Politics & Policy

Coming Unhinged?

Public opinion in Iraq.

During Iraqi Prime Minister Allawi’s Rose Garden appearance Thursday, President Bush referred to public-opinion polls in Iraq to make a point about how things are going. “I saw a poll that said the right track/wrong track in Iraq was better than here in America,” he said, prompting Kerry spokesman Joe Lockhart to claim that the president had become “unhinged from reality.” I found Lockhart’s comment odd. It strikes me that polling data are a better reflection of conditions on the ground in Iraq than, say, Democratic talking points. Lately I have been looking over the results of two Iraq polls released in July and August, conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the Independent Institute for Administrative and Civil Society Studies (IIACCS). They are scientifically conducted polls with large sample sizes and low margins of error. The results are extremely detailed, and fascinating reading.

The datum for which the president courted Lockhart’s ire was the response to the question, “Do you feel that Iraq is generally heading in the right direction or the wrong direction?” In July, 51 percent said right direction, 31 percent said wrong direction. An Annenburg survey from that same period in the United States did in fact show almost the opposite result (37 percent right track, 55 percent wrong track), as the president rightly observed. Thus, contrary to Lockhart’s assertion, the president was well grounded in reality, very strongly hinged. Incidentally, of those who said Iraq is on the wrong track, only 5 percent said it is because of unemployment, which tends to undercut John Kerry’s model of an insurgency being fuelled by the angry unemployed. He stated Monday that unemployment in Iraq is over 50 percent, and Al Jazeera reported in August that the rate was 70 percent. But polling over the summer showed unemployment typically in the teens. The nationwide figures were 14.1 percent in June, 13.8 percent in July, and just under 12 percent in August. There are of course regional variations; for example unemployment in the southern city of Umara was 35 percent in June (dropping to 25 percent in July)–but in Baghdad the unemployment rate was below the national average (12 percent in June and 9 percent in July). In Najaf the July rate was under 9 percent. Rates that high are nothing to crow about by our standards, but they make more sense than Kerry’s inflated figures. Also worthy of note is the finding that average household monthly income increased 72 percent from October 2003 to June 2004, according to surveys conducted by Oxford Research International.

Levels of satisfaction in Iraq varied by region. Among the Kurds, 85 percent think life has improved since the fall of Saddam. In the Mid-Euphrates region and the south, 52 percent are more satisfied. In Baghdad there was a three-way split between better, worse, and don’t know. And in the Sunni Triangle only 12 percent think things have gotten better, understandable given both the fact that they had enjoyed special privileges under Saddam, and those who are now denied those privileges are making life difficult for everybody. Naturally, the security situation is on people’s minds. Around 70 percent of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed with the statements, “Life today is full of uncertainty” and “I am afraid for myself and my family.” However, there were similar high scores agreeing to the statement “I am hopeful for the future,” and the highest scoring statement of all was “I think things will slowly get better.” Responses to these questions showed the same regional dynamics, with the Kurds being the most hopeful, but even in the Sunni areas a plurality (42.5 percent) believed things would get better, against only 29.2 percent thinking they would get worse. When Iraqis were asked what issues concerned them the most, crime ranked as the number one initial response, at 39 percent. The insurgency ranked fifth at only 6 percent. This focus on reducing crime ties in to a general result I noted citing polls in my last NRO piece, that the Iraqi police are the most respected group in the country. There is broad approval (in the 60-percent range across the board) for the government, judges, the police, the army, and national guard. Sixty-two percent rated the interim government as either very or somewhat effective, and sixty-six percent placed Prime Minister Allawi in the same category.

Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld was quoted Thursday saying that if parts of Iraq are still too violent to hold elections, they should go forward anyway. The polls reveal why keeping to the timetable is so important. It is a matter of maintaining the legitimacy of the process. Seventy-eight percent rate fair elections as their most important political right, and eighty-seven percent plan to vote in the elections in January, a far greater participation rate than we can expect in this country. Three quarters view increased violence as either very or somewhat likely in the period leading up to the election, and a similar percentage sees that as an acceptable reason for a delay; but almost two-thirds would have a negative view of the elections if they were delayed for one month. Even if the U.N. said the elections were not fair, 53.6 percent see that as an unacceptable reason to delay voting. Most people believe that no current Iraqi political party represents their views, and most also believe that political parties are dividers not uniters. Forty-five percent would be less inclined to vote for a party that maintains its own militia, not surprising given the misbehavior of the Baath party. In the Metro/Retro race, 64 percent would prefer a traditional candidate, against 18 percent preferring one with more modern values.

The place of religion in Iraqi politics is mixed. About 12.5 percent gave as a first response that Iraq should “defend Islamic values.” Yet 70 percent believed that “Islam and the Sharia” should be “the sole basis for all laws and legislation.” Thirty percent (the highest total for any one category) thought religious figures would make the best candidates for elections, followed by university professors at about 24 percent. Seventy-eight percent rate religious leaders as somewhat or completely trustworthy, coming in a close second behind academics. (Can you imagine a government of professors? I go to faculty meetings, believe me, philosopher kings are in short supply.) Most Iraqis say they would prefer that all religious sects practice their faith freely. But separation of church and state was attractive only to a quarter of those surveyed.

Some good news for fans of big government: When asked the best way to alleviate unemployment, a whopping 45 percent responded, “Start large public works programs.” Creating jobs by encouraging investment came in last at under 6. Capitalism clearly takes some getting used to. Free health care was rated as the number one economic right by a small plurality (21 percent). Fifty-seven percent want to see a strong central government in Baghdad, rather than some form of federalism. Seventy-four percent believe that government, rather than individuals, are responsible for people’s wellbeing. The statement “It is the role of the State to create wealth for the people” attracted 69 percent support, and “Wealth must be fairly and equally divided among the public by the State” was viewed favorably by 85 percent. On the other hand, 69 percent approved of the statement, “It is the responsibility of the individual to create wealth and the State must protect that right,” and 60 percent agreed that “A person must earn their way in this world.” So maybe the Lockean worldview has a chance after all. Finally, 57 percent either somewhat or completely trust the media, versus 36 percent who do not, almost the opposite of conditions in this country. Few Iraqis watch 60 Minutes however.

There are other polls of Iraqi opinion showing pretty much the same results. I have not gone into all the findings, mainly for lack of space. Anyway, I encourage people to read the reports themselves. The point is that if we are going to have a public discussion of how the war is going or whether we should be optimistic about the future of Iraq (and I think we should be), our views should be based on something more substantial than off-the-cuff remarks by political spokesmen. It is understandable that news coverage will focus on violence, and administration critics will spin events as negatively as possible. But if solid majorities of Iraqis believe conditions are improving, I think we should take them at their word. They have a better grip on their own reality than we do.


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