Come again? I don’t think I heard you quite right.

Wednesday, July 25th, 2007

tice.jpgHere’s an unusual New York Times piece that says something about the art and science of polling, something about public attitudes on Iraq, and something about journalists’ attitudes.

The gist of it is that the New York Times/CBS News poll got a survey result earlier this month that surprised journalists at the two organizations. In a poll that was largely concerned with Hillary Clinton they asked some now routine questions about the Iraq war and saw an increase in the percentage of Americans who believe the original invasion was the right thing to do.

So surprised and doubtful were they that they did a second poll. The poll keepers wondered if including the Iraq invasion question in a poll about Clinton might have influenced the answers somehow.

But the second poll, free of extraneous influences, confirmed the first, and also found a drop in the number of people who think the war is going badly.

A few observations and questions:

There’s nothing unlikely about these pollsters’ suspicion about what might have gone wrong. That the proximity of certain questions can influence respondents’ answers to other questions is a constant challenge and hazard in polling, particularly polling on issues, as opposed to horse race election polls.

Chances are, such influences happen pretty often — inadvertantly in quality polls, and maybe not so inadvertantly in advocacy group polls. Most of the time, though, the result won’t be an outcome that stands out as inexplicable. But poll consumers should keep the risk in mind.

What could explain even a modest change for the better in Americans’ feelings about the war? Confidence in Petraeus? Reports that the surge is having some success in some parts of Iraq? Something in the war debate in the developing presidential race or on Capitol Hill? Whether the questions matter of course will depend on whether additional polls confirm any change in attitudes.

Does it reveal anything notable about journalists’ predispositions that this result –a slight improvement in attitudes toward the war — seemed so very odd and unlikely that they went to the unusual effort and cost of double checking their poll? Or would any careful observer have been surprised by the result?

Two tough assignments for Petraeus

Friday, July 20th, 2007

tice.jpgThis Reuters report from last Sunday summarizes the large and unusual role Gen. David Petraeus has assumed in petraeus.jpgthe Iraq war debate.

President Bush’s current position, echoed by Republicans standing with him, is that the nation must await Petraeus’s September report on military, political and economic conditions in Iraq before deciding on next steps.

Petraeus describes his aim in that report as giving Bush and Congress

“some sense of the implications of the various courses of action that might be under discussion at that point in time….We all need to have very clear eyes about what can happen, what the implications of various options are and, again, just to assess those correctly.”

There is of course nothing unusual about a president and congress seeking the expert advice of generals and adjusting policy in its light. But such advice is commonly given privately.

There is also nothing abnormal about the press and the public wanting to hear from generals directly. And generals, wisely or not, have often indulged them.

But for the nation’s elected leaders to stand back and wait for a military man’s very public pronouncement on, almost, what war policy ought to be — “the implications of various options” — seems a bit different.


In which Alice and the Queen discuss benchmarks, deadlines and consequences

Monday, April 30th, 2007

Good Tuesday morning Fellow Seekers,

ebmug.jpgThe NY Times story headlined “The White House Scales Back Talk of Iraq Progress” is so “Through the Looking Glass,” it could be published in the Onion without changes.

As far as I can tell, utilizing only earthling powers of understanding, the White House has never committed itself to any measurable index of progress in Iraq – certainly not any that might lead to any consequences whatsoever – so it’s hard to see exactly how you can scale back expectations that have never been set.

wonderland_aliceBy the home stretch of the article, you have Lewis Carroll, excuse me, Timesman David Sanger, quoting a “senior American official who did not want to be identified because he was discussing internal White House deliberations,” allowing as how, if Defense Secretary Gates can get Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to keep the Iraqi Parliamentfrom taking a taking a two-month summer break:

“We’ll have some outputs then,” says the unnamed (whom I suspect may be the Mad Hatter) but then adds: ”That’s different from having outcomes.”


Major Garrett on Republican congressional thinking on Iraq: Either way the war winds down soon

Monday, April 9th, 2007

ebmug.jpgCaught the end of an interview on the Laura Ingraham radio show this morning with Major Garrett, Fox News’ congressional correspondent.

Ingraham asked him what congressional GOPers think is ahead on Iraq and how they are reacting to the Dems pounding on the issue. I was driving, so I don’t have any notes but his themes were interesting.

Garrett said Repubs think Dems are overplaying their hand, in part by insisting that Bush refuses to consider any change in policy. They think the surge is a significant change, at least in tactics, and may soon show results. If it does, they think the overall policy will be redeemed in history and the Dems will look bad wanting to give up just before the big improvement.

