March 19, 2003 marked the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. For those who remember those polarizing days, it doesn’t seem like so long ago, although I’m constantly reminded of how much time has passed every day when I lecture with my 18 year old students who were just eight years old at the time of the invasion. Sadly, the youngest generation of American adults remembers little about this war in light of the failure to promote critical awareness in our K-12 educational system. University professors have hardly fared any better from what I’ve seen, as most seem preoccupied with esoteric research of limited practical utility. When it comes to teaching, most professors avoid controversy or engagement in real world politics like the plague.
America’s critical awareness of the Iraq war hasn’t been helped along by the mass media either, which prefers to remember Iraq as a noble mistake. This much was apparent in the New York Times’ March 19 retrospective news analysis and editorial. One the one hand, the memory of Iraq has been nearly erased from political-media discourse. In a news story titled “Iraq War’s 10th Anniversary is Barely Noted in Washington,” the Times reported on the “conspiracy of silence” in which “Republicans and Democrats agreed” in in the run-up to the anniversary “that they did not really want to talk about the Iraq war. Neither party had much interest in revisiting what succeeded and what failed, who was right and who was wrong. The bipartisan consensus underscored the broader national mood: after 10 years, America seems happy to wash its hand of Iraq.”
This point is true. Americans from what I’ve seen do seem happy to move on from the terrible, criminal affair that was the invasion and occupation of Iraq. But the wrong lessons were being drawn from the New York Times’ story, as it merely focused on the failure to assess “what succeeded and what failed.” This limited criticism in retrospect was reaffirmed in the New York Times’ March 19 editorial, in which the paper wrote that “none of the Bush administration’s war architects have been called to account for their mistakes, and even now, many are invited to speak on policy issues as if they were not responsible for one of the worst strategic blunders in American foreign policy.” It’s not that I disagree with the Times’ assessment of the war. This had to be one of the most incompetent occupations in world history, considering the colossal ignorance that was at play in invading a country on the brink of collapse after decades of war and sanctions imposed and supported by the United States. It was extraordinarily naïve to assume that the government, military, and police forces of Iraq could be dissolved under “de-bathification,” and that there would be little to no security risks associated with this action. Quite the opposite was true, as the dissolution of Iraq sparked a civil war and terrible ethnic-sectarian violence. The U.S. disenfranchisement of former government and military officers – coupled with the continuation of an unwanted and extremely violent military occupation – meant the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s government and military apparatus would have plenty of time to target and kill American forces. Coupled with the deterioration of Iraq after years of sanctions and criminal U.S. bombing of Iraq’s military infrastructure during the first Gulf War in 1991, the dissolution of any recognizable government carried with it very real dangers considering the latent ethnic-sectarian tensions that had built up during the Hussein years. As part of the Sunni minority in Iraq, Hussein had long favored this group and violently suppressed and terrorized the Shia majority, as well as the Kurds.
I won’t fault the New York Times for pointing out the stupefying incompetence of the Bush administration in its post-invasion occupation. I do take the paper to task, however, for its complete unwillingness to recognize the real reasons why the American public opposed the Iraq war. Those reasons have to do with moral and substantive rejection of the application of U.S. imperial power abroad. This reality has scarcely been recognized by academics, journalists, political leaders, or even professional polling organizations (pollsters generally rely on political officials and the media to set the agenda for the types of questions they will ask).
Sadly, I have not seen a single polling question asked in the last ten years that measured whether Americans thought the war in Iraq was imperialist or not. The question of whether the war was a “well-intentioned mistake” or “fundamentally wrong and immoral” has never appeared once in the national discourse when it comes to public opinion surveys. Polls that might have questioned whether the U.S. invaded Iraq primarily for its massive oil reserves seldom materialized because the answers would have been too damning to report in a country where the political discussion revolved around whether the war was just and necessary or a noble mistake.
After spending hundreds of hours studying mass media coverage of and public opinion on Iraq in the last decade, I have yet to uncover much of any evidence that the critical questions above were ever addressed by pollsters. The closest I found was an August 2002 poll from Gallup that queried Americans on “why the United States may take military action against Iraq” and in which interest in “oil” was mentioned as one among many possibilities.[i] Public opinion polling is never absolute in terms of marginalizing critical viewpoints, as tough questions are sometimes asked. In general, however, it was extremely rare for such probing challenges to U.S. foreign policy to appear in public opinion surveys I’ve seen over the years.
