Why Anti-Cassandras Get the Media Attention

Paul Krugman today bemoans the fact that on the housing crisis and especially on Iraq the people who get the most media attention are those who got it wrong.

It’s even worse, of course, on the matter of Iraq: just about every one of the panels convened to discuss the lessons of five disastrous years consisted solely of men and women who cheered the idiocy on.

(Brad DeLong, Dean Baker and others have made similar complaints.)  I think the fact is correct so what is going on?

The answer is media incentives.  It wasn’t just the experts who were wrong, the majority of the American people got Iraq and housing wrong.  The war was popular in the beginning and people continued to buy houses even as prices rose ever higher.  So what does the American public want to hear now?

The public wants to hear why they weren’t idiots.  And who better to explain to the public why they weren’t idiots than experts who also got it wrong?

Comments

The majority of the American people usually gets things of this magnitude wrong due to asymmetry of information peddled by the groupthink of greedy Wall Street or foreign policy (read, military-industrial complex) lemmings.

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Richard is right. Here is a story with opinion polls from 2002:

http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2002/09/24/opinion/polls/main523130.shtml

Reporters depend on sources that can give them a quick and dirty sound bite.

Once they have found a cadre of people that can do that those are the people that they are going to continue to call on, They have little incentive to change their sources.

What we need is something to change the reporters incentive to call different sources. That has to be something that will discredit the old sources and that has not happened.

It's amazing how many people now claim that they opposed the war from the
start. It's like all the people who swear they stuck around to see
Hendrix at Woodstock.

The media also needs stories. "X changed his mind" maybe counts as a story, but "X didn't change his mind" surely doesn't. You may recall a few weeks ago I linked to a story about Ron Bailey changing his mind on global warming.

TC, you've got to be kidding. The public supported the war not because they had come to the conclusion on their own that it was good idea but because public officials who they trusted said it was a good idea. Do you think that if Bush had been against the war, there would have been a grassroots movement against him to start one?

How about firing the "experts" who got it wrong and replacing them with the real experts who got it right?

Caliban,

Actually, the support has stopped draining and may be increasing. After all, the new pitch is that
the surge is "working." John McCain and Bush and Petraeus say so, although the latter is a bit more
cautious about exactly what he says. We are working toward that end point of the tunnel you mention.

BTW, just what is that endpoint? The ending of al Qaeda in Iraq that did not exist before we invaded?
A cessation of bombing of the Green Zone? A national oil law that finally allows US oil companies to
cut deals there? (still has not happened yet) An increase in oil production beyond the Saddam period
levels that would bring down the global price of oil (production has mostly been well below those
levels since 2003, while the global price of oil has shot through the roof) Democracy spreading
throughout the Middle East, thereby saving Israel? (of course the Palestinians in Gaza had an election,
and the radically anti-Israeli Hamas won) Freedom of religion for minorities? (half the Christian
population of Iraq has fled the country since 2003). Iraq actually paying the trillion dollar cost of
the war out of gratitude to us as Paul Wolfowitz said would happen? (It was going to cost nothing,
if I remember) How about the walls between the freshly ethnically cleansed neighborhoods of Baghdad
will come down and there will actually be water, power, and functioning sewer sytems? And, oh yes,
there is my favorite: Iran will stand as the supreme power in the Persian Gulf, supported by its
friendly government in Iraq, put in power by us?

Just which of these is the end of tunnel vision you are deluding yourself with, please?

Krugman gets so many economics things wrong... I guess that's why he still has a job.

Did Krugman only start reading the financial press when the real estate and mortgage bubbles burst? For every bearish commentator in bull markets as far back as you can go, there have been a score of bullish commentators.
Mutual fund manager Ron Mullenkamp was the most bullish tout in the run up in home building stocks after 1999, and remained bullish on them even past their peak in August 2005. His mantra was, "if people bring me fresh money, I buy the home builders." The last I remember reading this was in late 2006 or early 2007.
The ratio of bullish to bearish commentators in the media during bull markets has little to do with media incentives and more to do with "extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds."
Bearish commentators only come to the fore during bear markets, when bullish ones fade into the woodwork.
That Krugman appears shocked by this speaks more to his weird worldview than to anything else.
Btw, I'd like to see a list of his investments, mutual funds, etc. during the real estate runup. Betcha he owned some of these things after they peaked.
I had an e-mail exchange with Mullenkamp in the summer of 2005, in which I expressed my skepticism of the home builders after he or someone close to him was quoted in the press saying they could get to a p/e of 15. He said they were still a good buy. They were--right up until August.

