US public perceptions about former Iraqi president
Saddam Hussein's alleged ties to al-Qaeda and stocks of
weapons of mass destruction (WMD) continue to lag far
behind the testimony of experts, boosting chances that
President George W Bush will be re-elected, according to
a survey and analysis released on Thursday.
Despite statements by such officials as the Bush
administration's former chief weapons inspector, David
Kay; its former anti-terrorism chief, Richard Clarke;
former chief United Nations weapons inspector Hans Blix;
as well as admissions by senior administration officials
themselves, a majority of the public still believes Iraq
was closely tied to the al-Qaeda terrorist group and had
WMD stocks or programs before US troops invaded the
country 13 months ago.
"The public is not
getting a clear message about what the experts are
saying about Iraqi links to al-Qaeda and its WMD
program," said Steven Kull, director of the Program on
International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University
of Maryland, which conducted the survey.
analysis suggests that if the public were to more
clearly perceive what the experts themselves are saying
on these issues, there is a good chance this could have
a significant impact on their attitudes about the war
and even on how they vote in November," he added.
The survey and analysis found a high correlation
between those perceptions and support for Bush himself
in the presidential election in November.
the 57 percent of respondents who said they believed
Iraq was either "directly involved" in carrying out the
September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon
or had provided "substantial support" to al-Qaeda, 57
percent said they intended to vote for Bush and 39
percent said they would choose his Democratic foe,
Senator John Kerry.
Among the 40 percent of
respondents who said they believed there was no
connection at all between Saddam and al-Qaeda or that
ties consisted only of minor contacts or visits, on the
other hand, only 28 percent said they intended to vote
for Bush, while 68 percent said their ballots would go
The survey, which was based on
interviews with a random sample of 1,311 respondents in
March, was released amid a series of polls that indicate
that Bush and Kerry are in a virtual tie less than seven
months before the actual election.
appeared to be leading in the wake of last month's
congressional testimony by Clarke, who accused the Bush
administration of being insufficiently seized with the
threat posed by al-Qaeda before the September 11
attacks, the president, who in recent weeks has spent an
unprecedented amount of money on television advertising
so early in the campaign, has closed the gap and,
according to one Washington Post poll published this
week, pulled slightly ahead.
The latest PIPA
study is remarkable because it shows that public
perceptions about Iraq, or at least about the threat it
posed before the US invasion, are lagging far behind
what acknowledged experts have themselves concluded and
whose findings have been reported in the mass media.
Virtually all independent experts and even
senior administration officials have concluded since the
war that ties between Iraq and al-Qaeda before the war
were virtually non-existent, and even Bush himself has
explicitly dismissed the notion that Baghdad had a hand
in the September 11 attacks.
Yet the March poll
found that 20 percent of respondents believe that Iraq
was directly involved in the attacks - the same
percentage as on the eve of the war, in February 2003.
Similarly, the percentages of those who believe
Iraq provided "substantial support" to al-Qaeda (37
percent) and those who believe contacts were minimal (29
percent) are also virtually unchanged from 13 months
before. As of March 2004, 11 percent said there was "no
connection at all", up 4 percent from February 2003.
Some - but surprisingly little - change was
found in answers to whether Washington had found
concrete evidence since the war that substantiated a
Saddam-al-Qaeda link. Thus, in June 2003, 52 percent of
respondents said evidence had been found, while only 45
percent said so last month.
As to WMD, about
which there has been significantly more media coverage,
60 percent of respondents said Iraq either had actual
WMD (38 percent) or had a major program for developing
them (22 percent). In contrast, 39 percent said Baghdad
had limited WMD-related activities that fell short of an
active program - what Kay, as the Central Intelligence
Agency's main weapons inspector, concluded in February -
or no activities at all.
Moreover, the message
conveyed by Kay and other experts appears not to be
getting through to the public, adds the survey, which
found a whopping 82 percent of respondents saying
either, "experts mostly agree Iraq was providing
substantial support to al-Qaeda" (47 percent) or,
"experts are evenly divided on the question" (35
Only 15 percent said it was their
impression that "experts mostly agree [that] Iraq was
not providing substantial support to al-Qaeda".
There was similar confusion with respect to the WMD
question: despite all the publicity given Kay's, Blix's,
and the findings of other independent experts that Iraq
did not have WMD before the war, nearly two-thirds of
respondents said they believed that most experts said it
did have them (30 percent) or that experts were evenly
divided on the issue (35 percent).
found a high correlation between beliefs about prewar
Iraq with support for going to war with Iraq and for the
intentions to vote for Bush in November.
those who perceived experts as saying Iraq had WMD, 72
percent said they would vote for Bush, and 23 percent
said they would vote for Kerry, while among those who
perceived the experts as concluding that Iraq did not
have WMD, 23 percent said they would vote for Bush and
74 percent for Kerry.
The opinion of experts was
found to be very important in predicting support for
Bush or Kerry, as well as support for the war itself,
according to Kull. While 38 percent of a discrete sample
within the survey said they believed that Iraq had WMD
before the war, the percentage dropped to 21 percent
after they were informed later in the questionnaire that
Kay had concluded that Baghdad was engaged only in minor
activities for developing WMD.
what the experts are saying, according to Kull, could be
due to a number of factors, including the repetition by
Bush (most recently in his press conference last week)
and other senior officials, such as Vice President Dick
Cheney, that Iraq had once used WMD, and the fact that
in the electronic mass media, in particular, Iraq is
still discussed in the context of the "war on terror".
In another misperception, 59 percent of the
public believed that world public opinion either favored
Washington going to war (21 percent) or believed that
global views were "evenly balanced" (38 percent). Only
41 percent appeared aware that a majority of world
public opinion opposed the US-led war.
were aware or were made aware that world opinion opposed
the war were more likely to think the decision to attack
Iraq was wrong and less likely to support Bush. Those
who believed, on the other hand, that world opinion
supported the war were substantially more likely to
support Bush and think that going to war was correct.