Are Iraqi Insurgents Emboldened by Antiwar Reporting?

Economists say their study, with caveats, finds some linkages.

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Iraq war protesters stand in front of the post office on State Street during their weekly protest in downtown Montpelier.

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Are insurgents in Iraq emboldened by voices in the news media expressing dissent or calling for troop withdrawals from Iraq? The short answer, according to a pair of Harvard economists, is yes.

In a paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the authors are quick to point out numerous caveats to their findings, based on data from mid-2003 through late 2007.

Yet, their results show that insurgent groups are not devoid of reason and unresponsive to outside pressures and stimuli. "It shows that the various insurgent groups do respond to incentives and shows that a successful counter insurgency strategy should take that reality into account," says one of the paper's coauthors, Jonathan Monten, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

The paper "Is There an 'Emboldenment' Effect in Iraq? Evidence From the Insurgency in Iraq" concludes the following:

  • In the short term, there is a small but measurable cost to open public debate in the form of higher attacks against Iraqi and American targets.
  • In periods immediately after a spike in "antiresolve" statements in the American media, the level of insurgent attacks increases between 7 and 10 percent.
  • Insurgent organizations are strategic actors, meaning that whatever their motivations, religious or ideological, they will respond to incentives and disincentives.

But before partisans go wild on both sides of the aisle, here are just three of the important caveats to this study:

  • The city of Baghdad, for a variety of reasons, was excluded from the report. The authors contend that looking at the outside provinces, where 65 percent of insurgent attacks take place, is a better way to understand the effect they have discovered. Other population centers like Mosul, Basra, Kirkuk, and Najaf were included in the study.
  • The study does not take into account overall cost and benefit of public debate. Past research has shown that public debate has a positive effect on military strategy, for example, and, in the case of Iraq, might be a factor in forcing the Iraqi government to more quickly accept responsibility for internal security.
  • It was not possible, from the data available, to determine whether insurgent groups increased the overall number of attacks against American and Iraqi targets in the wake of public dissent and debate or simply changed the timing of those attacks. This means that insurgents may not be increasing the number of attacks after all but simply changing the days on which they attack in response to media reports.