I believe a public statement of support for the war effort is one of the most courageous things a person can do in America today.
Far more courageous to cheer from home than to actually serve in the military.

If the result is the free flow of oil at market prices, we'll probably never know that Operation Iraqi Freedom was what caused it.
The results are in: the price of oil went up as the supply from Iraq decreased.

The best piece on the completely backward incentives pundits have on getting the Iraq war right is this from Radar.

Does Krugman really want to hear from Pat Buchanan?

Given you had a credit mania (of which the housing boom was one expression), it's inevitable that people weren't been paying the bearish commentators much attention. A social environment in which the bears are listened to and taken seriously in the mainstream media just isn't compatible with a mania.

From Charles Mackay to Keynes to Robert Prechter we can see that this is hardly a new phenomenon. Yet despite knowing this and having studied this stuff for years - in my own trading it is always a constant struggle to escape the lure of the herd.

“Unfortunately, independence is excruciatingly difficult for most people to assert in socially charged situations because the effects of the patterns are so pervasive and the power of the unconscious so strong. Hope, fear, denial, and inertia are all part of the process. It is work to exercise and train your neocortex to overcome these influences and act independently. The number of consistently successful traders and investors is infinitesimally small compared to the total number of participants in markets. " - Robert Prechter

"The desire to belong to and be accepted by the group is particularly powerful in intensely emotional social settings...The less that reality intrudes on the thinking of a group, the stronger is its collective conformity. Dependence most easily substitutes for rigorous reasoning when knowledge is lacking or logic irrelevant. In a realm such as investing, where so few are knowledgeable, or in a realm such as fads and fashion, where logic is inappropriate and the whole point is to impress other people, the tendency toward dependence is pervasive. Trends in such activities are steered not by rational decisions of individual minds but by the peculiar collective sensibilities of the herd."

BTW, if you can't get your head around the mental model of an "altruistic" German, Japanese, or Soviet, please don't answer.

The point is that these positions are both relative, and rooted in the invading country's self-confidence ... there is not unfortunately a cosmic moral scoreboard that we can easily consult on such things.

We have a group of politicians running the most powerful nation in the history of the world. They are voted on and elected by individuals inside of that country only. I don't think this is a system which creates incentives for that nation to play nice with others.

I think things might get better as the Internet, communication and trade expand and people's range of empathy grows.

"the majority of the American people got Iraq and housing wrong".

Statements like that are really unbelievable, and indicative of the faith that economists can put into their ridiculous assumptions about the information and rational thinking available to the average consumer. The American people followed their leaders, in regards to the war and the excessive borrowing.

I agree that trusting our president is "getting it wrong", which is why I was interviewed on a RI Fox affiliate for my and my housemates' opposition to the war. But many of the people I talked to in March of 2003 thought that trusting our president was "getting it right".

Tyler, while I disagree with those people (maybe you do too, I have no idea), are you willing to call them "wrong" for trusting their elected officials, in particular their president? And if you are, what does this say about the assumptions that you often make as an economist?

Great post---think this issue was very well described and analyzed by Phil Telock in political judgement. The more
"well known" and expert the higher the probability he/she will get forecasts and analysis of major issues wrong. Alex adds a great subtelety--the famous are probably famous for echoing popular sentiments and appearing authoratative. i.e. Perhaps the "experts" we know of in TV and newspapers arent about getting it right--they are about making it all plausible and make us feel o.k. for supporting idiotic policies and engaging in silly behavior. Hmmm, shades of Caplan......Go to Telock Alex......

This is why it so hard to...STILL...beat sense into people about pre-emptive aggressive war.

At best, people say "the execution was bungled by Rummie" and "next time we'll get it right!"

They don't get it. There can't be a next time. We shot our wad on Iraq. What a waste. When the time really does come (and NO, Iran isn't it). Our gun will be empty.

And we observe this obvious irrationality and we still think that markets are efficient and the Fed can manage the economy?

It is quite possible that both markets are irrational and the response is NOT central control by equally irrational (plus bad incentives) central planners chosen by the irrational market.

Alistair Morley,

I can't quite decide whether your point is clever and wrong or stupid and wrong. :)

Actually, it's clever, but still wrong. It's wrong because if the war does serve our foreign policy interests it will be due to plain old dumb luck. But I doubt it will anyway.

