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April 12, 2004

trying to be a responsible observer of Iraq

As citizens (of the United States or the world) we want to understand what is going on in Iraq--not just the daily body count, but deeper questions like: How much needs to be done before the US can leave the country in Iraqi hands? Some percentage of the infrastructure that must be created before we can leave Iraq has been built, and some percentage was destroyed during the last week. ("Infrastructure" means buildings, power plants, army and police units, political parties, newspapers, etc.) From reading various observers, one might conclude that 10%--or 80%--of the infrastructure is now ready. It all depends on whether one looks at an aggregator of news stories who has an anti-war stance, like Juan Cole; a major news organ like the Washington Post or the BBC; a collection of Iraqi blogs; or a news-aggregator who supports the war, like Andrew Sullivan.

The truth is not just in the eye of the beholder; there is a reality to be understood. But we face extraordinary disadvantages in trying to understand it. Much of the important information is classified or otherwise secret. It is too dangerous for reporters to go everywhere and to talk to everyone. Eye-witnesses have narrow perspectives, and those with a bird's-eye view don't know enough details. The culture of Iraq is distant, complex, and internally diverse. There are also practical and logistical problems. For instance, I found this BBC poll of Iraqis interesting. (The results were mixed and complex, belying what many pro- and anti-war partisans might believe.) However, as someone who's involved in polling Americans, I know that survey samples are usually unrepresentative even when we can reach most people by dialing random phone numbers. In 2001, there were only 2.9 telephone lines per 1,000 Iraqis, so random-digit dialing is out of the question, and I have no idea how reliable any survey is.

All this leaves us with primitive methods for assessing information. We assume that eye-witnesses know something, so we hang on their words. (Yet eye-witnesses can be especially unreliable, over-influenced by the concrete sights they have seen). We prefer named sources to unnamed ones, even though people may speak the truth off the record. We discount positive news from officials and proponents of the war, even though they could be correct. (By the way, I spend a lot of time on the pro-war sites, because I desperately want things to work out OK, and the conservatives collect all the good news.) We believe those sources whose values most closely approximate our own, even though one can have the right values and be wrong about the facts.

As a general rule, I think citizens should avoid such shortcuts and try to use solid information. For example, you don't have to listen to Democrats and Republicans argue about the federal budget and discount each side because all politicians have selfish agendas; instead, you can actually look at federal budget data and make up your own mind. But the "fog of war" makes that kind of analysis impossible in Iraq.

In the absence of reliable information, we are especially likely to take refuge in ideology, to use ad hominem arguments (calling our opponents traitors or war-criminals), to deploy easy analogies, or to withdraw altogether from citizenship into spectatorship. Or, despairing about our ability to understand (let alone influence) this foreign war, we may concentrate on matters that we can understand, like the US election. But imagine what an Iraqi would think if she knew that Americans were following the uprising in her country because of its effect on their own electoral politics--this would seem the height of callous self-indulgence.

I don't really know the solution, but I think that all of us should be somewhat cautious about our own judgments and open to arguments from the other side. We should look for constructive opportunities rather than wish that our domestic political opponents are damaged by the war. And we should hold onto hope, even if we believe that the invasion and occupation were grave errors in the first place. (Incidentally, because the Vietnam analogy forecloses all hope, I oppose it.)

Posted by peterlevine at 11:07 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

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