Why People Supported And Opposed the Iraq War
by Chris Bowers, Wed Jan 17, 2007 at 12:58:09 PM EST
I am not referring to opinion polls on whether or not people think the war was a mistake, whether or not we should withdraw troops, or whether or not people think the war is going well. Instead, I have longed for something that pollsters often appear loathe to do: ask the general public why it supports or opposes the war, why it thinks the war is going well or poorly, and why people think we should escalate or withdraw. There have been hundreds of public polls asking the general public if it supports something, but basically nothing asking people why they support or oppose something.
The absence of polling on public rationales is stunning, and it goes beyond Iraq. Outside of exit polls, people are hardly ever asked why they support or oppose anything, just if they support or oppose something. Wouldn't a richer view of public opinion take into account rationale, instead of just support or opposition? Since many other factors could be involved, such as the cost of a poll, I hesitate to immediately label the absence of polling on public rationale as "elitism." However, the lack of interest large news organizations show in commissioning polls (and large news organizations commission most polls) that ask the public why they hold position x, y or z, certainly makes me wonder if they even care why the public holds position x, y or z. Perhaps they would simply have their highly paid opinion journalists declare why the country holds opinion x, y, or z, rather than actually ask the public the public at large.
More in the extended entry.
1. Remove dictator Saddam Hussein / free Iraq: 7.4%
2. Sufficient information regarding weapons: 6.2%
3. We must fight terrorism: 5.8%
4. We are in danger / we have to protect ourselves: 5.1%
5. We were attacked first at the World Trade Center: 3.6%
6. Better there than in the USA: 3.5%
7. Support our President, G. W. Bush: 3.5%
8. Inevitable / someone had to do something: 3.3%
9. It is the right thing to do: 3.0%
10. Support - other: 2.2%
11. Support - don't know / refused: 1.1%
12. Support family / people in armed forces: 0.9%
13. Should have dealt with Saddam Hussein in 1991: 0.3%
1. War is not the answer / should handle this other way: 8.2%
2. No weapons of mass destruction: 7.0%
3. We have no right to invade a sovereign country: 6.1%
4. No connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda: 5.3%
5. Bush and family's interest: 3.6%
6. Oppose - other: 3.3%
7. Too many deaths: 3.0%
8. Lack of information at the time: 2.7%
9. War for oil and money: 2.5%
10. Not warranted / generally oppose: 2.2%
11. War not necessary / we have more important concerns: 2.1%
12. USA should not have gone in alone / join: 1.7%
13. Oppose - don't know refused: 1.6%
14. Don't support Bush: 0.3%
15. Other: 0.4%
Don't know / refused: 4.1% Despite its flaws, this poll offers some important insights. First, most people who support / supported the war did not mention Iraqi freedom or WMDs. The most common rationale, making up nearly half of all responses, centered around the idea that invading Iraq was a form of self-defense against terrorism / appropriate reaction to 9/11 (see support reasons 3-6). Even the generalized, amorphous rationales of support reasons 7-11 are roughly equal to the WMD and Iraqi freedom rationales combined. This poll appears to indicate that most people who support / supported the war just wanted to do something in response to 9/11 to protect themselves from future terrorism, even if that terrorism didn't have WMDs. Even people who supported the war didn't buy into, or at least care quite as much about, either freedom in Iraq or any weapon stockpiles Hussein may or may not have had.
On the other side of the coin, people who opposed the war overwhelming did not do so just because they didn't believe there were WMDs, or because of the general paucity of allies in the invasion. In fact, the most common responses centered a general opposition to war, or at least pre-emptive war (opposition reasons 1, 3, 7, 10 and 11). Another common response was that people felt lied to, as seen in rationales 5, 8 and 9, where people felt the war was being conducted for reasons other than those most commonly stated. After that comes the idea that the war was either not being conducted properly, or at least was not connected to the "war on terror" and 9/11, as seen in responses 4 and 12. Only then comes the idea that there weren't actually any WMDs.
This poll is not ideal. For one thing, it was conducted in early 2006, not early 2003. Also, a better poll would have listed all of the major reasons given here, both for and against, and asked each poll respondent whether or not they agreed with every one of those reasons, since most people have multiple rationales behind their position. Alas, we did not have the money to ask all of those questions, or the organization to pull this off back in early 2003. This as the best we could do.
However, consider for a moment how the debate over Iraq would be changed if we knew not just what percentage of the American public supports and opposes the war, but if we knew what they thought of each of the reasons to support or oppose the war. If we knew that it wasn't a high priority even for most people who supported the war, would we have heard so many pundits bloviating about the need for a free Iraq? If Democrats knew that people wanted to feel protected, but didn't necessarily care about Saddam's supposed stockpiles in particular, I certainly think it would have made a lot more people argue that the war would make us less safe, ala Howard Dean. If we knew it was such a rarely held belief, would we have heard so many people, including Democrats, setting up a left-wing strawman that universally thought the war was about oil?
Who knows. Although we can never know exactly how the dialogue would have changed, having information on how many people supported or opposed each of the rationales regarding war would have significantly altered the debate on Iraq, both before and after the invasion began. It also would have demonstrated a higher level of respect for the American public, in that their reasons for holding opinions would be considered a relevant part of the national dialogue. Given this, I sincerely hope that, in the future, polling firms and the large news organizations who commission public polls from polling firms will find conducting public opinion surveys on the rationales behind people's beliefs something worthy of their time and money. While doing so might put a lot of pundits who claim to speak for the American people out of business, it is just as relevant to learn why people hold a position as it is to learn if they hold a position. We need to be ready to let not only the opinions of the American people, but their rationale behind those opinions, into the larger public debate.