In a small effort to address the failure of our political, media, and polling system to ask tough questions on Iraq, I organized a statewide poll of Illinois citizens in the year prior to the 2013 10-year anniversary. The poll was designed precisely to ask the kind of substantive questions that should have been surveyed by the professional polling firms. In contrast to my survey, the major polling firms such as Gallup and Pew merely asked respondents for their 10-year retrospective surveys if they thought the war was a “mistake” or not, whether or not the U.S. “succeeded,” and whether the war was the “right” or “wrong” decision.[ii] Such polls don’t probe Americans about whether their rejection of the war was moral or based largely on pragmatic assessments of the likelihood of victory.
In collaborating with the We Ask America polling firm, I contacted a randomly selected, representative sample of Illinois citizens in the late spring of 2012, asking them about their retrospective assessments of the Iraq war. Unfortunately, my modest resources prohibited me from polling the entire country, although the results from Illinois are promising and suggestive. Any serious polling firm should be interested in replicating them for a larger sample, at least if they want to know the real reasons why Americans opposed the Iraq war.
One of the first questions I surveyed respondents on was rather conventional: “Looking back, do you think the United States did or did not make a mistake by sending troops to fight in Iraq in 2003?” Fifty-six percent agreed that the war was a mistake (31 percent said it was not), which was in line with the 53 percent of Americans who agreed the war was a “mistake” in the March 2013 Gallup survey. But why did so many say the war was a “mistake?” Was the rejection of the war based on pragmatic concerns that it was no longer “winnable,” or were the criticisms deeper in terms of rejecting the entire premise of the war? A follow up question suggested that the rejection was more moral than pragmatic. Going beyond limited challenges to the war as a blunder or mistake, I asked respondents: “Was the U.S. role in Iraq a well-intentioned mistake or was it fundamentally wrong and immoral?” Revealingly, 52 percent of respondents went beyond the “war as a well-intentioned mistake” narrative and concluded that the war was “fundamentally wrong and immoral” (just 30 percent claimed it was a “well intentioned mistake”). I also asked: “what was the main reason for why” respondents opposed the war. The possible answers that were provided included: “the war was unwinnable” (a pragmatic challenge); “the war was fundamentally wrong and immoral” (a moral challenge); “American casualties were too high” (a moral challenge); “Iraqi casualties were too high” (a moral challenge); and “the war was costing too much money” (a pragmatic challenge). Revealingly, just 11 percent of respondents claimed the war was “unwinnable” and just 13 percent cited that the “cost” of the war were too high. Only 10 percent of respondents cited “American casualties,” while a meager one percent mentioned “Iraqi casualties.” Far and away, the most commonly provided answer from respondents (embraced by 47 percent) was that the war was “fundamentally wrong and immoral.” These findings suggest how extraordinarily limited national journalists and pollsters have been in their emphasis on the Iraq war as a strategic blunder, rather than something that citizens fundamentally reject as morally unacceptable. Moral challenges to the war (concern with American and Iraqi casualties and feelings that the war was immoral) were jointly subscribed to by 58 percent of Americans, as compared to pragmatic challenges, which were supported by just 24 percent.
The notion that war is fundamentally unacceptable from a moral position was reinforced by a final follow up question I asked. The question read: “which do you think was the main reason for why the Bush administration invaded Iraq?”:
* Concern over weapons of mass destruction
* A desire to promote democracy in Iraq
* A desire to fight al Qaeda terrorism
* A desire to secure control of Iraq’s oil reserves
Again, assessments of the real reasons for war were notable in their moral challenges to the Bush administration’s pre-war rhetoric, which had focused on WMDs, al Qaeda terrorism, and democracy. Just six percent of respondents accepted the claim that the war was about “democracy”; only 15 percent agreed that the invasion was motivated by efforts to “fight al Qaeda terrorism.” Similarly, only 22 percent said that “concern over weapons of mass destruction” was the reason for war. In contrast, the largest number of respondents (32 percent) said that “control of Iraq’s oil reserves” was the main reason for war. This finding provides further support for the conclusion that the most commonly embraced criticism of the war was a moral one, rather than concern with the war as “unwinnable” or a strategic “mistake.”
The 10-year anniversary of the Iraq war should be remembered as a teachable moment – one in which Americans reflect retrospectively on the reasons for why they rejected the war in Iraq. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to do so when there’s an unspoken effort in the mass media to ignore the basic reasons for why Americans turned against the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The real reasons for why so many opposed the war are unspeakable in a political-media system that prides itself on promoting an image of the United States as committed to selflessly promoting democracy, human rights, and American security abroad. When academics, journalists, pollsters, and politicians all join together to consciously ignore moral challenges to U.S. foreign policy, then it makes it difficult, if not impossible, to have a rational national dialogue on war. Without such a dialogue, it also makes it difficult to have a productive discussion about how to challenge and reject official propaganda, misinformation, and lies in the future. On this 10-year anniversary, that dialogue is needed more than ever if there’s to be any hope of limiting wars of aggression in the future.