Why? Because Iraq would have become a friendly nation eventually anyway, and an unfriendly Iraq today was not a threat to our national security. Oil prices, maybe, but probably not. What were they going to do, not sell oil onto the world market? In fact, even oil prices have gone up with the war. And they probably would have been lower without all the badgering we gave Iraq over the last decade.

So, the upside is questionable. The downsides are obvious and possibly disastrous. Thousands dead. That's a done deal. Iraq may never become friendly now. That's a possibility. And our real threat has always been...ALWAYS...violent anti-Americanism. I think that a belligerent America who attacks other countries unprovoked makes that problem have to get worse. Other people seem to disagree but they've never given me a logical argument. It seems the only logical argument is the "kill 'em all!" argument, which the serious neo-cons won't even entertain.

Andrew,

Heh. Thanks for the feedback; I have indeed been clever on wrong on many occasions. I think I can take issue however with several of your generally well-structured points.

1a. "Iraq would have become a friendly nation anyway"

I'm not quite sure what this means; presumably in arbitrary time ANY nation will become friendly (at least for a period). Can you define it a bit more? The Hussein tyranny looked to be secure domestically, if constrained internationally, and probably dynastic with Uday. I'd say "From 2001 vantage, not friendly anytime soon". So I kindly suggest this claim is simply untrue, in any useful sense.

1b. "An unfriendly Iraq today was not a threat to our national security"

I suspect this might be the nub of some discussion. I also suspect that I agree with you, in the narrow sense, Iraq was not "clear and present" danger. Saddam had no serious plans or capability to nuke NY; he'd be a local and opportunistic nusiance, but nothing more. However, my reasons for supporting the war was based on a wider assessment of US interests in the Middle East. My main motivation for suppporting the invasion was NOT the destruction of the Hussein tyranny per se, but the opportunity to install a democratic government in the Arab Middle east. So I grant the "not a threat" as true, but it doesn't have any argumentative hold on me.

My reading of the situation is that the vast majority of "US problem" arising from the region ultimately stem from it's authoritarian governments, butressed by Islam's struggle with globalisation and the rent-seeking opportunities created by oil wealth. I believe US interests are best served by democratic transformation of the region (including our "allies" in Cairo and Riyadh). Iraq was to be the seedcorn for an Arab reformation, which could hopefully be peaceful and endogenous rather than violent and imposed.

In this, I suppose I am a typical critic of the realist school of "stability", which might have been justified during the exingencies of the cold war, but has resulted in corrupt, authoritarian governments who not only brutalise their own people but crucially export their problems in the form of radicalised populations. I regard Cairo and Riyadh as negligently if indirectly responsible for 9/11.

I agree wholly with your point about oil; I think this is unrelated to what we want to talk about.

Expanding on your succint exposition of the downside, at heart we may have different ideas of what causes "Anti-Americanism" (let us for the moment pass over the slightly under-defined nature of that term). You highlight the "unprovoked attack" point, perhaps (and I don't want to prejudge you) as a adjunct to the US arrogance/aggression argument. I find this explanation generally unsatisfying because it simply doesn't fit the data well; countries which have been the "target" of US power don't show much difference from their neighbours (i.e. Iraq itself! And consider Iran too), while some allies have vehmently anti-American populations (i.e. Egypt, and Germany).

I prefer explanations which point to US support for "friendly" dictators, who have nontheless radicalised their populations and frustrated meritocracy. I think this theory is pyschologically richer, easier to quantify/operationalise, and better explains regional and social variance in Anti-Americanism. I think Tyler linked an excellent paper about 2 months back.

Finally, could I draw attention to the other side's share price too? Bin Laden's appeal has much collapsed faster than that of the US. The Arab ME may dislike the west, but they hate his agenda. I'm cool with simply being disliked ; just so long as that doesn't endgender violent action. To put it bluntly; one can live in a world where the most irksome country is France.

Alistair,

Excellent post. To back you up on the question of sabre-rattling capability, no one should forget that the US Navy and Air Force are essentially disengaged in OIF and OEF. There is more than enough smack-down capability available, which is why no none, repeat, no one, is testing those waters any time soon.

"The public wants to hear why they weren't idiots. And who better to explain to the public why they weren't idiots than experts who also got it wrong?"

Alex, the only idiots out there are those who are trying to call it as a win or a loss when it is only half over.

