Archive for September, 2003

Zogby Poll Helps Provide Context to Iraq

Sunday, September 21st, 2003

There may be arguments about whether there is a Liberal or Conservative bias in the press. In many cases, the conclusions about such a question reveal as much about the perspective of the person making the assessment as they do about the media. However, there is a consensus that there is a “bad news bias” in the media. Bad news tends to be more exceptional and therefore news worthy. Thousands of commercial aircraft take off each day and safely land. The day when one plane fails to land safely, it becomes the leading news story.

This bias is not necessarily a bad thing. The single case of a plane crash does not persuade most people that flying is unsafe. The reason is that we have an experiential context within which to evaluate that particular news. Nearly all of us have flown or know people who successfully flown many times. One plane crash does not overwhelm our outlook or give us a skewed perspective of airplane safety. Experience provides a counter weight to the bad news bias.

However, the shield of experience is less effective for those situations where we lack experience. The case of the aftermath of the Iraq War represents one such case. Few of us have first hand experience or know those who do and can help us evaluate the news from Iraq, much of it bad. What is the real picture of post-war Iraq? Is Iraq a country making slow and steady progress towards reconstruction, security, and political stability, punctuated by sporadic violence by a few unwilling to embrace a free Iraq? Or, is Iraq a fundamentally unstable and violent country barely held together by overstretched American troops?

A piece on CBS News on September 19, 2003 took us into the lives of a poor Iraqi family victimized by violent thugs. The patriarch of the family explained how he was going to obtain a weapon to protect his family because Americans were not providing sufficient security. After a couple of minutes of interviews and imagery, Dan Rather cautions that there are places in Iraq that are safe and secure. What kind of context is this? Is a majority of the country secure, with pockets of violence or is violence dominant with only isolated secure zones? Rather’s remarks did not balance the minutes of preceding imagery nor did they provide any significant context to assess the situation in Iraq.

What we need is systematic data to help place into context the inevitable bad news from Iraq. Indeed, Iraq is a case of no news being good news. If a bomb goes off near an oil pipeline or a school, it is immediately reported. Like the planes that land safely, the oil that flows or the children that attend schools daily do not make the news. This is what makes the recent report by the polling organization Zogby International, sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute, so interesting and valuable.

Zogby International attempted to assess the perspective and outlook of the Iraqi people themselves; the people who collectively can provide some of the day-to-day context we are missing from so far away. Of course, Zogby International had to take care in selecting a representative cross section of the Iraqi people, from Sunnis near Baghdad, to Shiites in the south, to the Kurds in the north. However, this is a minor difficulty. An inherent problem with polls of people accustomed to living in a totalitarian regime is their understandable reticence in being completely candid. Some may be fearful of retribution by remnants of the old regime. Others may be overeager to offer answers they anticipate will please the questioners.

Zogby International consulted pollsters from former Eastern Communist Block countries to learn how to approach citizens accustomed to concealing their opinions to elicit the most candid responses. In addition, Zogby International was careful to use appropriate translations to its questions.

What emerges from the pollster’s efforts is a picture of Iraqis who are at once optimistic for the future and realistic about what it might take to improve their lives. Fully 70 percent of the respondents believed their lives would improve over the next five years and a third thought it would be much better.

Unlike the French who a week ago were insisting that the Iraqis assumed total control of the country in thirty days, two-thirds of Iraqis believe that the Americans ought to remain for about a year.

Even more heartening than this touch of realism is that Iraqis want a secular democratic government and not a theocracy. This is even true for the Shiites who are perceived as the most religiously observant Iraqis. When asked what country they would most like to be like, no country received a majority, but the US was considered worthy of emulation by a plurality. This was especially true among younger Iraqis.

Now that the US is in Iraq, we have assumed important responsibilities. This recent poll suggests that most Iraqis are sympathetic to our efforts and want us to succeed in helping create a free and democratic Iraq. Iraqi optimism needs to be nurtured as well as conveyed to Americans to help balance either bad news trickling out or no news when positive things happen. We Americans have about a year to get things on the right track. This should be our focus. The fact that attacks by insurgents have been focused on Iraqi infrastructure and on its interim governing council suggests, for the Iraqi people to win, Americans have to win the peace.