Carol Platt Liebau: Krugman hatchet job

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Krugman hatchet job

This is guest blogger Wile E Coyote.

Here are some excerpts from a Paul Krugman op/ed on Petraeus and the surge. My comments are in italics.

Krugman writes: "Gen. Petraeus has a history of making wildly overoptimistic assessments...[such as] claiming “tangible progress” in Iraq. Specifically, [just before the 2004 US elections] he declared that 'Iraqi security elements are being rebuilt,' that 'Iraqi leaders are stepping forward' and that 'there has been progress in the effort to enable Iraqis to shoulder more of the load for their own security.' A year later, he declared that “there has been enormous progress with the Iraqi security forces.'”

Petraeus writes balanced good news/bad news reports, as the reader can see for himself by googling these reports. By omitting Petraeus's qualifications and discussion of bad news, Krugman tries to manufacture, rather than report, overoptimism on Petraeus's part.

Krugman quotes a panel of retured generals as stating: "Iraqi military forces 'will be unable to fulfill their essential security responsibilities independently over the next 12-18 months.'”

Krugman doesn't bother to tell us how much weight the word "independently" carries in this context. It includes intelligence, logistical, artillery, airlift and air support capabilities. The fact is, Iraqi forces increasingly fight and fight hard. They are taking three times the casualites of US troops.

In arguing that the surge is not making life in Iraq safer, Krugman writes: "the daily number of civilian deaths is almost twice its average pace from last year".

Krugman does not bother to explain why this is the relevant metric, since the surge only began in June and began with an expected upsurge in violence.
Krugman also does not explain why we should look at average daily death as opposed to a year-on-year comparison by month (e.g., August 2007 v August 2006). Krugman also does not discuss how to deal with statistical outliers like the day that including multiple car bombings that killed 500 Yahzdis in a single village .

I leave it to Carol to explain whether this kind of writing is typical of scholarship at her alma mater, Princeton, where Krugman holds tenure. The fact is, discussing what the US has done and should do in Iraq is serious business, and we should discuss it seriously. Krugman fails us on this count. He is a polemicist, and we should treat his views accordingly.

7 Comments:

Blogger Chepe Noyon said...

Coyote, you claim that Mr. Petraeus wrote a "balanced good new/bad news" report in the September 24th Washington Post op/ed. I carefully read that report, and I agree that it qualifies its claims. Yet surely you will agree that the overall tone of the op/ed is optimistic. I agree that Mr. Krugman is wrong to characterize Mr. Petraeus of "wildly overoptimistic assessments" -- but they have certainly been proven, in the light of subsequent events, to be overly optimistic.

Mr. Krugman makes what is, I think, a far more important point: that Mr. Petraeus committed a political act by publishing this op/ed piece just six weeks before the election. That is a violation of the principle of non-participation in the political process that has been the hallmark of professionalism in the American military for over 200 years. The fact that Mr. Petraeus would publish such a piece six weeks before an election marks him, in my eyes, as a political general, a partisan. And that greatly detracts from his credibility.

You make a good point about the independent panel of generals but let's not forget that the overall tone of their report is certainly not optimistic.

I disagree with your statement that the surge "only began in June". The surge began in February and only reached full strength in June. I think that we've had enough time to evaluate the wisdom of the policy.

As to your comments on civilian casualties, boy, have I seen a lot of statistics here. Yes, it's difficult assessing all the competing numbers. I completely reject the claim that civilian casualties are down by 75%. My overall assessment is that there has been little substantial change in the last 12 months.

But you really blew it with your final comment that Mr. Krugman is a polemicist. That may be true, but there's a strong "pot calling the kettle black" factor here. The ratio of evidence to rhetoric in Mr. Krugman's piece seems higher to me than the same ratio for most pieces published on this blog.

10:16 AM  
Blogger Carol Platt Liebau said...

Coyote here.

One would have to consider the context for Petraeus's report, including what was being said at the time about things within his scope of responsibilities.

Your comment about "principle of non-particpation" will require elaboration to put into practice, since its pure application would fly in the face of common sense and American history (Grant, Sherman, Eisenhower, for example), as well as modern military/political theory (Clausewitz).

The principle of the surge was broad presence to avoid whack-a-mole. This only began in June, as planned.

Insofar as "pot calling the kettle black" means taking everything you read here with a grain of salt, more power to you. But, my beef with Krugman is not his lack of evidence, but how he selectively uses quotes and data without context or discussion. This, to me, indicates a polemicist rather than an analyst. Polemics may put food on his table, but is not serious analysis; we can enjoy polemics' entertainment value, but should not base policy choices on it.