Way too early to call who is right or wrong.

Alistair,

Well, prior to April Glaspie poorly signaling to Saddam that we did not support his going into Kuwait, he was very friendly to us, and certainly had a stable government, albeit a nasty, undemocratic and not very capitalist one. After all, we provided him with serious intel when he invaded Iran, and Rummie was over there shaking his hand. Bush Senior did not go to Baghdad after that war because he followed the good Saudi advice that doing so would only upset the balance of power between Iraq and Iran, which indeed has happened since our invasion.

Yes, democratic governments are nice, but then the Palestinians in Gaza have one, and it is not very helpful to our interests. In the long run, anyone who knew anything knew that a real democracy in Iraq would mean rule by sectarian Shi'a friendly to Iran. That is essentially what we have already, although they are not very stable nor very capitalist (and probably will not be). Some upshots of that are the fleeing of about half the Christian population, which has been there for nearly 2,000 years, and the forcing of women to wear veils and stay at home in most of the country. I hope you think all this is just wonderful.

It is not surprising that bin Laden's popularity has fallen since 9/11. But do you really think that the US invasion of Iraq has aided in that? There was no al Qaeda in Iraq before then, except for al Zarqawi, whom Saddam had an APB out on. Now, it is our main enemy there. Indeed, it is our presence that feeds its ongoing recruitment. I forecast here that if we pull our troops out of Iraq, al Qaeda will be dead immediately. Our presence there is its only raison d'etre.

Tom,

Now, just which "WMD" are you talking about? Yes, every intel agency, and I also, wrongly believed that Saddam had chemical weapons. Many also thought he might have bio labs. Nobody thought he had nukes or an ongoing program, but Bush lied about that in his 2003 SOTU message, and that was the "WMD" that appealed to the public, and for that matter are real WMD. Hey, we had a bio attack, remember anthrax?, and it did not amount to a hill of beans. And, as for chemical weapons, even if he had had them, they were no threat to anybody other than his domestic population and maybe his immediate neighbors. They were not remotely grounds for our pre-emptive invasion. (Of course the Bushites claimed Saddam might give them to his "ally" al Qaeda, but we also know that was a lie; they were enemies, not allies.)

BTW, we still have troops in both Germany and Japan, but we pulled back in terms of rule in Germany within three to four years, and in Japan in six years, not ten. And, actually the Marshall Plan looked successful from almost the minute it started. What kind of history have you been reading?

Chris,

In what sense has Krugman been wrong about the surge? The tribal sheiks in al Anbar had turned against al Qaeda in Iraq before it started because the insurgents were killing the sons of the sheiks. Very dumb. All we needed to do was provide the sheiks with arms. Troops were not necessary. Most of the decline in violence was due to a cease-fire with the Sadrists, now broken for reasons that are unclear. I would say the surge may have helped a bit in Baghdad, particularly in helping to build those walls that separate the neighborhoods, thereby making it difficult for capitalist entrepreneurs o do much. But violence was going to slow down there anyway because the ethnic cleansing and segregation of neighborhoods was nearing its completion.

Again, removing our troops would remove any reason for al Qaeda in Iraq to exist. They would be dead and gone within weeks of our departure.

Oh yes, a final point to Daniel P.C. We do have word from insiders of what went on, and what went on was screamingly ignorant and stupid incompetence. Richard Clarke, anti-terrorism chief under Clinton and then, for awhile, under Bush has laid it all out. When Bush came in Clarke attempted to accurately explain that al Qaeda was our greatest threat. Bush, Cheney, Condi, Wolfie, and Rummie, were having none of it. That was a Clinton concern and therefore irrelevant. Their priority was getting us out of the ABM treaty. Wow, so glad they achieved that! On August 6 Bush was given a memo from Clarke and the CIA about al Qaeda plotting to do what it did on 9/11. He did nothing, preferring to clear brush on his ranch, part of his trying to play Reagan game. Out to lunch all the way.

Just to note your second point about Iraq being an ongoing constraint on US power and ability to sabre-rattle; I agree. However, I am hopeful that it will diminish in the 3-5 year term, ultimately becoming an asset.

Wishful thinking. Vietnam bequeathed us nearly 20 years of weakness on this front. Ironically, success in the first Gulf War changed that perception somewhat, both at home and abroad.

I supported the Iraq War because I bought the WMD argument (I was not a Bush voter). Shame on me. I also believed (and still believe) that if the President is to credibly put a gun to the head of a dictator, Congress must give him the power to pull the trigger.

