Tuesday, November 23, 2004

# Posted 11:18 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

MALNUTRITION UPDATE: Tim Lambert thinks that there are fatal flaws in my recent post on malnutrition in Iraq. First and foremost, Tim says I have my facts wrong. He points to this page on the IAIS website as evidence that there were two separate malnutrition surveys conducted in Iraq, not (as I suggested) just one.

According to the page in question (which I saw before adding the final update to my original post), IAIS completed a comprehensive survey of living conditions in Iraq this past June. The website promises that the collected data will be released shortly.

Perhaps it will. According to the WaPo, the results of the new study haven't been released yet, even though the survey was conducted in April and May. (Although presumably someone released them to the Post.)

Hoping to track down the data, I sent an e-mail to IAIS on Sunday asking for further information about their work. In addition, I spent a considerable amount of term searching for related information on Google and Lexis-Nexis, yet found absolutely nothing.

Of course, it may turn out that IAIS really has done a new survey. But for the moment, there is hardly enough evidence to substantiate Tim's allegation.

But what if I were right and there were just one malnutrition survey conducted (in April-May 2003)? Tim says that the United States may still be responsible for widespread malnutrition. First of all, Tim notes that the survey was conducted six weeks after the invasion of Iraq, not (as I said) less than three.

Pardon the ambiguity on my part. I was counting from the fall of Baghdad, which marked the end of major combat operations. But lets just say six weeks for the sake of argument. According to Tim, "Adesnik seems to be unaware that a sick child can lose a lot of weight in a few weeks."

Actually, I'm quite aware of that. What I doubt is that 200,000 thousand children can get that sick in the space of a few weeks. Major combat operations were fairly localized and coalition bombing raids did not target civilian infrastructure.

While most Iraqis probably were dependent on official food rationing programs that may have been disrupted during the war, I tend to doubt that such a disruption would translate so immediately into a national epidemic of malnutrition. Of course, that is just speculation -- but Tim is only offering more of the same.

Next up, we come to the issue of logic. I suggested that malnutrition may have been far more widespread before the invasion than Saddam wanted to admit. Tim responds:
Even if, for the sake of argument, we believe that Saddam could force UNICEF into cooking the statistics, why would Saddam have been artificially lowering the figures? Surely he would have been raising them so that he could point to the harm that the sanctions were inflicting on Iraqi children.
The premise here is that Saddam's propaganda always sought to persuade Western audiences that Iraq was a victim, not an aggressor. That same premise led us to conclude that Saddam had extensive stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. After all, if he didn't have them, why wouldn't he allow foreign inspectors to demonstrate that Iraq was a victim, not an aggressor?

The absence of the stockpiles suggests that we don't understand Saddam nearly as well as we thought we did. Perhaps Saddam believed that if he were exposed as a paper tiger, the Iraqi military revolt. The premise behind that bit of speculation is that Saddam was more concerned about his image at home than abroad.

Thus, perhaps Saddam wanted to downplay malnutrition in order to persuade his subjects that things were not so bad. Or perhaps he wanted the hide the degree to which precious supplies of food and medication were being given out only to Sunni children, while the Shi'ite majority was left to suffer.

The bottom line is that speculation about Saddam's motives is futile.

Finally, let me hedge my bets just a bit. Let's say that tomorrow, Tim turns up definitive evidence that there was a second survey done this year and that the child malnutrition rate in Iraq is 7.7%. It was also 7.7% last year, at least in Baghdad -- which suggests that the malnutrition rate has been stable for almost eighteen months now. In contrast, the WaPo reports that the malnutrition rate has "shot up...this year."
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