March 19, 2008

What Iraqis Want You to Hear

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those commissioned by the American command, have long suggested that a majority of Iraqis would like American troops withdrawn, but another lesson to be drawn from Saddam Hussein’s years is that any attempt to measure opinion in Iraq is fatally skewed by intimidation.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

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine

Posted by Michael J. Totten at March 19, 2008 11:53 AM

Michael- You must be reading my mind. I wondered the same thing about polling in Iraq. How accurate are the numbers? The Iraqis are experiencing something that many Americans take for granted; freedom of speech. It is still too soon to take at face value a poll of people that have lived for 20+ years in a totalitarian police state.
This situation reminded me of one of your posts from last year. Glasnost was basically calling you a liar because the poll and what you blogged didn't jive. The poll stated that Americans weren't welcomed in Ramadi, but you took pictures and wrote about a positive experience. It still pisses me off till this day.
Let me share about this other blog that I read on the Mudville Gazette about the same time this happened. It was titled something like "Will the real Ali please stand up?". The post was about 3 Iraqi interpreters working with American forces. What made the blogger laugh was that even though the Army had thoroughly vetted these guys, none of them told each other their true names. If this wasn't Iraq I'd be calling these guys whacko, but I can see the logic in how they acted. Especially, when it comes to the safety of your family. Now call me naive, but I just can't picture the average Iraqi talking frankly to some foreign news organizations that they know nothing about. It seems they would want to still appear hostile to the Americans just in case some terrorist got a hold of their answers.

Posted by: PeteDawg Author Profile Page at March 19, 2008 12:45 PM


Yes. Additionally, most Iraqi Police won't let me write down their names, and many won't let me publish their pictures. They aren't afraid of me, but what might happen to them if they were identified as police officers who work with Americans.

Many civilians in Baghdad were afraid of publicity, too. It's not as bad with the civilians in Anbar Province because they feel and are safer.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at March 19, 2008 1:37 PM

John Burns is one of the very few reasons I still look at the NYT. I was sad to see him leaving the ME for London, but understood the reasons.

Thanks MJT

Posted by: rsnyder Author Profile Page at March 20, 2008 5:32 AM

You know, the funny thing is that despite any reasons the average Iraqi might have in wanting to stay a step away from the Americans, the BBC says that their polling data shows a clear improvement in favor of America. As they say in their summary of their polling report:

"But some trends might give American commanders cause to hope.

The presence of US troops is opposed by 72% - but that is down by seven points from six months ago.

And 61% feel the US presence makes the security situation worse - down nine points from the earlier poll.

The number of respondents who believe attacks on US forces are justified has dropped 15 points in the last six months to 42%.

While more than a third of Iraqis believe the United States should pull out immediately, 63% believe the Americans should leave only after a period during which security and government get stronger.

And a full 80% believe the US should continue to fight Al Qaeda and foreign jihadis in Iraq.

Some of these findings appear contradictory. But Professor Toby Dodge of Queen Mary College, London, says they suggest an increased pragmatism.

"The big counterintuitive finding is that even though many indicators show Iraqis opposed to the United States, there seems to be a growing awareness of what might happen if the US pulls out," he says.

One way to read these numbers, he says, is that Iraqis have "looked into the abyss" of all-out civil war, and taken a step back."

Posted by: T. "Chimpy" Greer Author Profile Page at March 20, 2008 8:52 PM

Oops, forgot to link it:

Posted by: T. "Chimpy" Greer Author Profile Page at March 20, 2008 9:08 PM

In a culture of routine deception, every statement is "instrumental"; i.e., uttered to have some particular effect. Whether it is entirely, partially, or not at all true is irrelevant. Only the best phrasing to get the desired result counts.

So context, recipient, and even long-range or remote responses (such as in a polling situation) directly affect the wording.

If you personally grew up in the same cultural environment as the speaker, you may have a hope of "backing out" all those influences. Not otherwise.

Posted by: Brian H Author Profile Page at March 23, 2008 10:03 PM
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