Are Iraqis Telling the Truth When they Tell Pollsters They Want U.S. Troops Out?

In past posts on Cuba and Iran, I have emphasized the dangers of giving credence to pro-government statements made by citizens living under repressive regimes. People are unlikely to tell pollsters that they disagree with the government line if doing so might attract the attention of Big Brother's secret police. Unfortunately, Western reporters often ignore this problem. How many Americans would speak out against their government if doing so carried even, say, a 1% risk of being imprisoned, killed, or even just fired from your job?

I'm glad to see, however, that John Burns of the New York Times is aware of the issue and has tried to keep it in mind in his reporting on Iraq:

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those commissioned by the American command, have long suggested that a majority of Iraqis would like American troops withdrawn, but another lesson to be drawn from Saddam Hussein’s years is that any attempt to measure opinion in Iraq is fatally skewed by intimidation.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.

As Michael Totten points out in his comments on Burns' article, it is not just the memory of Saddam that might lead Iraqis to tell pollsters "what they think is safe" but the very real current danger of being targeted by insurgents or terrorists if they are perceived as pro-American. Perhaps there is only a small chance that insurgents will find out about a pro-American statement and punish the speaker. But, as discussed above, even a small chance of retaliation might be enough to intimidate many people into hiding their true views.

Totten also perceptively notes that Iraqis might sometimes make pro-American statements out of fear, especially if US troops are present:

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.

That possibility should not be ignored. However, I think it is less likely than the other. After five years of experience with US troops, I suspect that many (though by no means all) Iraqis probably realize by now that they are not going to shoot civilians merely for saying something anti-American.

The bottom line: We don't really know what percentage of Iraqis want US troops out and what percentage want them to stay. In the generally safe Kurdish areas in the north, I suspect that the pro-American opinions expressed by most Kurds are probably genuine; they are not in much danger of violence from either the US or insurgents (and of course have strong historic reasons to welcome a US presence). People living in other relatively safe parts of the country are also probably more likely to express their true views. However, it's difficult for outside observers to determine what Iraqis living in the most violence-prone areas truly believe. On balance, I suspect that there are many more Iraqis hiding pro-American views out of fear of the terrorists than Iraqis hiding anti-American views out of fear of US forces (or those of the Iraqi government). However, that is at best an educated guess.

The beginning of wisdom on this issue is to at least recognize the existence of the problem, as Burns and Totten have admirably done.

UPDATE: The recent ABC poll of Iraqi opinion has a lot of interesting data, though the above caveats obviously apply. It reveals that Iraqis have become somewhat more optimistic since the surge began and that 38% of Iraqis say they want US troops to leave immediately, down from 47% in August; 59% now say that US forces should stay until stability is restored or until the Iraqi government is "stronger." About half of Iraqis (49%) now say that the US was right to invade in 2003 (compared to 50% who say it was wrong). There are still deep differences on all these issues between Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds (With the latter expressing by far the most pro-American views).