Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The expectations game in western Iraq, and evidence we are winning 

Virtually all news -- whether corporate earnings or sports scores or news from Iraq -- is reported with reference to "expectations." News that is fundamentally "good" against some objective standard -- history, or treasury bond rates -- becomes "bad" if the reporter of that news detects disappointment.

It is only sometimes clear who had the "expectations" that were unsettled by the news in question. In the case of an earnings report, it is "analysts" who had the expectations that were or were not met. Fortunately, the expectations for sporting events are the most credible, because they are a function of the odds set by bookies. Where one's personal money is involved, expectations tend to be sincere.

Expectations are not just "had," but they are "set." Analysts may have expectations for a company's earnings, but how did they get them? Management tries to set them, but they are presumably also influenced by factors beyond management's control.

In Iraq there are many competing actors who have sought to set the expectations that determine the tone of the press coverage. Virtually anybody with a public voice has tried to set expectations in accordance with their own policy objective, be it to support the invasion, prevent the invasion, humiliate the United States, attack George Bush, humiliate John Kerry, win a turf battle against another agency, sustain public support for the war, and so forth.

If, therefore, a reporter is going to claim that a bit of news either favorably or unfavorably confounds "expectations," he should always state who held the expectations in question, and who set the expectations in question. Failure to explain who held and set the expectations that bear on whether a particular bit of news represents success or failure is inherently misleading.

Now you're ready to read this story, which describes a new Marine offensive in western Iraq:
The new campaign is focusing on communities along the Euphrates River between the towns of Hit and Haditha in the volatile Anbar province, said Marine Capt. Jeffrey Pool, a spokesman.

The region, about 125 miles northwest of Baghdad, is a hotbed of insurgent activity. The Marines, though, received a friendlier-than-expected welcome from Hit's residents in the early going.

A group of troops, operating in sweltering temperatures, stopped at one home to take advantage of the air conditioning. The hosts even changed the channel on the satellite TV to an English-language talk show about the Middle East.

"Friendlier-than-expected" by whom? If you knew that it was friendlier-than-expected by the Marines, does that not give a completely different impression than if it was friendlier-than-expected by Jacob Silderberg, the Associated Press writer? What is Silderberg trying to say? Why doesn't he say it? For the life of me, I do not understand why the MSM ever attributes expectations without specifying the object of the attribution. Cynics of the left and right (depending on the story) will claim it is because the press has an agenda. I think it is that the press is just sloppy in its thinking and its writing.

Beyond the beating of expectations, Silderberg's story reveals something much more important: that the counterinsurgency in Iraq is winning. The family that invited the Marines in for air-conditioning and television must not have been afraid of reprisals after the Marines left. That strongly suggests that the insurgency is losing its ability to coerce Iraqis into cooperation, even in the middle of its supposed "hotbed." Once an insurgency loses the ability to coerce coooperation, it has lost the war. It will be able to kill people indiscriminately for some time -- perhaps years, as Rummy recently suggested -- but if residents of Hit feel free to offer Marines hummus and a spot of tea and a television break, you have to wonder whether the insurgency can really induce changes in the behavior of the average Iraqi. If it can't, it will not win.


By Blogger RPD, at Tue Jun 28, 11:09:00 AM:

I've long felt that "bias" in the media is better attributed to reporters being lazy and stupid rather than an overt attempt to be manipulative.

Yes, I realize is an overbroad generalization and unfair to many hardworking journalists (Michael Yon comes to mind), but in generalthat's the view I hold whenever I tackle a media report.  

By Blogger Marlin, at Tue Jun 28, 11:42:00 AM:

Thanks for an excellent post! It's a pleasure to visit your blog on a daily basis.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Jun 28, 12:31:00 PM:

Great post, TigerHawk! I've linked and commented over at DOUBLE TOOTHPICKS.  

By Blogger Marlin, at Tue Jun 28, 01:34:00 PM:

I should add that Rantingprofs had an excellent post last week that ties in well with this post.

The Frame Has Gelled  

By Blogger Admin, at Tue Jun 28, 06:06:00 PM:

where i'm glad some of the people in iraq are welcoming our soldiers with air-conditioning and tea, to state this is as evidence "we are winning" seems a little silly.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Wed Jun 29, 12:22:00 AM:


To understand the point, you gotta grok the paradigm. To my way of looking at the world, counterinsurgency is never about "winning hearts." It is all about winning minds. People cooperate with the side that will sanction them most efficiently for failing to cooperate. The interesting point about this anecdote -- and I agree it is an anecdote -- is that the family seems to have invited in the Marines without fear of reprisal after the Marines withdraw. This suggests that the family is either insane, or that the risk of reprisal is actually quite low. Assuming the latter explanation, that fact alone is very interesting.  

By Blogger Admin, at Wed Jun 29, 09:22:00 AM:

i grok, but i don't agree. i must say, sometimes i feel like a stranger in a strange land.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Wed Jun 29, 10:51:00 AM:

The world is full of stuff I don't know about, but counterinsurgency is a subject I've followed since 1982, when I settled on my senior thesis topic: The Possibilities for Clean Counterinsurgency. How many bloggers today can claim such relevance in their undergraduate thesis topic of twenty years ago? :)  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Jul 07, 07:15:00 PM:

To conclude anything from this anecdote is an insult to US military capabilities in the area of psychological warfare. With all it's effort to control the media in this conflict you would have to assume that this story is authentic and representative of events on the ground, and not a fabrication, manipulation, or simply a fortunate fluke that provided the desired spin. The article looks to me to have been spoon fed to the author at a military briefing. What journalist could resist that little peppy tidbit fed to him in an otherwise very dull story?  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Jul 08, 12:42:00 AM:

Please post your senior thesis so your readership can judge for itself your insight into these matters.  

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