This must surely rank as one of the most useless pieces of non-research ever.
Titled “Is There an ‘Emboldenment’ Effect? Evidence from the Insurgency in Iraq”, the Harvard study, by Radha Iyengar and Jonathan Monten, concludes:
Using data on attacks and variation in access to international news across Iraqi provinces, we identify an ’emboldenment’ effect by comparing the rate of insurgent attacks in areas with higher and lower access to information about U.S news after public statements critical of the war. We find that in periods after a spike in war-critical statements, insurgent attacks increases by 7-10 percent, but that this effect dissipates within a month. Additionally, we find that insurgents shift attacks from Iraqi civilian to U.S. military targets following new information about the United States’ sensitivity to costs, resulting in more U.S. fatalities but fewer deaths overall. These results suggest that there is a small but measurable cost to open public debate in the form of higher attacks in the short-term, and that Iraqi insurgent organizations – even those motivated by religious or ideological goals – are strategic actors that respond rationally to the expected probability of US withdrawal.
I’ve heard this argument so many times before: that Western democracies are hampered in war by the very strengths that make them so good at peace, namely openness and tolerance of dissent; that, in fact, modern warfare is asymmetrical not just because only one side plays by the rules but because that side also argues in public. We’ve even had this discussion in Finland. Some fat pencil pushers up at Defence Command have on occasion crawled into the open to argue that public debate puts our troops in Afghanistan at risk, because the Taleban “target the weak”, and that, God forbid, were Finland to pull out of ISAF, we should do it swiftly and in secret.
In fact the opposite is true. It’s exactly because of the vigorous public discourse that the U.S. has been able to execute mission-saving course corrections in Iraq even after disastrous mistakes. Take Abu Ghraib, for example. One can always argue that a scandal like this is poison to any war effort. But just imagine what would’ve happened if the boneheaded and inhuman detention policies would’ve been allowed to continue. Without the public outcry, how many thousands more Iraqis would’ve been pushed by brainless jailors like England and Graner to turn to Salafi expats for justice? Thanks to the media scrutiny, the U.S. military was forced to lance the boil and apply a bandaid, and today it’s a different story.
Even the Harvard pseudo-study admits as much:
Public criticism and policy reviews may […] be net beneficial if the resulting improvements in strategy produce an overall reduction in attacks and fatalities.
Without knowing how to weigh the gains from open debate against the cost of revealing information about the US sensitivity to costs, it is not possible to determine if public criticism is on balance bad.
I agree. There are no quantitative means to measure the effects of public opinion on a military adventure. Thankfully, some things in our civil society are still intangible.