Does Protest Embolden the Iraqi Insurgency

Recently, as I braved the cold and wet weather demonstrating for an end to the occupation of Iraq, I was vociferously assailed by a rather annoyed passer-by who proclaimed his patriotism by accusing me of “emboldening” the enemy. He explained that “my kind” refuse to understand what is apparent to all true patriots. That is, by protesting against the war, I was giving hope and encouragement (aid and comfort) to the insurgents thereby prolonging the conflict, threatening America’s ability to achieve victory, demoralizing the troops, and, perhaps, most tragic, increasing the number of casualties on both sides.

I have heard such rhetoric before, so I responded as I always have, that such accusations are unfounded, just another in a long series of deceitful practices intended to suppress dissent and opposition to our leaders’ illegal and immoral warist agenda. My interlocutor, however, was not unprepared for my response and referenced a study by “Harvard University scholars” that provided empirical evidence and scientific credibility for his accusations.

Though skeptical, upon researching his claim, I discovered, to my surprise, that there was in fact such a study, the National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 13839 entitled Is There an “Emboldenment” Effect? Evidence from the Insurgency in Iraq, by Harvard University scholars Radha Iyengar and Jonathan Monten. Upon seeing how many media outlets and bloggers were reporting the findings, I thought it interesting, though perhaps, not surprising, that a yet unpublished (at this writing) working paper by rather obscure researchers had excited so much attention and interest.

The Intent and Purpose

Though never clearly stated by the researchers, the intent and purpose of this study as I can best determine is to ascertain whether “open debate and credibility” has an “emboldenment effect” upon the behavior of insurgents. Emboldenment is defined in terms of an increase in insurgent violence due to a perceived low resolve (lack of commitment) by the counterinsurgents (in this case, the U.S. military) to bear the costs of defeating the insurgency. “By comparing the rate of insurgent attacks in areas with higher or lower access to information about U.S. news after public statements critical of the war,” the researchers allege a set of empirically testable propositions to suggest that a lack of resolve on the part of the counterinsurgency emboldens, that is, (re)energizes and (re)encourages perhaps a discouraged and dispirited insurgency, to prosecute or increase violent, offensive actions it would not otherwise have been motivated to undertake.

The researchers accept as “resolve undermining behavior” any statements and actions that “top Bush administration officials” have determined “might encourage violent extremist groups in Iraq.” Consequently, given the propensity of this administration to condemn and discourage any discussion, dissent, and criticism of the occupation of Iraq, resolve undermining statements or actions would include, then, not only open public debate, but protests, demonstrations, speaking out against the war, a concern (sensitivity) for the cost of the war in terms of human life and well-being, talk of cutting off funding, setting timetables for withdrawal and “benchmarks” to be achieved. The researchers even identify a Democratic majority in Congress as resolve undermining (even though after two years they haven’t ended the war). For purposes of discussion, henceforth I will refer to all of these collectively as “war oversight and criticism.”

Using a series of formidable, though scientifically questionable formulae, the researchers find:

All war oversight and criticism undermines resolve;
All war oversight and criticism sends a message to the insurgents that the United States lacks the resolve to bear the “costs imposed by the insurgents in the form of higher (number of) attacks”;
The insurgent organizations are aware of and influenced by these messages of anti-resolve;
In response to these anti-resolve messages, the insurgents in Iraq are emboldened;
That is, the insurgents in Iraq are (re)energized and (re)encouraged to increase the number and frequency of their attacks, to raise the level of violence against American troops and interests beyond what would otherwise have been the case; and thus,
Anti-resolve messages result in an increase in the deaths and injuries of both U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians.

For whatever the reason, the researchers are hesitant to take the next logical step in their argument. That is, to make a value judgment regarding whether resolve undermining statements and actions are on balance bad. This hesitancy is not shared by war’s proponents, however, who interpret Iyengar and Monten’s research as a condemnation of opponents of the war.

