UNITED PRESS INTERNATIONAL
Researchers at Harvard say that publicly voiced doubts about the U.S. occupation of Iraq have a measurable “emboldenment effect” on insurgents there.
Periods of intense news media coverage in the United States of criticism about the war, or of polling about public opinion on the conflict, are followed by a small but quantifiable increases in the number of attacks on civilians and U.S. forces in Iraq, according to a study by Radha Iyengar, a Robert Wood Johnson Scholar in health policy research at Harvard and Jonathan Monten of the Belfer Center at the university’s Kennedy School of Government.
The increase in attacks is more pronounced in areas of Iraq that have better access to international news media, the authors conclude in a report titled “Is There an ‘Emboldenment’ Effect? Evidence from the Insurgency in Iraq.”
The researchers studied data about insurgent attacks and U.S. media coverage up to November, tracking what they called “anti-resolve statements” by U.S. politicians and reports about American public opinion on the war.
“We find that in periods immediately after a spike in anti-resolve statements, the level of insurgent attacks increases,” says the study, published earlier this month by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a leading U.S. nonprofit economic research organization.
In Iraqi provinces that were broadly comparable in social and economic terms, attacks increased between 7 percent and 10 percent following what the researchers call “high-mention weeks,” like the two just before the November 2006 election.
Erica Chenoweth, a postdoctoral research fellow studying terrorism and insurgency at the Belfer Center and a specialist in the statistical analysis of violent events who has read the study, told UPI that it was “a good one.”
“They have picked up some important and interesting data,” she said. “I would say the findings are preliminary, and they need to be made more robust.”
Ms. Chenoweth said the study could be improved if the authors included what she called “pro-resolve statements” as well.
She said this would help to control for “the possibility that insurgent violence was provoked by [anger at] declarations of U.S. intent to stay in Iraq,” as well as fueled by any encouragement gleaned from statements suggesting U.S. forces might be leaving.
She added that the authors had submitted the study to the Quarterly Journal of Economics, a peer-reviewed academic journal published at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and she expected it would be accepted. “It is good enough to pass peer review,” she said.
The study also found that attacks increased more in parts of Iraq like Anbar province, where there is greater access to international news media, measured by the proportion of households with satellite TV, which its authors say increases the credibility of their findings.
The researchers conclude that the increases in attacks are a necessary cost of the way democratic societies fight wars and say they are concerned that the research may be seized upon by the Iraq war’s supporters to try and silence its critics.
“We are a little bit worried about that,” Mr. Monten said in an interview. “Our data suggests that there is a small, but measurable cost” to “anything that provides information about attitudes towards the war.”