 Garrett acknowledged that the surge so far is showing at best mixed results, and expressed no great confidence, on his own behalf or that of the Republicans whose views he was summarizing, that success is just around the corner.

But, he said, everyone (seemingly including the congressional Repubs and the president) understand that if there are not clear measureable improvements by August, it will be necessary to start bringing the troops home.

Just me talking here, but if that’s true, it should be easy for Pres. Bush to cut a deal on timelines that would get the money he wants to continue the war until then.

What think?

Question: What’s binding about the deadlines in the Senate Iraq bill?

Thursday, March 29th, 2007

ebmug.jpgAnswer: Not much.sens._reid_and_levin

Good Thursday morning Fellow Seekers,

A lot of the reporting on this issue has been erroneous, confusing or incomplete. The better stories typically say that the Senate bill has a binding deadline for beginning the withdrawal of U.S. troops pelosi_bush.jpgfrom Iraq, but a non-binding end-date.

Here’s the actual language in the bill (at least as it stood on Wednesday afternoon) as it delineates these matters:



Iraq’s election: Is it a turning point?

Is the U.S. willing to let the Iraqis take over?

Tuesday, December 27th, 2005

Fellow seekers of wisdom and truth

According to the AP story that ran in today’s Strib, the U.S. military has postponed the handover of responsibility for securing some Baghdad’s most sensitive sites because it isn’t sure of which officer the Iraqi government will put in charge. The Iraqi Defense Ministry has not approved the appointment of Col. Muhammed Wasif Taha, whose brigade the U.S. thought was was set to take over. Capt John Agnello of the U.S. Third Infantry Division calls it “a bit of a showdown.�?

The story implies that the U.S. military had confidence in Taha’s ability and likes the fact that Taha is a Sunni, which might help soothe the impression that that the Iraqi military is too Shiite dominated. Both of those might be reasonable considerations if the U.S. was in charge of assigning Iraqi officers.

But if we (and, more importantly, the Iraqis and others in the region) are to believe that the U.S. is seriously committed to letting the Iraqis run their own affairs, and especially anxious for the Iraqis to assume more responsibility for security, why are U.S. officers trying to control the choice of Iraqi officers for particular assignments?

Sunday, December 25th, 2005
Larry Diamond

New interview: Larry Diamond

“It’s troubling to think that the U.S. intervention in Iraq could lead to the rise of a Shiite theocracy, led by parties spawned in Iran, some of them virulently anti-American, representing views that violate basic principles of human rights. How are we going to square that with the loss of over 2,000 U.S. troops?” More…

Eric Black: The year ahead in Iraq?

The tale of the Sunni nightmare, and the (possible) big do-over on the Iraqi Constitution.

More interviews

Is Iraq a nation?

Thursday, December 22nd, 2005

The post-election analysis of Larry Diamond is available here.

Diamond is a fellow at the Hoover Institution, and worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority, which might lead you to expect a pro-Bush, pro-war analysis. On the other hand, his 2005 book is titled “Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq.�? He seems to be calling them as he sees them, and the early results from the election left him very pessimistic because of the evidence that the vast majority of Iraqi are voting on a strictly ethno-sectarian basis, which leaves him wondering whether Iraq has much of a future as a unified nation-state.

The territory of Mesopotamia is loaded with significant human history. But the nation of Iraq, as currently constituted, was created by the Brits after World War I, stitching together three Ottoman provinces with distinct populations (Kurdish, Sunni, Shia).

There’s a lot of talk about a pan-Iraqi identity that supposedly developed during the 20th century, but I wonder. The Kurds have wanted their own country for about a thousand years and have been mistreated by the big groups – the Arabs, the Turks and the Persians – that surround them, outnumber them, and divide them. The Shiite and the Sunni Arabs have fought before, (the first battles were on territory in present-day Iraq, 13 centuries ago) and the Shiites have some pretty good grudges over how they’ve been treated in Sunni-dominated Iraq much more recently.

The U.S. has tried to rule out the idea of allowing the country to break up. Turkey worries about any talk of an independent Kurdistan that would border on its own Kurdish provinces. Diamond said (this didn’t make it into the excerpts at right) that the Iraqi Kurds have made a practical decision not to seek full independence (although that’s been their dream).