Analysis of the Argument: Methodological Considerations

The first glaring problem in this study is the researcher’s method of defining “resolve undermining” (“emboldening”) as those statements and actions “top Bush administration officials – the President, Vice President, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, Press Secretary, and the U.S. commander Iraq” – determine might motivate and encourage violent extremist groups in Iraq. It is apparent, I think, that the credibility of those who bear the greatest responsibility for the invasion and occupation to objectively make determinations as to what is to count as undermining resolve is, at the very least, suspect.

Also problematic is their reasoning which is based upon a formula which weighs the benefits of free speech, open debate, dissent, etc., against the costs of emboldening the insurgents. As justification for their choice of model – to prove its relevancy to the situation in Iraq – they refer the reader not to literature on war and insurgencies but rather to literature examining criminals.

This model choice begs the question as it takes for granted that the insurgents are criminals and that they will react as criminals and “respond to incentives” about whether to participate in the insurgency.

Further, the researchers introduce an additional model as relevant, a “rational terrorist model,” which “suggests that insurgent actors should increase attacks on an occupying country when that country is closer to the margin of withdrawal.” This methodology is problematic for a number of reasons. First, no argument is offered to establish that the resistance in Iraq is an insurgency under their definition. Neither is there argument to indicate that the resistance is terrorism. The situation in Iraq is complex and multifaceted and not easily definable under convenient conventional categories.

One may reasonably and rationally characterize the violence in Iraq not as an insurgency as so defined, or as terrorism as traditionally defined, but as sectarian violence, civil war, mob violence, revolution, even as a struggle for liberation against an occupying power and its puppet government. Under any of these interpretations, those who prosecute the violence are neither insurgents nor terrorists nor are they necessarily criminals. This is especially true in the case of freedom fighters. Until argument is offered, therefore, to establish why the criminal/organized crime/terrorist model utilized by the researchers have relevance to the situation in Iraq, there is no basis for accepting it as precedent.

Another serious methodological problem has to do with the decision of the researchers to exclude the city of Baghdad from consideration when collecting their data. The fact that Baghdad represents what the researchers describe as a “substantial fraction – approximately 35% – of the overall violence in Iraq,” as well as of U.S. military deaths, seems profoundly relevant to a study whose intended purpose is to determine whether there is a correlation between the number and frequency of attacks and war oversight and criticism. Consequently, excluding Baghdad is scientifically unsound given the purpose of the study, perhaps even disingenuous if it skews the statistical findings in favor of a particular set of conclusions.

Analysis of the Argument: Interpretive Considerations

Even overlooking the methodological problems, there are significant problems with their interpretation of the findings. All that is indicated by their data is that whenever spikes in war oversight and criticism occur they are followed with an increased level of “insurgent” violence. Throughout the study and in their conclusions, however, the researchers interpret this correlation as causality. That is, without further argument, and without establishing a necessary connection, they conclude that a lack of resolve causes the insurgents to increase their attacks.

Despite their continued assertion of causality, the researchers themselves seem unconvinced by their own argument. They admit that a lack of resolve is merely one of perhaps a number of equally plausible explanations for the increase in violence:

. . . we provide one possible picture of whether open public debate exerts a positive effect on the rate of insurgent violence . . . One alternative explanation . . . is that new information revealed by U.S. debate relates to specific U.S. military weaknesses (e.g. the vulnerability of unarmored vehicles to IED attacks) that insurgents translate into greater tactical success, and not the level of U.S. resolve.

If alternative explanations for the increased violence are plausible, then the study fails to provide what was promised – that is, empirically testable propositions indicating that a lack of resolve on the part of the counterinsurgents causes increased levels of violence. Interestingly, the argument and conclusions drawn by war’s advocates, however, remain unaffected by this concession because, whether it is anti-resolve or military weakness, the data still “suggests,” they can argue, an alleged positive relation between war oversight and criticism and increased “insurgent” violence.

