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those commissioned by the American command, have long suggested that a majority of Iraqis would like American troops withdrawn, but another lesson to be drawn from Saddam Hussein's years is that any attempt to measure opinion in Iraq is fatally skewed by intimidation.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

JB:
This is a specific case of the general problem confronting us. Our allies are people who want normal, peaceful lives; our enemies, those who want to kill for power.

One of those groups makes better soldiers. We're allied with the other one. That's why the level of anti-americanism is always overestimated.
3.20.2008 12:59am
Ilya Somin:
This is a specific case of the general problem confronting us. Our allies are people who want normal, peaceful lives; our enemies, those who want to kill for power.

One of those groups makes better soldiers. We're allied with the other one. That's why the level of anti-americanism is always overestimated.


Maybe. It's certainly true that terrorists are more willing to take risks for their beliefs than are average Iraqis. But don't Americans want normal, peaceful lives? And don't they still make good soldiers (at least enough of them to staff the world's best military)?
3.20.2008 1:02am
Orielbean (mail):
Americans make the best soldiers because they want to return to their normal, peaceful lives as soon as reasonable.
3.20.2008 1:15am
TRex (mail):
W on patriotism: You are either for us (me) or against us (me). i.e. to disagree with W is unpatriotic.

99.99% of Iraqis (just like Americans) want peaceful lives and the ability to put bread on the table and send their kids to school. A lot of those 99.99% do not want the U.S. (or anyone else)occupying their nation. That does not necessarily make them our enemies.

"To announce that there must be no criticism of the President or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and serville, but is treasonable to the American public." Pres. Theodore Roosevelt
3.20.2008 1:19am
pmorem (mail):
TRex, I don't think that's a correct interpretation of the "with us or against us" statement. I believe it's context was international, rather than domestic. It was not the most diplomatic of statements, rather tantamount to declaring war on the entire world.

... but not a statement about domestic policy.
3.20.2008 1:49am
Paul Allen:
I've wondered: You ask if they want American troops to leave and the answer is "yes". This makes sense, I wouldn't want a foreign presence forever. BUT, the question is misleading. Polls asking if the Americans should leave immediately, or quickly, get different answers.

Just as most Americans would answer "Yes, I do want US troops out of Iraq" does not answer whether that really means "RIGHT NOW!!!" This largely explains why the Democratic leadership was unable to force a withdrawal in the past 15 months.

We aren't interested in being an occupying force, Iraqis aren't interested in being occupied, but so? We know that already. The polls are bogus.
3.20.2008 2:20am
Asher Steinberg (mail):
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... 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.

Does anyone else see the disconnect between the two bolded phrases? I know little about Iraq, but I wasn't aware that the insurgents had secret police. Not, of course, that you're saying that, but the fact that there aren't secret police undermines the comparison. What's the chance that terrorists happen to overhear what the respondents say? The poll says it's done by in-person interview; I assume the pollsters are smart enough to not conduct the survey in front of a huge audience.
3.20.2008 2:56am
JB:
Ilya: Our soldiers are very good, yes. But fighting's their job.* Our Iraqi allies have other jobs which they want to get back to or would rather do than fight in the first place, while our Iraqi enemies would be perfectly happy to be soldiers.

The closest analogy I can come to on our side is that we'd be significantly more effective if we had a lot more volunteers and our troops had higher morale about staying in Iraq for the duration.

*Yes, we have National Guard there, but, ceteris paribus, it'd be better to have a regular soldier than a Guardsman/woman.

TRex, I'm restricting "enemy" in this case to mean "person actively fighting us." Iraqis who have not taken up arms are at this moment neither a danger or a help to us. I'm arguing that the Iraqis with arms in their hands opposing us are generally more enthusiastic about fighting than those on our side, and therefore the cost to us of convincing our enemies to lay down their arms is higher than the cost to our enemies of convincing our allies to do so.
3.20.2008 3:14am
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
I can imagine that Iraqi's would have the opposite idea about what American soldiers want. An Iraqi who says that he wants US troops to leave might be viewed by the troops as saying: "I think its time for you to go home to your wife and kids and nice safe life". I bet a lot of the troops would appreciate that.
3.20.2008 5:00am
BGates:
What's the chance that terrorists happen to overhear what the respondents say?
How can the respondents be sure the pollster isn't working for the terrorists?
[O]ur Iraqi enemies would be perfectly happy to be soldiers.

Our enemies would be perfectly happy randomly shooting people. Almost everything I've seen says they suck at real soldiering.
The closest analogy I can come to on our side is that we'd be significantly more effective if we had a lot more volunteers and our troops had higher morale about staying in Iraq for the duration.
We have a lot more volunteers than the enemy, right? How would improved morale be measured, and how would it help? IOW, how are morale problems among the troops supposed to be hurting the war effort now?
Iraqis who have not taken up arms are at this moment neither a danger or a help to us.
General Petraeus would disagree with that.
3.20.2008 6:14am
William Spieler (mail) (www):
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.

Frankly, and I'm trying to put myself in their shoes here, if I were an Iraqi, and I had recent memories of American troops inadvertently shooting Iraqi civilians, I don't think I'd put that much faith in American benevolence. I'm not sure, but I think that trying to make these sorts of guesses as to motivation sitting thousands of miles away is going to be wildly inaccurate. I think the best we can say is that there's motivation enough to be misleading in every way such that opinion polls coming out of Iraq can't be trusted to ordinary margins of error.
3.20.2008 8:54am
Francis:
Ilya, this is really some sloppy analysis. First, your use of language shows incredible bias. "terrorists"? Is a Kurd involved in ethnic cleansing of Sunnis in the north a terrorist? What about a Sunni "son of Iraq" who fights both al Qaeda and Shia? Or Shia ministry forces committing ethnic cleansing in Basra?

