WHY, WHEN almost every major denomination on record opposed unilateral U.S. action in Iraq, did most people in the pews support it? In recent months researchers have begun to address that question by examining knowledge, attitudes and beliefs about involvement in Iraq. The findings reveal a deeply disturbing gap between the facts and the public's beliefs.
"Misperceptions, the Media and the Iraq War," the most recent study, was released in early October by the Program on International Policy Attitudes of the Center on Policy Attitudes and the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland (UM). The primary question asked was, "Are average Americans 'misperceiving" information about Iraq and the war?"
Between January and September of 2003, after conducting seven different polls, researchers found that the answer was yes: "A substantial portion of the public had a number of misperceptions that were demonstrably false, or were at odds with the dominant view in the intelligence community.... [These misperceptions] have played a key role in generating and maintaining approval for the decision to go to war."
Early in 2003, for example, 68 percent of respondents believed that Iraq played an important role in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, while 13 percent went on to claim that they had seen "conclusive evidence" of such involvement. At that time, both propositions were unsupported and in some cases denied by the U.S. intelligence community. In August a Washington Post poll reported that 69 percent of Americans still believed that Saddam Hussein was "personally involved" in the attack on the Twin Towers. And as late as September, approximately half of respondents said that the U.S. had actually found evidence in Iraq that Saddam was working closely with al-Qaeda. As President Bush clarified on September 17, Saddam had nothing to do with the 9/11 attack.
From May to September, 35 percent of the public believed that weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq, and 22 percent believed that Iraq used such weapons during the war. An ABC/Washington Post study showed similar percentages. But U.S. troops have failed to discover any such weapons, and the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency earlier had reported that "there is no reliable information on whether Iraq is producing and stockpiling chemical weapons, or whether Iraq has--or will--establish its chemical warfare agent production facilities." On October 2, David Kay, the U.S. inspector in charge of finding weapons of mass destruction, reported to Congress that he had found no chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, although their existence was one of the major rationales for going to war with Iraq.
Finally, the researchers asked Americans, "How [do] all of the people in the world feel about the U.S. going to war with Iraq?" Thirty-one percent expressed the mistaken view that attitudes overseas were evenly balanced on the issue, while another 31 percent believed that a majority of people in the rest of the world favored U.S. action.
In fact, polls have shown--for more than a year--that world opinion is strongly opposed to America's action. In a Gallup International study, not a single one of 38 countries polled (including 20 in Europe) expressed majority support for unilateral action by the U.S. A Pew Global Attitudes Survey in April-May 2003 found that between 67 and 97 percent of people in six out of eight Muslim nations (Turkey, Indonesia, Pakistan, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority) opposed U.S. action, and only one-Kuwait--was in favor.
These studies make it clear that Americans are full of misperceptions about the war and, in particular, about three issues--the link between Iraq and al-Qaeda, the existence of weapons of mass destruction, and the nature of world public opinion. Why? The chilling answer is that their "misperceptions" are closely related to their news sources. …