Winning the War: Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics?

There is apparently some controversy over the figures used by President Bush last night to back up his assertion that we are winning in Iraq.

Doyle McManus contends that the president used misleading numbers to bolster his case.

The president said more than 126 Iraqi combat battalions were now engaged in “fighting the enemy” and “more than 50 are taking the lead.” Those numbers are based on current Pentagon estimates of Iraqi troop strength, officials said. An Iraqi battalion includes about 600 men. So Bush’s estimate of 126 Iraqi battalions in combat would add up to about 76,000 men, about half the number of U.S. troops in Iraq.

And during a Nov. 30 address at the U.S. Naval Academy, Bush estimated that 40 Iraqi battalions were “in the lead.” But “taking the lead” does not mean an Iraqi unit is fully capable of fighting on its own. In U.S. military parlance, an Iraqi unit can “take the lead” when it is capable of launching combat operations with the help of U.S. support and logistics. “When we say ‘in the lead,’ we mean putting them in charge, still with our transition teams and still with our enabling support,” Army Gen. George W. Casey, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, told reporters last week. “So it’s different than being operating totally independently.” Only one Iraqi battalion is currently listed at Level 1, capable of fully independent operations, officials said. The 50 battalions Bush cited are listed at Level 2.

On one point, the president appeared to have offered a conservative estimate: He said the United States had “transferred more than a dozen military bases to Iraqi control.” Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Dec. 8 that “about 17 [military bases] have actually been turned over.”

But then “taking the lead” and “capable of operating without U.S. help” don’t carry the same meaning in ordinary speech, either.

Bush also quoted selectively from recent opinion polls to suggest that Iraqis were satisfied with the course of events in their country. “Seven in 10 Iraqis say their lives are going well, and nearly two-thirds expect things to improve even more in the year ahead,” he said. He was quoting almost verbatim from the findings of a recent poll in Iraq that was sponsored jointly by ABC News, Time magazine and other news organizations. But the same poll had findings that Bush left out: Fewer than half of Iraqis — 46% — said their country was better off than it was before the war; half said it was wrong for the United States to invade in 2003. Two-thirds said they opposed the continued presence of U.S. troops, and almost half said they would like to see U.S. forces leave soon.

“A lot of the numbers throughout his speech spin reality almost out of control,” said Anthony H. Cordesman, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who has been generally supportive of Bush’s strategy in Iraq. “He’s cherry-picked numbers and I think rounded them up … [he’s] ignored all the negatives,” Cordesman said on National Public Radio, referring to the polling results.

A fair point, although hardly surprising. If one is making the point that the Iraqis think things are going well, it’s reasonable to cite those numbers. It can simultaneously be the case that the status quo is worse than the status quo ante, that people resented an invasion by foreigners, and that people think the invasion by foreigners will ultimately make things better.

Thom Shanker believes the numbers from the speech are reasonably close and, indeed, rather conservative in some cases. For example,

Mr. Bush said that more than 125 Iraqi battalions are now in the fight against home-grown insurgents and foreign terrorists, a number slightly less than that offered by military officers in Iraq, who say that 130 Iraqi army and special police battalions now are in the field. That statistic has changed even from Nov. 30, when Mr. Bush delivered an address on Iraq policy at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and said that “there are over 120 Iraqi Army and police combat battalions in the fight against the terrorists.”

More than 50 of those battalions “are taking the lead,” Mr. Bush said Sunday night, up from the figure of 40 battalions he cited in the Naval Academy speech. In his address on Sunday, Mr. Bush said American-led coalition forces have transferred more than a dozen military bases to Iraqi control as part of a process to hand over a larger share of the battle to local forces. He could also have said that foreign coalition officers have either closed or turned over to Iraqi control 29 forward operating bases across the country.


Mr. Bush said that 7 in 10 Iraqis “say their lives are going well and nearly two-thirds expect things to improve even more in the year ahead.” Indeed, that has been the general sense expressed in recent polling, including a poll of about 1,700 Iraqis taken in November by Oxford Research International for the British Broadcasting Corporation. Sixty percent said the United States and its allies had done a bad job in Iraq, and almost two-thirds said they opposed the foreign presence. When asked how things are “not for you personally, but for Iraq as a whole,” more than half said things were “quite bad” or “very bad,” and only 45 percent said “very good” or “quite good.” […] As Mr. Bush said, about 70 percent in that poll said things in their lives were “very good” or “quite good,” and a similar portion said their lives had become better since the spring of 2003. About two-thirds said they expected their lives to improve in the year ahead.

Indeed, such contradictions are not unusual in public opinion surveys, even in the United States. People can simultaneously think the economy is in the dumps and think their own circumstances are “quite good.”

On the other hand, there was some fudging:

Mr. Bush spoke broadly of the deep commitment to the mission found among American officers and troops in Iraq, and he noted that even “the terrorists” have sent communications among themselves that admit “they feel a tightening noose, and fear the rise of a democratic Iraq.” But Mr. Bush, in his speech, did not cite assessments by the Pentagon, the military and American intelligence that acknowledge the complex nature of an insurgency made up of foreign fighters, former government loyalists, Sunni and Shiite militants and even common criminals – a complicated mix that offers no single solution for stability.

Turning to reconstruction in Iraq, Mr. Bush acknowledged “a number of setbacks,” without going into the level of detail that even he has offered in other speeches. The problem has been that many reconstruction dollars have gone into security, and not into rebuilding, and that too large an emphasis was placed on a few major projects – many managed by American firms – rather than on a broader variety of local efforts that would have hired Iraqis, offering them a salary and a stake in the future.

In the context of a short presidential pep talk, these liberties are reasonable enough. As Shanker notes, Bush has gone into more detail in longer policy speeches.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bithead says:

    Given the hatered Mr.Bush invariably generates among the press and the left…(A redundancy, granted)… one would need to consider that if there was anything more serious to complain about, regaring the points Mr. Bush brought up, there would certainly be a rush to get those discepancies into print and on the air. We’d be hearing about “LIES FROM THE WHITE HOUSE” before the echo died.

    Seeing no such rush toward the microphones, I must conclude they’re shooting with what meger ammunition they have, in the faint hopes something/anything will stick to their target.

    Shorter version:

    Hell, if THAT’S all they’ve got….