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Who 'war' it better?: Why it's bogus to tweet about military prowess, especially with these numbers

President Trump recently distributed the following information, presenting it as a personal accomplishment that proves he is more competent or effective than his predecessor, President Obama. Here's why it is a mistake to use this information to make a point about who is more effective than whom.

Screenshot taken from the Washington Examiner the morning of Dec. 29, 2017. The article was dated Dec. 23. A factual error in the information circulated widely online before the media outlet corrected it.

  1. Seemingly forgetting that the war against ISIS is about an international coalition defeating a common enemy, Trump self-promotes an argument that he is a better commander-in-chief than his predecessor. This is problematic on several levels. The war is about the freedom and safety of the people of Syria and Iraq; it should not be presented as a pissing content between Trump and Obama. It is morally repugnant to do so and, in its blatancy, it undermines U.S. credibility as a leader in international security. Also, credit for any successes needs to be shared with the dozens of countries who have served as coalition partners.
  2. War is not a "who wore it better" contest.

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  3. The numbers show that about the same area of land was liberated from ISIS during the first 11 months of the Trump administration as during the final 28 months of the Obama administration. Trump seems to want us to infer that his military campaign got the same results twice as fast. He is treating these numbers as a businessman looks at a balance sheet. This is a misunderstanding of how military campaigns work. Square miles are not dollars; they are not identical and interchangeable. Terrain, for example, plays a role in how difficult it is to conquer land. So does the civilian population you have to work around. And, of course, the level of resistance from enemy fighters is crucial. The chart reflects the U.S. Defense Department's assessment that Trump only had to contend with 35,000 ISIS fighters when he took office; it does not reflect how many fighters Obama's administration had to deal with at the outset nor how many additional fighters entered the fray during those years. The numbers indicate that the military sped up the rate at which it conquered land, but one possible explanation is that conquering land became easier.
  4. Similarly, if half the number of bombs are required to capture the same amount of land, that suggests that the nature of the combat has changed. Bombs suggest an air war; ground combat may use fewer bombs. Indeed bombs are expensive for the country that drops them and they are destructive of lives and property on the ground, yet they may also be cheaper and less destructive than alternative weapons. Therefore, the military has its reasons for using or not using them. The way this information is presented, it appears at first glance that the international coalition used half the violence to conquer the same amount of land. This is not necessarily true. They used half the amount of one kind of violence. Other types of weapons and tactics are missing from the chart. Furthermore, the decision about whether to use bombs is not always up to the U.S. president. Most, but not all, bombs in this conflict have come at U.S. direction and expense. The second-most prolific bomber is Britain's RAF.
  5. The numbers show that twice the number of people were liberated from ISIS under Trump as under Obama. That only means that the land taken from ISIS in 2017 was twice as densely populated as the land taken in 2014-2016. It probably reflects the 2017 victory in the Iraqi city of Mosul, a city whose population has been estimated between one and two million.
  6. In listing the number of U.S. deaths, remaining ISIS fighters, and "people freed," an important category is missing: Iraqi and Syrian civilian deaths. Inevitably, in any war, some innocent people intended to be freed are killed in the conflict. In Iraq alone, where documentation of civilian deaths is spottier than in Syria, the U.S.-led coalition confirmed its responsibility for 971 civilian deaths in 51 incidents during the Obama administration (the end of 2014 through 2016) and 1,119 civilian deaths in 56 incidents in the beginning of the Trump administration. Iraq also has a number of civilian casualties for which responsibility is “contested”: 63 incidents under Obama and 213 incidents under Trump. (Source: Airwars) This gives a more complete picture of the human cost of war. Reducing the number of ISIS fighters in a territory with millions of inhabitants does not come without a price, and the president ought not to seem glib about it by erasing those casualties from the record as he claims to be a better commander-in-chief than his predecessor.
  7. Charlie Kirk tweeted this information from the Washington Examiner on Dec. 27 at 3:14 p.m. and it was immediately retweeted by the president. In the original version of the information that was tweeted and retweeted, the arithmetic has an obvious error. If only 17,500 square miles were “held by ISIS” at the end of Obama’s administration, Trump could not have caused 26,000 square miles to be “liberated from ISIS” (unless he had lost ground to ISIS and then had to reclaim it). Accordingly, the Washington Examiner acknowledged their own mathematical error and corrected their article with an erratum. The president followed up at 6:09 p.m. with a tweet of a visual meme with a corrected number and a text caption that made his point without explicitly referencing the number in question. He did not acknowledge that he was correcting an error, but you can see the error for yourself since, as of Dec. 29, neither Charlie Kirk nor the President had deleted their original tweet with the wrong information. (Screenshots below were taken from the president's Twitter page the morning of Dec. 29. Red arrows are superimposed to highlight the error and subsequent correction.)

I do not argue that the President should waste a single hour of his time figuring this out. Instead I argue that he should not waste untold hours of everyone else's fact-checking time by tweeting things that either he does not understand or that he does understand and about which is happy to mislead everyone else.




Update: News broke on 14 February 2019 that President Trump would declare a national emergency to get funding for a border wall with Mexico on the grounds that terrorists are crossing the border. This is not true.

"In the United States since the 9/11 attacks, 455 jihadist terrorists have been charged or convicted or died before they faced trial. Not one of these terrorists crossed the southern border....And anyway, the vast majority of terrorists don't enter the United States at the southern border or anywhere else, because they are already in the country. Of the 455 jihadist terrorism cases since 9/11, 84% involved US citizens or permanent residents, and every lethal terrorist attack in the United States since 9/11 was carried out by a US citizen or legal resident....And there isn't a case since 9/11 of a terrorist being arrested at the border, according to New America's research." (Peter Bergen, CNN, 14 February 2019)
Furthermore, "the United States has seen a steep decline in the number of jihadist terrorism cases over the past four years," Bergen says, since "the geographical caliphate [of ISIS] is almost entirely gone and ISIS recruitment has slowed to a trickle."

And on 17 February 2019, CNN reported that over a thousand well-funded ISIS fighters had simply relocated to Iraq: "More than 1,000 ISIS fighters have likely fled from Syria into the mountains and deserts of western Iraq in the past six months, and they may have up to $200 million in cash with them, according to a US military official familiar with situation."




On October 14, 2019, David Rothkopf wrote:

The United States has a long history of debacles, mistakes, and catastrophes in the Middle East. But Donald Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds manages the near impossible. It incorporates all our past failures and then goes a step further by actually placing us on the side of our enemies while embracing their worst characteristics.

This time, we have joined the Axis of Evil.

It "is a new kind of low point," Rothkopf argues, because it "combines every single type of error noted above [in a list of U.S. foreign policy failures in the Middle East] and some new ones."

On October 16, 2019, asked about why he removed U.S. troops from northern Syria, Trump said: "It's been going on for a long time. Syria may have some help with Russia. And that's fine. It's a lot of sand. There's a lot of sand over there. So, there's a lot of sand that they can play with."

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