument that all this investigation interrupts the orderly flow of governmental business; Bush's problem with this argument is that the American public, in overwhelming numbers have already seen what happens when Bush is allowed a free hand, and that's the last thing they want to give him again. If he never gets another unobstructed moment to do what he wants, so much the better. He is the fount from which all screw-ups flow. I think the United States is still waiting for just one thing from Bush he can call an accomplishment.

After the AG flap, I would expect the Congress to delve into the startling revelations from Waxman's oversight committee regarding Valerie Plame; to wit, the admission by the White House security director James Knodell that the White House never did any of its own investigation after her CIA cover was blown. When that one gains traction on the front pages and on the nightly news, Bush is going to have nowhere to hide, since it will become apparent that he must have known from the outset who leaked her identity. That's the reason no investigation was done.

After Gonzales is canned, the new AG will have to deal with the NSA/FISA spying crimes, and Patrick Leahy and Arlen Specter will probably at last get to the bottom of how extensive the illegality became. The current revelations concerning the Patriot Act national security letters (and their wholesale abuse) are a preview of that coming attraction. Then on to a reprise of Abu Ghraib, when the more sordid and horrifying pictures and documents, previously suppressed by Republican inaction, are at last released, which will open the gateway to a recrudescence of the CIA prison/torture nightmare, which will probably lead to an amendment of the exoneration provisions in the Detainee Treatment Act and Military Commissions Act, leading to...

Bush's one way out is to initiate a war with Iran, and I'm sure Karl Rove, who sees his own fat butt increasingly in a sling, is whispering just such a suggestion to Georgie over their nightly Bourbon&7's.