Friday, September 19, 2003

Bargain analysis
Received this word from one Matt Barganier, at, on Matt Welch's piece of a few weeks ago, and with a snide remark on my comment on Al-Jazeera:

"Speaking of unimpressive reporting (al-Jazeera)--you oughta read Matt Welch's stuff before you print it", with this link.

My response is below:

Hey Matt,

This is Matt Welch’s fight, but since you rather vulgarly instructed me to read what I edit in the Daily Star, let me turn around and tell you to read more closely what you claim to critique in your shoddy text. In your mail you also snidely made an aside on my own column today on Taysir Alouni of Al-Jazeera. I imagine you two would get along very well.

You open: “Welch puts most of his effort into smearing critics of sanctions/war and absolving the U.S./U.N. of primary blame for Iraq's twelve-year humanitarian disaster.”

Maybe that’s how you read this concluding passage by Welch: “Which is an excellent reason to question their [sanctions] continued infliction upon countries such as Cuba, Libya and Myanmar. With the very notable exception of South Africa, the sanction tool’s track record in changing dictatorial behavior (or triggering regime change, which is often the real motivation) has been poor. Surely there must be some option between all-out war and a slap on the wrist, preferably one that doesn’t contribute to thousands of needless deaths.”

I think it’s pretty clear that what you have here is a statement of doubt on sanctions, not a smear of sanctions’ critics.

Second, you write that Welch “claims to debunk the frequently heard statistics about the size of the calamity.” Bullshit. All he claimed to debunk was that, according to UNICEF figures, sanctions alone were directly responsible for the deaths of half a million Iraqi children. He never offers a figure of his own--of which more later--and says that UNICEF never cited an absolute figure either. His stats are basically designed to prove that the numbers game is inconclusive.

When you write: "Welch cites the original UNICEF report for the years 1991-1998 as one source for the 500,000 figure," his whole point was that UNICEF did not cite that figure, at least in the way it was understood. (By the way were there any other original sources for the figure? Sloppy thought.) What the report said was: "If the substantial reduction in the under-five mortality rate during the 1980s had continued through the 1990s, there would have been half a million fewer deaths of children under-five in the country as a whole during the eight year period 1991 to 1998."

In plain terms, that meant if 1980s trends (read for the entire decade) continued uninterrupted there would have been half a million fewer deaths. What Welch pointed out was simply that if you based the excess death figure just on 1989 figures (and in the Star piece he did not say that a 1989 base year was "more accurate"), the excess deaths figure would be lower. It's not a value judgment he was making, but recognition that throughout the 1980s the stats changed, so that as you moved nearer the end of the decade, the estimates (the 500,000 figure constantly cited) fell somewhat. That’s all.

Then you write: “He then invokes a 1999 study by Richard Garfield, a nursing professor at Columbia University, which sets the 1991-1998 death toll between 106,000 and 227,000. This debunks the myth of a half million, right? Not exactly. Garfield's updated estimate for the entire 1990-2002 period is actually 350,000 to 530,000. In other words, the authority Welch uses to contradict UNICEF and other purveyors of what he calls "the Iraqi babies scam" says that total deaths could be 6% higher than the "scammers" proclaim!”

C’mon Matt, reread what Welch wrote. He doesn’t contradict UNICEF for God’s sake, he makes the case that UNICEF never said what it was wrongly quoted as saying. Welch actually never confirms or denies the 500,000 death figure; in fact if you cite him on the 1989 base year, you’re saying that Welch is closer to believing the 400,000 figure, which is high enough. In fact Welch didn’t cite any figure at all for death estimates. What he did do was say that the deaths were not solely caused by sanctions, and that quote came from UNICEF. His citing of Garfield shows that he’s willing to accept a high death toll, but it’s not an absolute figure he’s after, it’s what caused the deaths?

And as Garfield’s figures showed, deaths actually went up in Iraq when money flowed in after oil-for-food. You never actually disagree with that stat by the way (indeed you cite it), so perhaps you might suggest a reason why it did go up? Why not offer an answer?

Finally you misread what Welch said in this passage: “UNICEF found that under-five mortality actually decreased in the autonomous north, while doubling in Saddam-controlled regions, giving pro-sanctions (and pro-war) advocates evidence that the Iraqi dictator was largely to blame. (It is also true that the north received far more international aid.)”

You make this out to be a cop-out. In fact Welch doesn’t argue this from the perspective of someone who is pro-sanctions or pro-war. He merely observes that pro-sanctions (and pro-war) advocates exploited the figure. His parenthesis I read as an effort to qualify the argument of the pro-sanctions and pro-war crowd. Is Welch pro-war? I don’t know, nor have I ever discussed the matter with him. But he does cite UNICEF to the effect that war was one of the factors in the babies’ deaths, and to the best of my knowledge Welch nowhere has condoned killing babies, so you might find your answer there.

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