What the findings suggests is that neither anti-resolve nor war oversight and criticism causes overall more attacks and more U.S. service men and women to be killed and injured than otherwise would have occurred were there total resolve and no oversight and criticism. At best, it provides questionable empirical evidence to suggest only that the “insurgents” may time their attacks to coincide with the release of critical media reports or polls. Interestingly, the researchers admit this to be the case and again seem unconvinced by their own argument:

. . . the insurgent response to low resolve periods (or to war oversight and criticism) may not represent an overall increase in the total number of attacks, but rather a change in the timing of attacks . . . insurgent groups condense the violence they would have committed over several weeks into a shorter time horizon.

Since this data establishes nothing beyond the possibility that the “insurgents” may merely “reschedule” and not increase the overall violence and is silent regarding an overall casualty rate, this study fails to fulfill the war proponents’ hopes for empirical evidence and scientific credibility to support their claim that protests and dissent emboldens the enemy. Yet, the researchers, for some unexplained reason, continue to assert, rather dogmatically and definitively, that resolve undermining statements and actions do have an emboldenment effect. In fact, they go even further to suggest a formula for victory, for defeating the insurgency:

If an external actor can credibly commit to unconditioned support regardless of the level of violence, then the insurgent’s group’s best option is to give up.

Given their adamancy regarding their conclusions one would think that it would be reasonable (as was the case with war’s proponents) for the researchers to draw conclusions about the practical, perhaps even the moral, value (since lives are at stake) of war oversight and criticism. But yet they once again demonstrate that, despite their lofty claims and formidable formulae, they remain unconvinced by their own argument:

From these results it is not possible to determine the benefits or costs of public debate…it is not possible to determine if criticism of U.S. policy is on balance bad. Thus, the direct consideration of how to adjust political speech to address this issue is a complex and the results of this paper do not bear directly on this question.


Given these deficiencies it is clear that Iyengar and Monten are either incapable of careful research and rational argument, or more ignominiously, are intentionally distorting their data and conclusions in a clumsy attempt to portray their political agenda as science. Sadly, it seems more likely the latter as the researchers do clearly recognize and acknowledge the inadequacies of their argument but yet continue to draw conclusions not indicated by their findings.

Conspicuously absent from this “research” and from these unnecessarily complex formulae are considerations of the benefits of doing what is right, what is moral, and what is legal; of abiding by the Constitution, international law, and treaties; and of entreating our governing officials for change when their policies have gone astray and become antithetical to all that America stands for and represents. Absent as well are considerations of the cost of how the occupation of Iraq has benefited and empowered Iran, provided an incubator and training ground for terrorists (some of whom are fighting in Iraq), damaged our status in the world as a moral leader and our standing among former friends and allies, and depleted our military rendering them incapable of reacting effectively to threats elsewhere in the world should the need arise.

The researchers would have been better served had they taken into account the emboldening effect of Abu Ghraib, of over a million Iraqi civilians killed and five million displaced, of the destruction of the infrastructure of their country, the unavailability of water and electric, etc. Perhaps had they done so, they would have found that the “insurgents” are emboldened, not as a result of watching CNN, but rather because they are the victims of aggression and of occupation, and will continue to struggle until their nation is liberated from foreign domination.

When put in perspective, all that remains are misleading claims, inflammatory rhetoric, and innuendo which can (and has) been used enthusiastically by war’s proponents and the right- wing press to discourage dissent as, at best, counterproductive, at worst, unpatriotic, un-American, unsupportive of the troops, and even treason. What is most tragic and regrettable, however, is that while war’s proponents and the Bush administration are emboldened by such flawed “science,” to continue, perhaps even to escalate the conflict, Americans and Iraqis continue to die.

I will end this essay with a prophecy. Should Iyengar and Monten’s paper not be accepted for publication as I imagine will be the case, there will likely be an uproar regarding some conspiracy by liberal academia to suppress information that is vital to ensuring that America be allowed to achieve victory in Iraq. What will never arise, of course, is that this study is so severely flawed that were it not for its propaganda value it would never have received this much unwarranted attention nor the expenditure of so much of my time to write this response. But perhaps, propaganda was the intention from the onset.

Published at Foreign Policy in Focus May 12, 2008

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