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Jewish World Review March 25, 2003 / 21 Adar II, 5763

Michael Barone

Michael Barone
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Shaping world opinion |
As the liberation of Iraq continues, public opinion in this country has shifted to solid support for the war. Polls taken in the months when war was still a hypothetical were interpreted as saying that only small majorities would support a war. Many polls in this country and more in Britain gave respondents a multiple choice--do you oppose war, favor war if the United Nations approves, or favor war even if the United Nations does not approve? Newspapers like the New York Times--which, under Editor Howell Raines, has used its news columns to conduct a campaign against a war--have taken the results as indicating that most Americans and an overwhelming majority of Britons were opposed to war without an additional U.N. resolution authorizing it.

This was misleading, for three reasons. First, people are poor predictors of their future attitudes. In the seven years I worked for political pollster Peter Hart, our firm avoided questions that asked people what they would do in the future. A poll can ask only so many questions, and we believed that such questions produced unreliable results and were a waste of our clients' money. Second, when people are given an array of choices, particularly an array of three choices, they are moved toward selecting a middle option--the Goldilocks option, not too hot, not too cold, but just right. Third, many polls were based on a false premise, that the United States would not have sanction for war if the U.N. did not pass an 18th resolution against Iraq.

George W. Bush gave some credibility to this false premise by seeking such a resolution at the urging of Tony Blair. But as Bush made clear in his statement on March 19, U.N. resolutions 678 and 1441 authorize military action. Resolution 687 authorizes every U.N. member to take action against Iraq to enforce it and "all subsequent relevant resolutions." Resolution 1441 declares Iraq in breach of its obligations under 687 and other resolutions and calls for "serious consequences" if Iraq does not immediately comply with those resolutions. No fair-minded person can doubt that the conditions of 1441 have not been met.

So it should come as no surprise that Americans, by overwhelming numbers, approve of military action and that increasing numbers of Britons and most Australians voice approval. Now we are told that opinion in "the world" is still heavily against us. Ipsos-Reid, a French-owned polling firm, was quick to offer data supposedly proving that. But, as we have seen in this country and in Britain, opinion responds to events. Americans, Britons, and Australians, with soldiers at risk, rallied to support the military effort. Facts on the ground change the way people see things. People in countries with no troops in Iraq have already, as this is written, seen Iraq fighting with weapons Saddam Hussein claimed he did not have. We have already seen Iraqi soldiers surrendering and, by the time you read this, are likely to see Iraqi citizens welcoming American and British forces. They will see our soldiers providing Iraqis with food and shelter and medicine. They will see, in time, America turn over the governance of Iraq to free Iraqis.

Much of the revulsion against America today is revulsion against an abstract idea--the idea of the United States' launching pre-emptive military attacks on one country and seeming willing to justify attacking any other. But abstract arguments are not as strong in shaping public opinion as concrete facts. The United States need not use military force to achieve all its goals in the war on terrorism. Already the imminence of American attack has moved Arab governments to do things they were not previously inclined to do. Syria has reined in terrorists headquartered in Damascus and Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Saudis are now calling for more internal freedom and a new charter for reform for the Arab League. At the same time, the great effort and long time it has taken the United States to begin military action against Iraq make it clear that we are not going to take such action in dozens of countries.

This is not to say that the Arab regimes or Iran will behave entirely as we would like or that polls in every country will show that America is loved. But my prediction is that the polls overseas will prove no better a predictor of opinion after the war than polls in America and Britain were a predictor of opinion in our countries before the battle began. And victory in Iraq will have one other effect on opinion: It will most likely dishearten the terrorists who want to destroy our civilization. As Osama bin Laden once said, people naturally prefer the strong horse.

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Michael Barone Archives

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2002, Michael Barone