Italicized links open a new window to an external site
In the buildup to the 2003 war against Iraq, the US government and domestic mass media mounted an unrelenting propaganda campaign to mobilize US and world support. For months on end, the mass media and government officials repeated in innumerable ways the message that "we are good and they are bad". Poll results show that the campaign was exceptionally successful in the US. Throughout the first half of 2002, polls (with the glaring exception of Fox News) consistently showed just over one third of the US public supported a war against Iraq without UN backing; nearly two thirds opposed it. By the beginning of 2003, polls showed the US public almost evenly split. During the first three months of 2003, public opinion moved so that just over half supported war. After the US attacked, nearly three quarters supported it.
By the end of September 2003, as events on the ground in Iraq and investigations into administration and media claims prior to the war proved much of the pre-war propaganda false, public support for US policy again fell below 50%.
On October 2, 2003, PIPA (the Program on International Policy Attitudes) published a report (Misperceptions, the Media and the Iraq War) showing that many Americans came to support the war because their news sources left them with untrue beliefs about relevant world events. The press release accompanying the report stated that, "a majority of Americans have had significant misperceptions and these are highly related to support for the war with Iraq." Based on their analysis of seven polls conducted from January through September 2003, these researchers found:
48% incorrectly believed that evidence of links between Iraq and al Qaeda have been found,
In April 2004, PIPA published two polls. The first was titled, Americans on WMD Proliferation (published April 15, 2004); the second, US Public Beliefs on Iraq and the Presidential Election (published April 22, 2004) was a follow-up to its October 2003 report. The latter seemed to show that support for Mr. Bush in the 2004 general election depended on people continuing to hold false beliefs about the former Iraqi regime's relationship to al Qaeda and the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US, and the incorrect belief that it possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). The September 11 Commission thoroughly investigated and rebutted the first misconception, while the Duelfer Commission report found no evidence to support the second. In 2006, PBS' Frontline produced a report (The Dark Side) exploring the Bush-Cheney efforts to project these misconceptions. From the program's web site, you may view the broadcast and/or read its transcript.
The PIPA summary states:
- A majority of Americans (57%) continue to believe that before the war Iraq was providing substantial support to al Qaeda, including 20% who believe that Iraq was directly involved in the September 11 attacks
- 45% believe that evidence that Iraq was supporting al Qaeda has been found
- 60% believe that just before the war Iraq either had weapons of mass destruction (38%) or a major program for developing them (22%)
- Despite statements by Richard Clarke, David Kay, Hans Blix and others, few Americans perceive most experts as saying the contrary.
- 15% said they are hearing “experts mostly agree Iraq was not providing substantial support to al Qaeda,”
- 82% either said that “experts mostly agree Iraq was providing substantial support” (47%) or “experts are evenly divided on the question” (35%)
- 34% said they thought most experts believe Iraq did not have WMD
- 65% said most experts say Iraq did have them (30%) or that experts are divided on the question (35%).
- Perhaps most relevant politically, perceptions of what the experts said were highly correlated with intentions to vote for the President in the 2004 election. Among those who perceived experts as saying that
- Iraq had WMD, 72% said they would vote for Bush and 23% said they would vote for Kerry
- Iraq did not have WMD, 23% said they would vote for Bush and 74% for Kerry
- Iraq had supported al Qaeda, 62% said they would vote for Bush and 36% said they would vote for Kerry
- Iraq was not supporting al Qaeda, just 13% said they would vote for Bush and 85% for Kerry
- Beliefs about prewar Iraq also appear sustained by perceptions of claims by the Bush administration
- 56% said it was their impression that the Bush administration is claiming the US has found clear evidence that Saddam Hussein was working closely with al Qaeda
- 38% perceived the administration saying the US has found clear evidence that just before the war, Iraq had weapons of mass destruction
- Despite polling showing that the majority of world public opinion is opposed to the US war with Iraq
- 41% were aware that this is the case
- 59% was unaware of this, with 21% saying that a majority of world public opinion favored the US having gone to war, and 38% saying “views are evenly balanced"
- Among those who knew that world public opinion opposed the US going to war with Iraq, only 25% thought that going to war was the right decision
- Among the group that thought world public opinion was about evenly balanced, 70% said going to war was the right decision
- Among those who perceived world public opinion as favoring the war, 88% said going to war was the right decision
PIPA has established the following links to the work of its researchers. (Each link opens an Adobe Acrobat PDF file in a separate browser window.)
October 2003 poll
- the PIPA press release announcing the findings
- the report Misperceptions, the Media and the Iraq War
- the questionaire used in the seven polls that served as the basis for the report
April 2004 polls
the April 15, 2004 poll Americans on WMD Proliferation
the April 22, 2004 poll US Public Beliefs on Iraq and the Presidential Election
By 2006, the percentage of Americans believing that Iraq possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction or had active WMD programs before the start of the war in 2003 was still high. There was also still a marked difference in the perceptions of Republicans and Democrats.
Click here for access to more polls, and help learning how to think about polls.
On Sunday, April 25, 2004, the Washington Post published an article by Dana Milbank titled, Bush's Oratory Helps Maintain Support for War. Although he does not call it propaganda, Milbank describes how White House propaganda has helped convince Americans to believe false facts and therefore to support the war and the president. He begins his article as follows:
With skillful use of language and images, President Bush and his aides have kept the American public from turning against the war in Iraq despite the swelling number of U.S. casualties there.
Even with the loss of more than 700 U.S. troops in Iraq, recent uprisings against the U.S.-led occupation there, a dwindling number of allies and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, a majority of Americans still believe that going to war in Iraq was the right thing to do. By 52 percent to 41 percent, Americans trust Bush more than Democratic challenger Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) to handle the Iraq situation, according to last week's Washington Post-ABC News poll -- a double-digit improvement for Bush from a month before.
Political strategists and public-opinion experts say a good part of this resilience of public support for Bush and the Iraq war stems from the president's oratory. They say Bush has convinced Americans of three key points that strongly influence overall support for the war: that the United States will prevail in Iraq; that the fighting in Iraq is related to the war against al Qaeda; and that most Iraqis and many foreign countries support U.S. actions in Iraq.
At the same time, the administration has limited damaging images of the cost of war in Iraq. While the president has met privately with the families of many of the war victims, Bush has not attended any funeral for fallen service members, and until last week the administration barred the public release of images of flag-draped caskets.
Bush's opponents say he is building support for the Iraq war -- and himself -- by deceiving the public. "He has not leveled with the American people about the true cost of the war, how long we'll be there, or the number of troops that will be needed," said Kerry spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter. "Americans would rather see sound policy rather than just positive rhetoric."
But others say that while support for the war has eroded, Bush deserves credit for keeping the bottom from falling out. "Administration rhetoric -- and more importantly, the reality that Bush is very resolved and is not afraid to show it -- has undoubtedly helped shore up public support," said Peter D. Feaver, a Duke University political scientist who served on President Bill Clinton's National Security Council. "Moreover, administration rhetoric is tailored to address key features of public opinion -- not only the public's concern for success but even the specific indicators of success that resonate with the public."
return to the At War with Iraq page
return to the Propaganda in the Classroom page
copyright © 2003-2010
classroomtools.com. All Rights Reserved.
original web posting: Saturday, October 4, 2003
last modified: Friday, March 26, 2010