WASHINGTON – Three out of four self-described supporters of President
George W. Bush still believe that pre-war Iraq had weapons of mass destruction
(WMD) or active programs to produce them and that Iraqi President Saddam
Hussein provided “substantial support” to al Qaeda, according to a new
survey released here Thursday.
Moreover, as many or more Bush supporters hold those beliefs today than they did several months ago, before the publication of a series of well-publicized official government reports that debunked both notions.
Those are among the most striking findings of the survey, which was conducted in mid-October by the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) and Knowledge Networks, a California-based polling firm.
The survey, which polled the views of nearly 900 randomly chosen respondents
equally divided between Bush supporters and those intending to vote for
Democratic Sen. John Kerry, found a yawning gap in the world views, particularly
as regards pre-war Iraq, between the two groups.
asked whether the U.S. should have gone to war with Iraq if U.S.
intelligence had concluded that Baghdad did not have a WMD program
and was not providing support to al Qaeda, 58 percent of Bush supporters
said no, and 61 percent said they assumed that Bush would also not
have gone to war under those circumstances.
“It is normal during elections for supporters of presidential candidates to have fundamental disagreements about values or strategies,” according to an analysis produced by PIPA. “The current election is unique in that Bush supporters and Kerry supporters have profoundly different perceptions of reality. In the face of a stream of high-level assessments about pre-war Iraq, Bush supporters cling to the refuted beliefs that Iraq had WMD or supported al Qaeda.”
Indeed, the only issue on which the survey found broad agreement between the two sets of voters was on the question of whether the Bush administration itself has been actively propagating the misconceptions about Iraq’s WMD and connections to al Qaeda.
“One of the reasons that Bush supporters have these (erroneous) beliefs is that they perceive the Bush administration confirming them,” noted Steven Kull, PIPA’s director. “Interestingly, this is one point on which Bush and Kerry supporters agree.”
The survey also found a major gap between Bush’s stated positions on a number of international issues and what his supporters believe Bush’s position to be. A strong majority of Bush supporters believe, for example that the president supports a range of international treaties and institutions which is actually on record as opposing.
On pre-war Iraq, the survey asked each respondent questions about WMD and links to al Qaeda on three levels: 1) what the respondents themselves believed about the two issues; (2) what they believed that “most experts” had concluded about them; and 3) what they believed the Bush administration was saying about them.
The survey found that 72 percent of Bush supporters believe either that
Iraq had actual WMD (47 percent) or a major program for producing them
(25 percent), despite the widespread media coverage in early October of
the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA’s) “Duelfer Report,” the final word
on the subject by the one billion dollar, 15-month investigation by the
Iraq Survey Group.
It found that that Hussein had dismantled all of his WMD programs shortly after
the 1991 Gulf War and had never tried to reconstitute them.
Nonetheless, 56 percent of Bush supporters said they believed that most experts currently believe that Iraq had actual WMD, and 57 percent said they thought that the Duelfer Report had itself concluded that Iraq either had WMD (19 percent) or a major WMD program (38 percent).
Only 26 percent of Kerry supporters, by contrast, said they believed that pre-war Iraq had either actual WMD or a WMD program, and only 18 percent said they believed that “most experts” agreed.
Similar results were found with respect to Hussein’s alleged support for al
Qaeda, a theory that has been most persistently asserted by Vice president
Dick Cheney, but that was thoroughly debunked by the final report of the
bipartisan 9/11 Commission earlier this summer.
Seventy-five percent of Bush supporters said they believed that Iraq
was providing “substantial” support to Al Qaeda, with 20 percent asserting
that Iraq was directly involved in the 9/11 attacks on New York and the
Pentagon. Sixty-three percent of Bush supporters even believed that the
clear evidence of such support has actually been found, and 60 percent
believe that “most experts” have reached the same conclusion.
By contrast, only 30 percent of Kerry supporters said they believe that such a link existed and that most experts agree.
But large majorities of both Bush and Kerry supporters agree that the administration is saying that Iraq had WMD and was providing substantial support to al Qaeda. In regard to WMD, those majorities have actually grown since last summer, according to PIPA.
On WMD, 82 percent of Bush supporters and 84 percent of Kerry supporters believed that the administration is saying that Iraq either had WMD or major WMD programs. On ties with al Qaeda, 75 percent of Bush supporters and 74 percent of Kerry supporters believe that the administration is saying that Iraq provided substantial support to the terrorist group.
Remarkably, asked whether the U.S. should have gone to war with Iraq if U.S. intelligence had concluded that Baghdad did not have a WMD program and was not providing support to al Qaeda, 58 percent of Bush supporters said no, and 61 percent said they assumed that Bush would also not have gone to war under those circumstances.
“To support the president and to accept that he took the U.S. to war based on mistaken assumptions,” said Kull, “likely creates substantial cognitive dissonance and leads Bush supporters to suppress awareness of unsettling information about pre-war Iraq.”
Kull added that this “cognitive dissonance” could also help explain other remarkable findings in the survey, particularly with respect to Bush supporters’ misperceptions about the president’s own positions.
In particular, majorities or Bush supporters incorrectly assumed that he supports
multilateral approaches to various international issues, including the
Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) (69 percent), the land mine
treaty (72 percent), and the Kyoto Protocol to curb greenhouse gas emissions
that contribute to global warming (51 percent).
In August, two thirds of Bush supporters also said they believed that Bush supported the International Criminal Court (ICC), although in the latest poll, that figure dropped to a 53 percent majority, even though Bush explicitly denounced the ICC in the most widely watched nationally televised debate of the campaign in late September.
In all of these cases, majorities of Bush supporters said they favored the positions that they imputed, incorrectly, to Bush.
Large majorities of Kerry supporters, on the other hand, showed they knew both their candidate’s and Bush’s positions on the same issues.
Bush supporters were also found to hold misperceptions regarding international support for the president and his policies.
Despite a steady flow over the past year of official statements by foreign governments and public-opinion polls showing strong opposition to the Iraq war, less than one third of Bush supporters believed that most people in foreign countries opposed the U.S. having gone to war.
Two thirds said they believed that foreign views were either evenly divided on the war (42 percent) or that the majority of foreigners actually favored the war (26 percent).
Three of every four Kerry supporters, on the other hand, said it was their understanding that the most of the rest of the world opposed the war.
Similarly, polls conducted during the summer in 35 major countries around the world found that majorities or pluralities in 30 of them favored Kerry for president over Bush by an average of margin of greater than two to one.
Yet 57 percent of Bush supporters said they believed a majority of people outside the U.S. favored Bush re-election, and 33 percent said foreign opinion was evenly divided.
Two thirds of Kerry supporters said they though their candidate was favored overseas; only one percent said they though most people abroad preferred Bush.
Kull, who has been analyzing U.S. public opinion on foreign-policy issues for two decades, said misperceptions of Bush supporters showed, if anything, that hold that the president has over his loyalists.
“The roots of the Bush supporters’ resistance to information very likely lie
in the traumatic experience of 9/11 and equally into the near pitch-perfect
leadership that President Bush showed in its immediate wake,” he said.
“This appears to have created a powerful bond between Bush and his supporters – and an idealized image of the President that makes it difficult for his supporters to imagine that he could have made incorrect judgments before the war, that world public opinion would be critical of his policies or that the president could hold foreign-policy positions that are at odds with his supporters.”
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