Second, ever heard of sample bias? Have you considered that the members of the group of people willing to talk to Americans and/or pollsters might skew pro-west, as compared to the population as a whole?
3.20.2008 9:45am
Crane (mail):

Frankly, and I'm trying to put myself in their shoes here, if I were an Iraqi, and I had recent memories of American troops inadvertently shooting Iraqi civilians, I don't think I'd put that much faith in American benevolence.


If I were an Iraqi, I'm not sure I'd believe all those shootings were "inadvertent". People don't like the idea that bad things happen at random, and want there to be a reason for it - see how so many parents of autistic children are convinced that vaccines caused their child's autism.
3.20.2008 11:35am
The Unbeliever (mail):
ever heard of sample bias

When polled for their opinions by the United States Marine Corps, the average Iraqi insurgent/domestic terrorist tends to respond by bleeding profusely from bullet wounds. I think we can make an assumption and put them in the "Send the troops home NOW" category, but one wonders how much weight we should ascribe to their opinions.
3.20.2008 11:40am
Don Miller (mail) (www):
Based on my experience from 6 years in the US Navy and 6 years in the US Army,

There is a very small percentage of the population in general that makes good combat soldiers. We are looking for people that once upon a time would have been referred to as 'warriors'. Not something that is highly praised in modern society.

To make it harder, we look for a subset of that Warrior group. We are looking for ones that had the self-discipline and intelligence to become educated, stay out of trouble with the law, avoid illegal drugs, and still desire to serve in combat.

It doesn't require a warrior mentality to serve with distinction in combat, but it helps. Most people in the US Military don't need to have this mentality either. There are lots of clerks, technicians, medics, drivers, analysts, cooks, etc. If my memory serves me, for every 1 front-line combat person, the US Army has 10 people in support.
3.20.2008 1:32pm
Mac (mail):
William Spieler wrote;

Frankly, and I'm trying to put myself in their shoes here, if I were an Iraqi, and I had recent memories of American troops inadvertently shooting Iraqi civilians, I don't think I'd put that much faith in American benevolence.


But, that is exactly where The Awakening movement has come from. The Sunni's noted that while Al Queda was killing at random, kidnaping, raping, and killing their daughters and wives, targeting their religious leaders who disagreed with them, ditto their sheiks, the Americans were trying to bring about order and build roads, hospitals and schools. They eventually noticed a big difference and for some strange reason decided that Al Queda was far more their enemy than the Americans. It helped that we finally got smart in how we dealt with the tribesmen. They have chosen sides. They chose us.


Asher Steinberg wrote,

I

know little about Iraq, but I wasn't aware that the insurgents had secret police.



Asher Steinberg,

Perhaps not an official group, but you have not been paying much attention to Iraq if you have not noticed the insurgents certainly know who their friends and enemies are. The Iraqi's have noticed. The Iraqi's are braver now because they think the US will win.

Have you not read the captured Al Queda and insurgent communications indicating that they are having a very hard time hanging onto their own members? They promise retribution, but it is getting harder to follow through as so many are going over to the American side. I assume, they want a future and what does Al Queda offer but 72 virgins?
3.20.2008 2:26pm
Math_Mage (mail) (www):
Ilya, the problem with sticking to polls from the more secure areas of Iraq is that the more secure areas are more likely to think the war's gone well, and thus more likely to like the US. In less secure areas people might feel less comfortable about expressing their real opinions, but they'll also feel more resentment at the US for starting the war that made their "area" insecure.

Asher Steinberg, the terrorists don't need to be pervasive enough to hear about every pro-American Iraqi (or even every hundredth). If, in a given neighborhood, they kill the only Iraqi who they've found who openly expresses pro-American views, that's probably enough to make the neighborhood shut up. Those who see the corpse will tend to assume that the terrorists' intel is better than it actually is.

...at the same time, the opposite reaction might occur; the Iraqis might see that the terrorists are killing people merely for their views, and become much more pro-American than before. So it's hard to say anything for certain.
3.20.2008 5:07pm
Math_Mage (mail) (www):
Oops: The Iraqis might see that the terrorists are killing people merely for their views, and become much more ANTI-TERRORIST than before.

After all, anti-terrorist != pro-America. Though I'd be happy with either if the neighborhood was ambivalent before.
3.20.2008 5:10pm
Jared McLaughlin (mail):
I think that using polling data from Iraqi citizens is prone to a variety of issues. One I haven't seen here, but was aware of and encountered on a daily basis: differing cultural norms.

Consider this: to an American, when asked if the individual can perform a given action the correct response is dictated by the individuals ability to perform the action. To many Iraqi's the correct response is dictated by the percieved affect on the relationship between questioner and questioned. To reply, "No. I cannot/will not." is an affront. Many would preffer to reply, "I will see what I can do" or other vauge statements. Given that these cultural norms may or may not be affecting the answers recieved I think that the results of polls between members of two different cultures to be more suspect than is common among members of the same culture.
3.20.2008 11:29pm
Mac (mail):

To reply, "No. I cannot/will not." is an affront. Many would preffer to reply, "I will see what I can do" or other vauge statements. Given that these cultural norms may or may not be affecting the answers recieved I think that the results of polls between members of two different cultures to be more suspect than is common among members of the same culture.


Jared McLaughlin,

Very good point. There are light years separating the cultures of East and West. We do well to keep that in mind.
3.21.2008 12:21am
Gaius Marius:
I can't believe we are wasting hundreds of billions of dollars, if not trillions, rebuilding a country when our own is going to fiscal hell in a handbasket.
3.22.2008 4:30pm