There not much history behind the idea of an independent Shiastan in southern Iraq, but it would be a rich country and the winners of last week’s election are very drawn to the idea of a semi-autonomous region there.

So the question I’d like to throw open is this:

Is Iraq a nation, or would it remain one if the rest of the world let the Iraqis decide that question for themselves?

An optimist and a pessimist

Wednesday, December 21st, 2005

Fellow seekers.

Vin Weber and Michael Barnett checked back in with post-election reactions. For those of you joining us late, Weber is the former Republican congressman from Minnesota, currently chairman of the board of the National Endowment of Democracy. His pre-election interview is here. Barnett is a professor of International Relations at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute. (Barnett’s pre-election interview.)

Weber’s latest thinking:

“Most of the news about the election is very good, although there clearly are major challenges ahead. The good news is , of course, the overall participation and particularly the Sunni Arab turnout. We had hoped that the Sunnis were near a “tipping point” and the election looks as if they’ve “tipped” into the political process.

The Shiite vote indicates that Islamist parties seem to be consolidating their hold in that community, with the secularist Shiites falling short of expectations.

Now the hard work begins. The constitution requires a 2/3 majority before a government can be formed so the Shiites will have to compromise with Kurds, Sunni Arabs, and secularists in order to form a government. That’s sort of the essence of politics.

We shouldn’t be discouraged by allegations of fraud, or by setbacks that occur over the next weeks. On balance, the election was free, fair and honest and we have the opportunity now to watch the emergence of the first Democracy in the Islamic Arab world.”

And here’s Barnett:

“Although heartening to see the massive turnout of Iraqis, it is highly doubtful that the elections are a turning point. The act of voting itself does not begin to address or solve the big questions that lie ahead.

There will continue to exist enduring splits between the three principal constituencies. There will continue to be important differences of opinion regarding the role of Islam in public and private life (and even if there is a distinction between the public and the private). There remain important unresolved or to be renegotiated issues concerning the

Various local authorities rushed into the post-occupation political vacuum, grabbed political power, and are unlikely to give it up without a fight. There is little evidence, finally, that the political process or emerging constitutional arrangement is going to create a central government that has the capacity to govern effectively. At the end of the
day, the real elements of power very much reside at the local levels. In this political atmosphere where there is so little trust and there is no effective authority to guarantee physical security, it is very difficult to imagine that the parties will find the ability to create the sort of political arrangements required for political stability.

These are the fundamentals of Iraq, and the recent election does not necessarily establish a process that can help to address them. Although it is quite possible that the elections are the moment when the Iraqis decided to use ballots and not bullets to settle their differences, it is equally possible that we will soon remember these elections as a moment when the parties momentarily decided to treat politics as war by another means.”

Yikes! What if the elections set off a new round of violence?

Tuesday, December 20th, 2005

The coalitions, especially the Sunni Arab tickets, that got clobbered according to the early returns, are complaining of fraud. Some are demanding a redo of the election in Baghdad Province. Some of the rhetoric suggests they might take it to the streets.

For example, Tariq al-Hashimi, leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party (Sunni religious), said at a press conference “we ask our supporters to remain calm now but if our demands are not met we will have to make a different decision.” (I’m importing this quote from an account on Iraq the model.)

Al Jazeera quotes Abdul Husain Hindawi, the head of the electoral commission, saying on Tuesday: “So far there are no objective grounds to order a rerun in any province.”And: “If they have proof of fraud, then they should send a letter to the commission and we will reply to them. But I’m sure that they will also be dissatisfied with our reply.”

Based on the partial returns, it seems possible that the UIA could get well over 40 percent of the vote and the seats. They wouldn’t need many coalition partners to form a majority and would be in a strong position in any such negotiations. (Bear in mind that 45 of the 275 seats will be awarded based on a complicated formula designed to help small parties, and parties whose strength in the national vote is under-reflected in the nationwide totals.)

One possibly important detail: A majority can form, approve and sustain a governing coalition, but under the Iraqi Constitution it takes a two-thirds vote at the front-end to elect the council of presidents, who then nominate a potential prime minister and ask him to try to form a cabinet that will receive majority support. In some of his recent remarks, President Bush has alluded to this two-thirds requirement, suggesting it makes compromise among all major groups necessary. But what if they don’t compromise.

As best I can discern, the Constitution doesn’t address the question of what happens if that two-thirds becomes impossible, or rather: what happens if a one-third-plus faction decides they’ll never get what they want out of any government that can be formed out of these election results and decides to block things at the first step?

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