The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Monday, June 16, 2003

Voters, Iraqi WMDs - and Frank Luntz?

Who is kidding whom?

While Congress finally gets down to investigating WMD intelligence - but not so as unduly to frighten the horses [1] - many of the Great Unwashed are, it seems, ignorant of the facts as already disclosed by the tireless efforts of the Fourth Estate. A Knight Ridder piece (June 15), based on a University of Maryland survey, says that
A third of the American public thinks U.S. forces found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, according to a recent poll. And 22 percent said Iraq actually used chemical or biological weapons.

Before the war, half of those polled in a survey said Iraqis were among the 19 hijackers Sept. 11, 2001.

The UM guy's explanation?
Given the intensive news coverage and high levels of public attention, this level of misinformation suggests some Americans may be avoiding having an experience of cognitive dissonance.

In other words, Don't confuse me with the facts.

The repeated Bush assertions [2] before the war that Saddam had WMDs, and was a threat to the US with them, may have seemed crass - given the failings in intelligence that were glaringly apparent long before the war started. But, evidently, over a large swathe of American voters, it was successful.

Is it conceivable that these stretchers were spontaneous, their success entirely fortuitous? I should coco!

Step forward Frank Luntz - described by Mother Jones (May 1) as
the Republican Party's shape-shifting pollster, political consultant, and spin-doctor [who] is never far from the political spotlight, for good or ill.

(But then, they're scarcely on his Christmas card list either, I'd imagine.)

Luntz's view, being interpreted, is Don't worry, be happy [3]. The KR piece quotes him thus:
People supported the war for national security reasons and that shifted to humanitarian reasons when they saw evidence of Saddam's atrocities...There's an assumption these weapons will be found because this guy was doing so many bad things.

A CSM piece (June 13) on the subject also quotes Luntz:
"Whether or not they find weapons of mass destruction doesn't matter, because the rationale for the war changed," Republican pollster Frank Luntz told the Associated Press. "Americans like a good picture. And one photograph of an Iraqi child kissing a US soldier is more powerful than two months of debate [about WMD] on the floor of Congress."

It's not as if most Americans don't realise they were had: the piece quotes a Gallup poll saying that
62 percent believe the initial information given out about WMD was inaccurate.

But 56% say the war was justified.

The punt USG were making was this: if the war went badly, USG would be blamed for starting it no matter what the justifications had been; and if it went well, the taste of victory would mask any bitterness over past deceptions. Either way, the effect on the overall standing of USG of pre-war WMD porkies would be negligible.

(If, over the next year or two, the oft-discussed quagmire comes to pass, opinion will naturally turn against USG. But, though WMD deceptions will be a stick to beat it with, they won't be the cause of such a change in sentiment.)

[Frank Luntz's rap-sheet (from the most cursory of searches) is not without interest: according to the MoJo piece, he was involved in advising the Israeli government on its PR. And a WaPo piece of November 27 2002 has him helping to produce a
six-page memo...sent by the Israel Project, a group funded by American Jewish organizations and individual donors.

It says that the memo's
...authors said the main audience was American Jewish leaders, but much of the language of the memo is directed toward Israelis, urging them to play down the likelihood that Israel would retaliate after an Iraqi attack and asking them not to lecture Americans about the Middle East conflict.

Oh, and Arnold Schwarzenegger is quoted as saying of Luntz:
he is a terrific guy.

(I did say cursory...)]

Conclusions? Despite the shortcomings of the pre-war media coverage (as discussed yesterday), the unreliability (to use a neutral word) of WMD intelligence seems to have penetrated the national consciousness to a remarkable extent - in a nation where barely half of adults participate in presidential elections, that 62% who
believe the initial information given out about WMD was inaccurate
represents (I suspect) a much larger percentage of those who will vote in '04.

As guys like Luntz would no doubt have been advising USG pre-war, it was the result that mattered. A lot of voters had large doubts about the validity of USG's case for war - doubts expressed in the adding of conditions to their support (no war without allies, or UN approval, etc). But, as I mentioned several times over the period, there was no form in which those doubts could have been given political effect. (Like opposition to lynching in the 1930s.)

They hadn't supported the war, so they didn't feel reponsible for its being waged. It was waged, and the outcome was favourable. If opposition had been politically inoperative before the war, what point would there be in persisting with it afterwards?

Given his effective impotence, the position taken by a voter who is in both the 62% WMD intelligence inaccurate and the 56% war justified camps makes a good deal of sense - from his viewpoint as an individual.

But, of course, one does not judge whether an invasion was justified (let alone legal) from the limited perspective of an individual voter, but on the actions and knowledge of the government which launched it, in relation to the threat posed. A different matter entirely.

  1. UPI piece (June 13) on the negotiations to avoid public hearings.

  2. A Truthout piece of June 13 quotes HRes 260, which enumerates ten assertions by USG in relation to WMDs. I'm sure there are a fair number of others.

  3. Bobby Mcferin sang the song. With much the same sentiment as Margaret Thatcher, after the recapture of South Georgia from the Argentinians in 1982, told the British nation to Rejoice! - and, by implication, not to ask too many questions. There was the General Belgrano, of course - but victory over the Junta, and then over the miners in 1985, rather defanged that snake in the grass.

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