I believed Bush's arguments about WMD and that we should threaten Sadaam. I hoped Sadaam would blink and agree to exile like the coup leaders in Haiti did in the mid-90s. (Prior to the war, Saudi Arabia engaged in intense diplomacy with Iraq hoping to make this happen.)

Tom, you may think it's too early to say it's a win or loss, but it's not too early to say we could've made better decisions about how to spend $500 billion and 4,000 lives.

You folks are hysterical.

Comparing Iraq to WWII?

Sadly, I know you aren't joking.

WWII was BEFORE we were The Superpower. We were engaged with half the world.

Here's a clue folks. For The Superpower to still be in a backwater dump after 5 years that we embargoed for 10 years and already smashed once IS A LOSS no matter what happens from here on.

It's laughable that anyone could imply with a straight face that a trillion plus bucks is a good price for what we have with Iraq versus what we would have had had we left them alone.

No WMDs, no rejoicing masses pelting our troops with roses, no democratic capitalist oasis in the Arab desert, no impending defeat of all terrorists of global reach (whatever the #@#%#@% that means) as they were sucked black-hole style into Iraq, no world safe for oil transactions, no tin horns falling in line so we don't have to start more stupid wars in backwater dumps.

It's about that time to come up with another rationale guys. Hint: Cost-benefit ain't it.

"Smackdown capability"

You have got to be kidding me.

Of course we have "smackdown" capability. We spend like, what, more than every other country combined on "defense." Okay, that's probably not true, but it's close.

But you don't get it. With all that spending on deterrence capability, what is the point in having to fight wars? With all that spending, we should NOT have to fight wars.

War is a failure of our leaders. One way or the other.

This war just happened to be a failure piled on top of a fubar.

Or, maybe I wasn't even exaggerating that much.

http://www.globalissues.org/Geopolitics/ArmsTrade/Spending.asp
"The USA, responsible for about 80 per cent of the increase in 2005, is the principal determinant of the current world trend, and its military expenditure now accounts for almost half of the world total;"

All that spending, and we waste it in a display for the world to see how unequipped we are for this type of conflict. What a shame.

LOL, and this just in from the opinion leaders at Yahoo News! from the War is Peace desk

"Pentagon says new Iraq fighting arises from surge's success"

http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20080326/pl_afp/iraqunrestuspentagon

Lemmus,

Your point about German sentiment is well taken. It was an unfairly harsh classification, I withdraw it.

Andrew,

You raise a few new issues, but I feel these are slightly less ordered than earlier, though engaging as always.

"War is a failure of our leaders, one way or another"

An interesting contention; and it looks like you mean it in a fairly tight game-theoretic sense, especially as you invoke 'overwhelming' US deterrence capabilities. In some sense, the strategic reasoning you outline is good bread-and-butter strategy. However, might I be a pedant and point out miscalculation by deterrent target X may still cause a war even with "best" play by USA, and ambiguous signalling allows for accidental war even with "best" play by both sides. So I simply don't think this is true in the strictest sense, and a good practical example might be Gulf War 1, where Saddam persistently disbelieved US signals. Apologies if I'm burying you in theory or "ancient history", but it's easy to sacrifice accuracy for an admittedly nice turn of phase.

I think your more central issue is as what is failure or success in Iraq. These terms can generate a lot of heat, so could I suggest a good place to start is with definitions we can agree on. Perhaps we (you?) could specify a set of conditions, with clear metrics, which would constitute success (or would have constituted success, if you believe it to be impossible). Is failure simply their absence? Is it a good idea to incorporate the 'price paid' into those metrics*? (I'd be cautious; you can end up with awkward constructs like "Russia conqured Germany but failed because they lost so many people"). I usually split costs from payoff as it allows more meaningful discussion about cost-benefit ratios, opportunity costs, and the wisdom of decisions. Which is were we where to begin with.

Best regards,

PS - Again, a question of scale and Very Large Numbers. $1,000,000,000,000 is indeed a lot of money (does that include Afghan too, btw? Or just Iraq?); but over 5 years it's only about, what, 1.7% of GDP and includes sunk costs at that? Relative to other US conflicts, this is still only a small-to-medium sized war in terms of cost. Vietnam, WWI and II were larger.

"Only about 1.7% of GDP"

Only? The point is, we could have just dumped 1.7% of our GDP into the most anti-Saddam neighborhoods in Iraq and we'd probably be ahead.

