The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Interpreting the surge in Iraq

January 30, 2008

I have a longstanding apathy towards State of the Union addresses. If a President says anything important (like declaring states part of an “axis of evil“), then I figure that the text serves just as well. My actions are bipartisan — I don’t watch anyone named Bush give these addresses and I didn’t watch Bill Clinton either. And I generally didn’t watch Ronald Reagan’s efforts.

However, there’s a case to be made that I should have watched the address this year — not because of what Bush said, but because of how specific members of the audience reacted.

After all, both of the remaining Democratic rivals for the presidential nomination are U.S. Senators and had the opportunity to agree or disagree with the current occupant of the White House. They could clap — or not — whenever the President made a policy point or arrived at a conclusion. In an extreme case, the candidate might even stand and clap. Arguably, such a move sends a clear signal to potential voters.

The Hill, January 29, provided this news about what I missed:

Obama and Clinton seemed to see eye to eye on Bush’s domestic agenda, sitting firmly on their hands through most of the first half of his speech…

Clinton and Obama’s divergent views on the troop surge in Iraq, however, were plainly visible.

When Bush proclaimed, “Ladies and gentlemen, some may deny the surge is working, but among terrorists there is no doubt,” Clinton sprang to her feet in applause but Obama remained firmly seated.

Kevin Drum is skeptical that this means anything, but Mark Kleiman believes it signifies a great deal.

I tend to side with Kleiman on this — largely because I do not think the surge has been a success. Thus, I do not think that any public figure, but perhaps especially Hillary Clinton — who already mistakenly voted for the war — should be clapping about the continued prosecution of the war.

The post I’ve just linked mentions that the civilian violent death rate in Iraq has declined to 2005 levels, which were worse than 2004 levels. This month, about 24 people per day are dying violent deaths. The January 2008 number will likely be between 700 and 800 dead.

These numbers are dramatically down from the war’s peak from June 2006 through August 2007 when more than 2500 people were dying each month.

The December 2007 civilian violent death toll in Iraq was 902.

Context: While the President defines that as success in Iraq, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, has been trying to mediate an exploding crisis in Kenya. The US envoy to Africa has called the situation “ethnic cleansing.” Yet, since December, “only” about 900 people have died. Press reports place the January death toll at around 800.

Do the math:

A good month in Iraq = a burgeoning political crisis in Kenya.

Since Kenya‘s population is about 10 million greater than Iraq‘s, the death toll in Iraq is a larger portion of the population.

+ posts

Rodger A. Payne is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville. He serves on the University’s Sustainability Council and was a co-founder of the Peace, Conflict, and Social Justice program. He is the author of dozens of journal articles and book chapters and coauthor, with Nayef Samhat, of Democratizing Global Politics: Discourse Norms, International Regimes, and Political Community (SUNY, 2004). He is currently working on two major projects, one exploring the role of narratives in international politics and the other examining the implications of America First foreign policy.