The new PIPA survey from the University of Maryland once again has found that many Americans remain confused on the major issues of the Iraq war. The survey reports that 38 percent believe the United States found evidence that Iraq was involved with al-Qaeda (including 15 percent who believe Iraq was directly involved with 9/11), 47 percent believe that Iraq either had WMD or a major WMD program, and 16 percent believe that the United States actually found WMD in Iraq.
Reflecting on these figures in his recent post here at the National Interest, Paul Pillar argues quite reasonably that propaganda’s effects are not just disturbing but also long lasting, and he concludes that the president’s persuasive tools are powerful indeed. Pillar’s analysis however, omits two very important factors: ignorance and ideology. Thanks to these two perennial characteristics of the average American, things aren’t quite as bad as they seem.
America the Ignorant
A few data points from other surveys of American political knowledge provide context for interpreting the Iraq confusion. The 2008 civic literacy survey conducted by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, for example, found that fewer than half of all Americans can name all three branches of government and that almost 40 percent of Americans believe the president has the power to declare war. Just 27 percent know that the Bill of Rights expressly prohibits the establishment of an official U.S. religion. The Pew Research Center, which tracks such things in a fruitless effort to find that news consumption improves political knowledge, found ample evidence of American ignorance in its 2007 survey:
· 31 percent could not name the current vice president (Cheney)
· 68 percent did not know that Sunni and Shia are two branches of Islam
· 45 percent could not tell how many American troops had died in Iraq
· Only 36 percent could identify Vladimir Putin as Russia’s president
· Only 37 percent could identify Robert Gates as U.S. secretary of defense
This ignorance is disturbing in its own right, of course, but it suggests a smaller role for propaganda in explaining American confusion about Iraq’s role in 9/11. Americans mostly have no idea what’s going on in the United States, much less the rest of the world. Ignorance about fundamental political institutions, ideas and elected officials does not stem from manipulative propaganda, but from a combination of apathy, disinterest, and an increasingly complex and fragmented information environment. These same factors, in turn, make it difficult to inform Americans about Iraq and complex foreign-policy issues.
A simpler explanation for the Iraq confusion is that many Americans deployed a straightforward (though misguided) heuristic to interpret the situation. Everyone—even ignorant Americans—knew Saddam was a bad guy. From there it was not a great leap for people to imagine that an American-hating, war-prone, Middle Eastern leader like Saddam Hussein would join forces to strike the United States with a Middle Eastern terrorist group. For those who never bothered to follow up and figure out what really happened, the confusion was likely to linger.
Did Bush’s propaganda make things worse? Certainly it did on the margin, and pumping disinformation into the media ether sure didn’t clear things up for anyone. But given the levels of ignorance about far less distant and confusing issues, it isn’t at all remarkable that Americans remain confused about Iraq.
America the Ideological
The second critical factor to consider is ideology. From beginning to end, Republicans were far more likely to believe the worst about Iraq (and things President Bush said more generally) than Democrats. Republicans were overwhelmingly certain Iraq had WMD before the war, and a majority believed for several years afterwards that Iraq had been trying to develop WMD. By January 2004, Gallup found that just 17 percent of Democrats thought Iraq had even been trying to develop WMD. The recent PIPA survey illustrates that the ideological divide persists: on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, 41 percent of Republicans said they believed Iraq had WMD before the war compared to just 15 percent of Democrats; 43 percent of Republicans still think Iraq was in cahoots with al-Qaeda compared to only 23 percent of Democrats.
Thus, it is clear that the president’s power to persuade (or confuse) depends significantly on who is listening. Bush had great success mobilizing conservatives, some success mobilizing independents, and not very much success mobilizing liberals. These groups watched the very same people use the very same arguments to manipulate the very same facts but came away with very different interpretations of reality.
How Dangerous Is the President?
What does this tell us about the power of propaganda? First, it is less dangerous than many fear. Thanks to the fact that many people aren’t listening, presidential propaganda doesn’t propagate quite as deeply as it could otherwise. And even when people do pay attention, their predispositions and worldviews often dictate what they hear, severely limiting how many people a president can fool.
This happy realization however, leads directly to a second, less cheerful conclusion. Pillar ends his post wondering what might be achieved if presidents turned their propaganda powers to more beneficent aims like peace between Israel and Palestine. Unfortunately, the very same limits apply. Presidents have a hard enough time convincing people to do uniformly positive things, like conserve energy or say no to drugs. The notion that a president will have an easy time persuading Americans to support anything controversial, like supporting Middle East peace, simply isn’t backed up by historical evidence.