Left-wing bloggers, such as CrookedTimber, Brad DeLong, and Tim Lambert, are supporting the claim of about 600,000 extra deaths in Iraq. Jane Galt (scroll down for a few posts) and Steve Sailer raise some concerns.
I am a bit skeptical, but in any case the sheer number of deaths is being overdebated. Steve Sailer notes: "The violent death toll in the third year of the
war is more than triple what it was in the first year." That to me is
the more telling estimate.
A very high deaths total, taken alone, suggests (but does not prove) that the Iraqis were ready to start killing each other in great numbers the minute Saddam went away. The stronger that propensity, the less contingent it was upon the U.S. invasion, and the more likely it would have happened anyway, sooner or later. In that scenario the war greatly accelerated deaths. But short of giving Iraq an eternal dictator, that genie was already in the bottle.
If the deaths are low at first but rising over time, it is more likely that a peaceful transition might have been possible, either through better postwar planning or by leaving Saddam in power and letting Iraqi events take some other course. That could make Bush policies look worse, not better. Tim Lambert, in one post, hints that the rate of change of deaths is an important variable but he does not develop this idea.
We all know that the political world judges Iraq by the absolute badness of what is going on (which means Bush critics find a higher number to fit their priors), but that is an incorrect standard. We should judge the marginal product of U.S. action, relative to what else could have happened. (North Korea, and the UN response, will give us one data point from another setting.) In that latter and more accurate notion of a cost-benefit test, U.S. actions probably appear worst when deaths are rising over time, and hitting very high levels in the future.
Of course the rate of change of deaths is not exactly the proper variable. Ideally we would like some measure of the contingency of eventual total deaths, relative to policy. I am not sure what other proxies for that we might have.
Addendum: Let me put my comment up here on the front page: "Many of you are misreading the post by focusing only on the first case
of "bottled up killing," which is presented as only one of two
scenarios. Reread that if deaths are rising over time and possibly
contingent — and yes I do say this is the relevant and uncontroversial
fact — this suggests a very negative evaluation of Bush policies."
I don’t want to take the bait on why I am skeptical, the whole argument is that possible skepticism doesn’t have that much import once we consider the broader context of rising deaths and the possible contingency of those deaths.