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Kanye West doesn’t care about Iraqi people

Over the weekend, Marc Lynch explored how Jay-Z and Kanye West’s rap alliance on their album Watch the Throne represents a blueprint for U.S. hegemony in a changing world. But left unexamined was the line from their recent album that most directly relates to foreign policy: On the track Murder to Excellence, Kanye raps, "It’s ...

FADEL/AFP/Getty Images
FADEL/AFP/Getty Images

Over the weekend, Marc Lynch explored how Jay-Z and Kanye West’s rap alliance on their album Watch the Throne represents a blueprint for U.S. hegemony in a changing world. But left unexamined was the line from their recent album that most directly relates to foreign policy: On the track Murder to Excellence, Kanye raps, "It’s a war going on outside we ain’t safe from / I feel the pain in my city wherever I go / 314 soldiers died in Iraq, 509 died in Chicago."

Kanye’s numbers, which are from 2008, are broadly accurate. The Chicago Police Department reported that there were 510 homicides in the city, while the casualty count website iCasualties confirmed that 314 U.S. soldiers were killed in Iraq that year (why Kanye discounts the eight fatalities from other U.S. coalition partners is a conversation for another day). But to paraphrase a popular saying: There are lies, damned lies, and Kanye West’s statistics.

The real problem with Kanye’s math is that he ignores the deaths of Iraqis, who would presumably still be alive if the United States hadn’t decided to invade the country. The Brookings Institution’s Iraq Index estimates that 6,400 Iraqi civilians lost their lives in war-related violence in 2008.

That figure still underestimates the violence in Iraq, because it only counts civilian deaths related to the Iraqi insurgency. "Earlier in the war, we did tend to count individual acts of criminal murder, as they reflected a deterioration of law and order which had implications for the insurgency," said Brookings Institution fellow Michael O’Hanlon, the author of the Iraq Index. However, by 2008, the main sources of information regarding Iraq discounted non-insurgency related homicides.

But Kanye wasn’t entirely wrong to compare the violence in Iraq and Chicago. If one compares war-related deaths in Iraq and Chicago homicides in 2008, there is a remarkable similarity between the rates of violence. According to the U.S. census, Chicago’s population was 2.7 million in 2010 — down from 2.9 million in 2000, as residents continued to relocate to the suburbs. With 510 homicides in the city, that means one Chicagoan was killed for every 5,294 people living in the city.

Now, let’s compare that to the civilian casualties in Iraq. The World Bank reports that Iraq had a population of approximately 31 million in 2008. With 6,400 Iraqi civilians killed in war-related violence, that means one Iraqi was killed for every 4,844 citizens of the country – a more dangerous environment than Chicago, but not by much.

It should come as no surprise that it was dramatically more dangerous to be a U.S. soldier in Iraq than a Chicago resident or an Iraqi civilian in 2008. According to the Iraq Index, U.S. troop strength in the country averaged approximately 150,000 for the year. If the United States suffered 314 casualties in 2008, that means one soldier was killed for every 478 soldiers in Iraq.

Kanye, of course, is arguing on Murder to Excellence that Americans should be less concerned with political developments in Mesopotamia and more concerned with the deterioration of their own cities — a fairly conventional point in today’s political environment. But if he can fit the statistics above into verse, he’ll truly deserve the rap throne that he’s so keen on claiming.

David Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq. @davidkenner

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