The point is, the opportunity cost is so huge compared to where we could be if we just hadn't done it. You guys are trying to claim that it may yet be worth the cost. I'm saying it is not worth the cost and in fact it is a negative investment.

I'm saying we'd have been better off if we just took that 1.7% of GDP and buried it in a hole. I realize you disagree. I provide evidence that you don't agree with. I appreciate your polite argumentation. I think back at the time, though I disagreed vehemently, and risked many friendships doing so, I could see how reasonable people supported the war. But, I think now, in hindsight, it is obvious that it was a mistake, and most of my friends who were for it have come to terms with that.

"The people count on the media and experts to make an informed decision."

The people are 'stupid' to count on the media and "experts" to make decisions. This is the point of the article. The media and the experts are not directly incentivized to provide accurate information to the people to make informed decisions. If the people think they are, then they are mistaken. If they are mistaken, and continue to deny they were mistaken, one might go so far as to call them 'stupid,' although irrational might be more accurate.

"Only about 1.7% of GDP"

Only? The point is, we could have just dumped 1.7% of our GDP into the most anti-Saddam neighborhoods in Iraq and we'd probably be ahead.

The point is, the opportunity cost is so huge compared to where we could be if we just hadn't done it. You guys are trying to claim that it may yet be worth the cost. I'm saying it is not worth the cost and in fact it is a negative investment.

I'm saying we'd have been better off if we just took that 1.7% of GDP and buried it in a hole. I realize you disagree. I provide evidence that you don't agree with. I appreciate your polite argumentation. I think back at the time, though I disagreed vehemently, and risked many friendships doing so, I could see how reasonable people supported the war. But, I think now, in hindsight, it is obvious that it was a mistake, and most of my friends who were for it have come to terms with that.

"The people count on the media and experts to make an informed decision."

The people are 'stupid' to count on the media and "experts" to make decisions. This is the point of the article. The media and the experts are not directly incentivized to provide accurate information to the people to make informed decisions. If the people think they are, then they are mistaken. If they are mistaken, and continue to deny they were mistaken, one might go so far as to call them 'stupid,' although irrational might be more accurate.

Charlie Munger says one of the key wisdoms of life is that you should "never be thinking about anything when you should be thinking about the incentives."

So, if the people take the information from the media and experts to make their decisions, and this information is wrong over and over again, if you believe Charlie, the first thing you should analyze is the incentives of the media and the experts.

To paraphrase someone I can't remember, we spend a lot of time and energy analyzing failure when we should spend it analyzing success.

I think this is a case where creative bureaucrats (ha!) could leverage government bailouts to make the anti-Cassandras admit they were wrong.

In order to get the Fed loan guarantees in the Bear deal, Bernanke should have required each and every one of the top executives at JP Morgan and Bear Stearns to say publicly "Dean Baker predicted this in 2005 and I didn't. Dean Baker is smarter than I am."

I think I've got a new ideology: Maoist libertarianism!

Minimal government regulation, but when anybody who makes over $X screws up, we totally publicly humiliate them, Cultural Revolution style (sans violence).

Barkley

Thank you for the considered reply. Yes, in the UK we say Middle East for the broad swathe of Egypt-Iran, and North Africa for the rest of the littoral. Agree of course on Libya/Algeria in 1990.

I suspect we have similar views on Sadr. Perhaps my phrasing was loose with the word "catspaw"; I don't think he's taking orders from the Iranians. I think they have (had) a purely tactical alliance based on congruent short term interests. The Iranians supply weapons and cash, and Sadr advances both their interests by making life difficult for Dawa/SIIC and the US.

Moqtada, unlike his father, is not a clever or educated man. I suggest the Iranians have had more use out of him than he intended. Note that during the last few years, the Iranians have been feeling out the more sympathetic or bribe-able parts of Sadr's crowd and subverting them, looking to have a geunine proxy rather than an opportunistic ally. Hence, my use of "catspaw" in the sense of "dupe". I am a bit puzzled by his description as a nationalist. I would have assessed his platform as populist-socialist, pitched to the urban poor and uneducated. Can you point to reasons to believe his policies are more "nationalist" than other Shia (or even Sunni Arab) factions? I would have said that of all the factions, Tehran had the most leverage on him. It may please you to know I don't like terms like "radical" either - hard to define/operationalise.

