Two days ago ABC News released a new poll of Iraqi public opinion, and John Burns at the New York Times made a very perceptive observation that should be taken into account when looking it over.
Opinion polls, including those commissioned by the American command, have long suggested that a majority of Iraqis would like American troops withdrawn, but another lesson to be drawn from Saddam Hussein’s years is that any attempt to measure opinion in Iraq is fatally skewed by intimidation. More often than not, people tell pollsters and reporters what they think is safe, not necessarily what they believe. My own experience, invariably, was that Iraqis I met who felt secure enough to speak with candor had an overwhelming desire to see American troops remain long enough to restore stability.
This feels right to me, not only thanks to my experience in Iraq, but also in places like totalitarian Libya where no one dared criticize the regime in public, and where everyone I spoke to did so in private where they were safe. Saddam Hussein commanded a murder and intimidation regime in Iraq, and today’s insurgents wage a murder and intimidation campaign in the streets. In Fallujah and Ramadi, Iraqi civilians were murdered just for waving hello to Americans, and for accepting bags of rice as charity. Fear should not be ignored when gauging Iraqi public opinion, and that includes fear of American guns as well as fear of insurgents.
I’ve been to Iraq five times, and never once have I heard an Iraqi say anything hostile about Americans. Partly this is because I don’t spend time in insurgent circles. How could I? The Iraqis I’ve met don’t represent the full spectrum. Middle Easterners are also famous for their politeness and, unlike some people from other parts of the world, they will not get in your face if they don’t like where you come from. (Al Qaeda members are an obvious and extreme exception, but they’re hated everywhere in Iraq and are violently atypical.)
Burns is right, though, that there’s more to it than that, and there’s also more to it than he let on. Why would Iraqis say to me, an embedded American reporter, that they want Americans to get out of their country while well-armed Marines are standing nearby? Marines won’t punish Iraqi civilians for saying so, but I doubt very seriously that everyone in Iraq understands that.
I often suspect Iraqis tell me what they think I want to hear. What they’re really doing, more than anything else, is telling me what they want me to hear. The difference is subtle, but crucial.
The evidence that this is happening can be found in the public opinion polls, and in the obvious fact that not every Iraqi wants American troops in their country. If everyone were really supportive, as it appears to me when I’m there, the insurgency would not exist. The amount of pro-American opinion – or at least neutral and passive opinion – that I’ve been exposed to in Iraq is artificially inflated.
None of this, though, means the polls are accurate. If 42 percent of Iraqis believe attacks on U.S. forces are acceptable, why has almost the entire country turned against the insurgents?
Here is where I think Burns’ keen observation explains the discrepancy between my experience as a reporter, the public opinion polls, and the reality of a radically diminished insurgency.
A single individual may tell me that he supports the American military presence, and the very same day tell a pollster that he opposes the American military presence. That’s the safest thing to say in each instance. The pollster will be given a safe anti-American opinion as a hedge against retaliation from insurgents, while I’ll be given a safe pro-American opinion as a hedge against retaliation from the Marines who are standing right next to me. It’s impossible to know what this hypothetical person really believes without additional data.
John Burns provides additional data. Let me quote him again. After a five-year assignment in Iraq, he writes “My own experience, invariably, was that Iraqis I met who felt secure enough to speak with candor had an overwhelming desire to see American troops remain long enough to restore stability.” Some of these Iraqis may have been merely polite when they said so, but I think it’s safe to say none feared retaliation from an unembedded and unarmed reporter from Scotland who spoke to them off the record.
Iraqi public opinion is more hostile than I can see and hear for myself as an embedded reporter. But it’s less hostile than what you see in the polls, and it always has been.