Bush PR Machine Works Myth and Magic on Iraq

George W. Bush's trip to Iraq was the ultimate stunt in a huge long PR campaign to turn public opinion on the war. And let's face it: Sad to say, it's working. Many Democrats who thought they could score points by demanding a fixed timetable for withdrawal are now running scared and talking about nothing but compromise.

It's like watching a great magic trick. You see the change in public opinion happening right before your eyes, and all you can say is "How the hell did they do that?"

Please, let's not blame "cowardly Democrat." Elected legislators go where the votes are. That's how democracy works, and how it should work. The last thing we should want is politicians who do what they think is right regardless of public opinions. That means they'll do whatever they damn please (see, e.g.: Bush, George W.; Cheney, Richard).

The big question is not "Why are so many Democrats spineless?" It's "Why are so many voters changing their minds about a failed war?"

Such a shift in public opinion is as complicated as the onset of a cancer. It takes a huge number of experts to explain it, because each sees only part of the whole picture. There are, in fact, political scientists who spend their whole lives studying public opinion. Each of them can explain part of the picture. The weird thing is that we in the peace movement seem to show no interest in learning about what they know.

Imagine a doctor telling you: "You have this particular kind of cancer. There are experts who know a lot about what causes your kind of cancer, but we doctors don't pay any attention to their research. Since we don't have a clue what causes it, we can't begin to tell you how to cure it." That's pretty much the position peace activists are in now. Public support for more war in Iraq is a cancer in the body politic. It's a matter of life and death. It's time for us to demand that the people who understand something about it tell us what they know.

As a historian of American religion, I think I see at least a small part of the picture.

Let's start with some startling findings from the most recent UPI/Zogby poll. 37.7 percent of Americans believe that Saddam Hussein was working with Osama bin Laden when the 9/11 attacks occurred. Add in the 4.6 percent who say "maybe," and you get 46.3 percent who still do not know that there was no connection between Saddam and al Qaeda. Equally amazingly, 43.6 percent still believe that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction when we invaded his country four years ago. It can't be just coincidence that virtually the same number (42.6 percent, to be precise) say they now support the war (30.2 percent "strongly").

But here's the most crucial statistic: 54 percent say that we still have a chance to win the war. That's surely the number they are crowing about in the White House. Their PR machine is aiming at the crucial 11.4 percent who oppose the war but believe we can still win it.

What we are dealing with is people who can be persuaded to believe things that are demonstrably untrue. That points us toward my field of study, religion, and more particularly toward a ubiquitous religious phenomenon: myth. When myths are effective they tell us what we should, or can, believe as fact. In religious studies we have a lot of theories about why people choose to, and can be persuaded to, believe myths even when they contradict obvious facts.

One of my favorite theories says that a lot of people feel confused and overwhelmed by the uncontrollable changes of life, especially in unsettled economic times when their own fortunes seem so unpredictable. They want some way to find a sense of order amid the seeming chaos of life. So they tell familiar stories about their lives, over and over, and fit the facts of their lives into those stories -- even if they have to distort the facts to make them fit. Some of the myths people value most are about their nation. That's certainly always been true here in the United States.

Most Americans have wanted (often desperately) to believe that their nation and its government has profoundly good intentions. Oh, the government often screws up, the myths say. But basically our leaders always mean well -- especially in foreign policy. They really want to do the right thing, which means protecting ourselves and the whole world from evil foreigners who want to turn the tranquil order of our lives into brutal chaos. We have a special responsibility to stop those evildoers, the myths tell us, because we are a uniquely blessed nation. Being so blessed, we are bound to win. But evil, like the devil, is fanatical. Defeating it takes the courage to persist in a long war -- the kind of courage that proves we are real Americans. For many Americans, believing in this mythic vision is more important than believing the factual truth.

The Bush administration is playing brilliantly upon this need for myth. Its PR experts know that once you start questioning the righteousness of a war, you can very easily start questioning the rightness of the national myths, and many Americans are nervous about taking that risk. That's especially true of the crucial swing vote, the 8 percent or so who told the Zogby poll that they oppose the war, but only mildly. Once they have some shred of evidence that suggests the war may be winnable, they may quickly turn from antiwar to prowar voters.

And Democratic politicians (whose only job, remember, is to please the voters) don't even trust all of the 50 percent who say they strongly oppose the war. Nor should they. The pols know how quickly some of those people can change their minds because they are out on a limb, on the edge of challenging the traditional national myths. Once they realize how far out they've gone, and how little is left supporting them in the way of nationalistic belief, they may easily get scared and go scampering back to a traditional prowar position. That's what the White House is betting on and doing their damndest to make happen.

It's not surprising that they were having notable success even before Bush went for his photo op in Iraq. The amazing thing is not the number of politicians who will not vote against the war. The amazing thing is the number who still say they will. Their stance tell us that millions of our fellow citizens do want to end the war. That's the good news. Now the job is to convince enough others, so that more Democrats and at least a few Republicans feel safe enough to vote for peace.

The place to start is to recognize that the peace movement has been playing right into the administration's hand by agreeing to put all the focus on the single question: Can we win the war? There are so many other reasons to oppose the war, beyond the fact that we cannot win it. But even many peace activists seem to have forgotten those other reasons in the rush to win the debate about winnability.

But if the Zogby poll is right, we are losing that debate anyway, since nearly one-eighth of the nation opposes the war yet thinks it can be won. Apparently they know that it is wrong to continue this murderous war, even if we could in some sense "win" it. Maybe it makes sense to find out why those people oppose the war and build our arguments on their views. The first step is to ask the experts who understand how the cancer of public support for war grows. If you know any, please insist that they share their knowledge with the rest of us.

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin. Email: chernus@colorado.edu

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