As to the long-term friendliness of other Shia Faction to Tehran, I am more cautious. Despite the smiles and handshakes, Iranian sponsorship of the insurgency (aiding both sides - an impressive acheivement in hypocrisy...) has really NOT endeared them to SIIC/Dawa. Iran (or at least the IRGC) is playing a risky game in Iraq (I leave it you to decide how well).

I don't want to recourse to identity-politics argument of co-alignment (they are weak predictors), but note Iraq-Iran have separate schools of Shia'ism, are quite distinct in language, ethnicity, culture, and history. Looking to incentives instead, I offer the thought that Tehran and Baghdad actually have only modest amounts to offer each other in terms to investment, security, trade, or mutual interests. The "West" looks like a better partner for Baghdad under most configurations of government. This is not to say I expect Iran-Iraq hostility, just nothing more than cordial relations.

I'm not involved in any public record sense. My record is pro Iraq-war in 2003 (well, 2001 possibly), and ongoing support for the mission since them. With 100% hindsight, I do not regret that in the full technical sense of the word (though obviously one wishes one could correct the mistakes...). On the subject of which, and in the interests of disclosure, my main predictive mistakes have been;

1) Mis-calling Urban-Sunni decision to throw lot in with the Ba'athist nationlists circa Aug 2003 [ultimately, a terrible decision for them, but one I should have caught - causal linked to mistake 2 & 4]
2) Equivalence about effects of disbanding Iraq army [this was just inadequate reading by me on the economic structure of the country ~ mea culpa].
3) Under-estimating AQ strategic response times (but not plan) and speed to integrate into Sunni tribal networks in Anbar.
4) Over-estimating US competence in Iraq 2003-2005. After which they have risen to meet my (high) expectations.
5) Massively over-estimating British competence in Iraq 2003-2006. After which I adjusted my expectation downwards to meet them...

Otherwise I feel I'm generally comfortable with anticipating the other major policy calls by factions correctly, including the Awakening movement.

Kind regards,

Barkley,

Fair enough; I will accept that Al Hakim is friendliest with Tehran (but is this different from Sadr being the man on whom Tehran has the most leverage?). I'd be interested in any good links suggesting major Iranian support for Badr; I've been on the lookout for that but seen no evidence.

I appreciate your concerns but think I'm more sanguine overall about shia political activism. I don't think hardly anyone in the major parties really wants an Iranian-style political settlement (or, more importantly, would be able to acheive it). As regards Iran, yeah, you're right that theologically there's no grounds to split the twelvers. But the differences come mostly on the political philosophy. Sistani was always quietist, and the Seminaries at Najaf never accepted the dictating role of the Velayet e-faqih. Partly because it was not their tradition and partly from seeing how it had turned the Iranian clergy into a corrupt and widely despised body. About as far as they've gone was the endorsement of the United Iraqi list back in 2006, and that experience seems to have soured a lot of clerics on direct involvement in politics.

As to the showdown in Basra, well; I'm surprised at the timing, but not the event. Insofar as the Iraq central gov increases its military power domestically, it will attempt to shut down competing militias. Especially unfriendly ones sat on valuable petrochemical real estate. That's just natural strategy for a weak-state strengthening its monopoly of force, right? With Sadr there's the added benefit of Maliki/Hakim weakening a rival for Shia affections, as you say.

The US is actively supporting the op (could they stop it?) because they have no love for Sadr, and ceteris paribus, would prefer a strong government in Baghdad untroubled by militias and with control of its southern oil. I suggest they regard a slightly stronger SIIC as less trouble than a strong Sadr. Indeed, cross-party co-operation in parliament might be a lot easier if the Sadrists are seen as a busted flush in the government. So long as it doesn't distract scarce assets from operations in the north (it shouldn't), I expect the US to enjoy watching the Shia settle internal matters... though my money says this round will fizzle inconclusively, maybe a win-on-points...

Again, I'd stress the Iraqi government (NOT necessarily the factions comprising it) really is getting considerably more powerful domestically. This time their army is working (it bloody better, considering we rebuilt it, twice...). There's barely a month when they don't add another brigade to the orbat. Revenues are up, and its span of effective bureaucracy and territorial control are larger than ever. The stabilisers are off the bicycle in nearly every province, and mirabilis dictu, it seems to be working. It may never be Seattle-on-the-Euphrates, and they'll need US troops for a while yet. But they are clearly getting there.

Take care,

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