2:47 PM  
Blogger Earth to Carol said...

Now might be a good time to look at the big picture. Troop levels will have to be reduced this Spring. That will leave Bush's failed invasion to the next President to clean up. As, close to 70% of the people want the war ended, there will be another Republican blood bath in the '08 elections. Those left in government will have no option but to withdrawal the troops.

If the surge was to pass Bush's mess to the next President, it is a success. But it is a failure in meeting the objectives that Bush claimed the surge was for.

4:25 PM  
Blogger Chepe Noyon said...

Coyote, I poked around looking for a reference to my comment about the military's strictures against any kind of participation in politics, but I couldn't find a succinct reference to it. I'll try to explain it as I know it; I've gotten this information from military officers I have known.

There is an absolute, unyielding rule in the American military that the military is ALWAYS subordinate to the civilian politicians. A military coup is unthinkable in this country, because officers are sworn to defend the Constitution and they really drive that point home in OCS.

This absolute prohibition extends, with less force, to political activity. Military people aren't supposed to do anything that might be interpreted as political. For example, for years and years it was forbidden to participate in any demonstration in uniform. You could do it in your civvies, but doing it in uniform is big trouble. I don't know if that rule is still in force. (Of course, once you're out of the military, it's no longer an issue, which is why we see retired soldiers showing up in demonstrations in uniforms).

The examples of Grant and Eisenhower are actually supportive of my point. Both generals were scrupulously neutral on political issues while they were serving. Once they were out of the military, they were war heroes and were free to engage in political activity.

I agree that Mr. Krugman puts a lot of spin on his facts and figures, and I agree that this detracts from his case. However, I don't agree with you on the polemics point, because, I suspect, I am using a different definition of polemics than you are. I consider a polemic to be a strongly worded statement that is offered with little or no evidence. Any pure statement of opinion that is strongly and negatively worded satisfies my definition. However, if the author makes a good faith attempt to offer evidence in support of the thesis, then I do not consider it a polemic. Of course, the more strongly worded the statement, the greater the evidentiary requirement I place upon the author. By this standard, I think that Mr. Krugman's piece is less polemical than most of Ms. Liebau's pieces. There are, of course, other complaints to make against Mr. Krugman's piece -- but I think that polemicism is not one of them.

5:41 PM  
Blogger Carol Platt Liebau said...

Coyote here.

Grant and Eisenhower were keenly aware of domestic political considerations and how these interacted with military concerns.

They avoided overt partisan actions, but note, for example, that Indiana troops, thought to be likely to support the Lincoln administration, were furloughed so they could participate in Fall 1864 eletions, since Indiana did not allow soldiers to vote by absentee ballot. Grant and Sherman also knew that election of a Democratic administration meant defeat in the War (sound familiar?) and pressed for a victory in the field that would change the nation's political mood in the Lincoln Administration's favor.

To consider whether Petraeus violated long-standing custom, as well as military law, you need to consider the right/responsibility of a soldier to set the record straight when he or his performance is being vilified.

You might also consider why these concerns about Petraeus are being considered significant now, rather than before he was unanimously approved by the Senate to his current command.

9:33 AM  
Blogger Earth to Carol said...

Conservative should, some day, come to the realization that their party was hijacked by the NeoCon crazies. And this will lead to their party going to the basement for a generation. The government has become so dysfunctional it can not even try captured terrorists, it can not close the Mexican border, it can not protect citizen from tainted China toys and tooth paste.

To suggest our government can build a nation out of the mess they made in Iraq after four and a half years is absurd. They can't even rebuild New Orleans. They can't even protect citizens from failing bridges and levees.

Patraeus's predictions about Iraq in 2004, were dead wrong. Troops should not being dying for Iraqi politicians who can not reconcile their differences. US troops should not be dying while Iraq politicians go on a month long vacation.

9:54 AM  
Blogger Chepe Noyon said...

I just had a long talk with an old friend of mine, a retired Air Force officer. He assures me that what Mr. Petraeus did is perfectly proper -- but there's a catch. Basically, a military officer is free to say anything that his superiors approve of, and not at all free to say anything that they disapprove of. Thus, I was wrong to assert that Mr. Petraeus violated military tradition. However, this also means that Mr. Petraeus is by no stretch of the imagination an independent or objective observer and his commentary deserves no more credibility than a White House press release.

10:48 AM  

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