Saturday, May 21, 2005

Iraq Living Conditions Survey

The United Nations Development Program has published the results of its Iraq Living Conditions Survey 2004 (ILCS). The survey addresses a couple of controversies that were highlighted by George Galloway's testimony before the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. One issue concerns the number of deaths caused by the imposition of sanctions on Iraq. Galloway charged that the sanctions caused one million deaths, most of them children. The ILCS found that although Iraq's child and infant mortality rates have been increasing, they were unexpectedly lower than figures offered by previous studies. The ILCS authors entertain a previously published figure of 500,000 excess deaths due to sanctions, but suggest that if declining fertility rates were taken into account, that figure would be significantly lower. Generally the ILCS authors lump sanctions, wars, and economic mismanagement together as causes of the deteriorating conditions of life in Iraq. This makes it difficult to draw clear moral and political conclusions about the effects of the various sanctions--assuming for the sake of argument that a case for or against sanctions might be perfectly clear. Nonetheless, because the ILCS data are thorough, comprehensive and robust, one can reasonably conclude that (a) the sanctions did indeed have significant deleterious impacts on the living conditions of the general population of Iraq, causing far more death and suffering than was advertised or intended by the diplomats who crafted them; and (b), George Galloway's figure of one million deaths is an exaggeration.

A second controversy concerns the number of people killed as a result of the invasion of Iraq. Galloway used the figure put forward by Roberts et al. for the Lancet: 100,000 excess deaths. I believe Senator Coleman may have scoffed at Galloway's citation of this figure, a disdain Galloway took as disrespect for the dead. The ILCS indicated a figure of "24,000 deaths, with a 95 percent confidence interval from 18,000 to 29,000 deaths." That includes civilians and military personnel who died directly as a result of violent acts. It covers a two-year retrospective period from April or May of 2004, with some areas reporting from August of 2004. Thus it does not include the many people who have since been killed, but it does include people who were violently killed prior to the invasion, which I suspect is neither negligable nor greater than the number killed since the survey was completed. Therefore I imagine that 25,000 is a reasonable low estimate and any number in excess of around 50,000 ought to be substantiated. The estimate by Roberts et al. has the weight of authority and currency, but serious doubts have been raised about the data, methods and analysis used to arrive at that estimate. The ILCS estimate is, despite its shortcomings, the most robust and reliable measure of mortality in Iraq to date.

Clearly George Galloway uses inflated figures to depict his political opponents in the worst possible light. This weakens his credibility among those who are not entrenched on his side. More than that, I think, it undercuts the moral force of his chief argument against the Iraq war, namely that the case for going to war was based on lies. Was it really based on lies, or were they merely exaggerations? Or even honest mistakes? Or partial truths? For while it is ridiculous, as we now know, to imagine that Saddam Hussein had the capability to launch a nuclear warhead against his neighbors, much less the UK or the USA, it is not ridiculous to imagine that connections between Al Qaeda, Ansar al-Islam and agents of the Iraqi Mukhabarat might have led to the transfer of chemical weapons materials or technology into the hands of terrorists determined to use them against citizens of the United States or its close allies. Yet neither has the case been made that such transfers were imminent, or indeed especially plausible. It seems rather odd to consider the question of whether preventing such a transfer might be a righteous casus belli while the case for its plausibility is little better than a hodgepodge of conjecture and frankly shoddy intelligence.

Such is politics? Not exactly. It remains eminently within our grasp to discuss momentous decisions without resorting to abuses of rhetoric. Yet so long as we allow our political leaders to engage in such abuses, we can expect that the effectiveness of our public debate will be circumscribed by obfuscations, dissemblings and appeals to our basest emotions. Will we hold our politicians accountable for their excesses? That seems unlikely. In the first place we will seek to hold them accountable for the consequences of their actions or failures to act. We can assess those consequences realistically and intelligently, but I don't suppose that we will. The relative obscurity of the ILCS testifies to our collective unwillingness to confront the hard facts.

posted by Fido the Yak at 1:40 PM.


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