The Misuse of Polling: Iraq

Early in President Bush’s recent public relations campaign to rebuild support for the U.S. war effort in Iraq, Vice-President Cheney appeared on "Meet the Press." Attempting to make the case that the U.S. was winning in Iraq, Cheney made the following observation:

There was a poll done, just random in the last week, first one I’ve seen carefully done; admittedly, it’s a difficult area to poll in. Zogby International did it with American Enterprise magazine. But that’s got very positive news in it in terms of the numbers it shows with respect to the attitudes to what Americans have done.
One of the questions it asked is: "If you could have any model for the kind of government you’d like to have"-and they were given five choices-"which would it be?" The U.S. wins hands down. If you want to ask them do they want an Islamic government established, by 2:1 margins they say no, including the Shia population. If you ask how long they want Americans to stay, over 60 percent of the people polled said they want the U.S. to stay for at least another year. So admittedly there are problems, especially in that area where Saddam Hussein was from, where people have benefited most from his regime and who’ve got the most to lose if we’re successful in our enterprise, and continuing attacks from terror. But to suggest somehow that that’s representative of the country at large or the Iraqi people are opposed to what we’ve done in Iraq or are actively and aggressively trying to undermine it, I just think that’s not true.

In fact, Zogby International (ZI) in Iraq had conducted the poll, and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) did publish their interpretation of the findings. But the AEI’s "spin" and the Vice-President’s use of their "spin" created a faulty impression of the poll’s results and, therefore, of the attitudes of the Iraqi people.

For example, while Cheney noted that when asked what kind of government they would like, Iraqis chose "the U.S. . . .hands down," in fact, the results of the poll are actually quite different. Twenty-three percent of Iraqis say that they would like to model their new government after the U.S.; 17.5% would like their model to be Saudi Arabia; 12% say Syria, 7% say Egypt and 37% say "none of the above." That’s hardly "winning hands down."

When given the choice as to whether they "would like to see the American and British forces leave Iraq in six months, one year, or two years," 31.5% of Iraqis say these forces should leave in six months; 34% say a year, and only 25% say two or more years. So while technically Cheney might say that "over 60% (actually it’s 59%) . . . want the U.S. to stay at least another year," an equally correct observation would be that 65.5% want the U.S. and Britain to leave in one year or less.

Other numbers found in the poll go further to dampen the Vice-President’s and the AEI’s rosy interpretations. For example, when asked if "democracy can work well in Iraq," 51% said "no; it is a Western way of doing things and will not work here."

And attitudes toward the U.S. were not positive. When asked whether over the next five years, they felt that the "U.S. would help or hurt Iraq," 50% said that the U.S. would hurt Iraq, while only 35.5% felt the U.S. would help the country. On the other hand, 61% of Iraqis felt that Saudi Arabia would help Iraq in the next five years, as opposed to only 7.5%, who felt Saudi Arabia would hurt their country. 50.5% felt that the United Nations would help Iraq, while 18.5% felt it would hurt. Iran’s rating was very close to the U.S.’s, with 53.5% of Iraqis saying Iran would hurt them in the next five years, while only 21.5% felt that Iran might help them.

It is disturbing that the AEI and the Vice-President could get it so wrong. Their misuse of the polling numbers to make the point that they wanted to make, resembles the way critics have noted that the Administration used "intelligence data" to make their case to justify the war.

The danger, of course, is that painting a rosy picture that doesn’t exist is a recipe for a failed policy. Wishing something to be can’t make it so. At some point, reality intervenes. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but it is dangerous to ignore its importance.

For the Administration to continue to tell itself and the American people that "all is well," only means that needed changes in policy will not be made.

Consider some of the other poll findings:

– Over 55% give a negative rating to "how the U.S. military is dealing with Iraqi civilians. Only 20% gave the U.S. military a positive rating.

– By a margin of 57% to 38.5% of Iraqis indicate that they would support "Arab forces" providing security in their country.

– When asked how they would describe the attacks on the U.S. military, 49% described them as "resistance operations." Only 29% saw them as attacks by "Ba’ath loyalists."

– When asked whom they preferred to "provide security and restore order in their country, only 6.5% said the U.S. 27% said the U.S. and the U.N. together. 14.5% preferred only the U.N. And the largest group, 45%, said they would prefer the "Iraqi military" to do the job alone.

There are important lessons in all of this. Lessons policy makers ought to heed if they are to help Iraq move forward. What the Iraqi people appear to be telling us is that they have hope for the future, but they want the help of their neighbors more than that of the U.S. That may not be what Washington wants to hear, but it ought to listen nevertheless. Because if policy makers continue to bend the data to meet their desired policy, then this hole they are digging will only get deeper.