Most Americans Still Believe Saddam Had WMD in 2003
AP’s Charles Hanley has a long piece expressing dismay that a new poll shows half the American public still believes Saddam had WMD at the time of the 2003 invasion.
Do you believe in Iraqi “WMD”? Did Saddam Hussein’s government have weapons of mass destruction in 2003? Half of America apparently still thinks so, a new poll finds, and experts see a raft of reasons why: a drumbeat of voices from talk radio to die-hard bloggers to the Oval Office, a surprise headline here or there, a rallying around a partisan flag, and a growing need for people, in their own minds, to justify the war in Iraq. People tend to become “independent of reality” in these circumstances, says opinion analyst Steven Kull.
The reality in this case is that after a 16-month, $900-million-plus investigation, the U.S. weapons hunters known as the Iraq Survey Group declared that Iraq had dismantled its chemical, biological and nuclear arms programs in 1991 under U.N. oversight. That finding in 2004 reaffirmed the work of U.N. inspectors who in 2002-03 found no trace of banned arsenals in Iraq.
Despite this, a Harris Poll released July 21 found that a full 50 percent of U.S. respondents — up from 36 percent last year — said they believe Iraq did have the forbidden arms when U.S. troops invaded in March 2003, an attack whose stated purpose was elimination of supposed WMD. Other polls also have found an enduring American faith in the WMD story.
“I’m flabbergasted,” said Michael Massing, a media critic whose writings dissected the largely unquestioning U.S. news reporting on the Bush administration’s shaky WMD claims in 2002-03. “This finding just has to cause despair among those of us who hope for an informed public able to draw reasonable conclusions based on evidence,” Massing said.
Timing may explain some of the poll result. Two weeks before the survey, two Republican lawmakers, Pennsylvania’s Sen. Rick Santorum and Michigan’s Rep. Peter Hoekstra, released an intelligence report in Washington saying 500 chemical munitions had been collected in Iraq since the 2003 invasion. “I think the Harris Poll was measuring people’s surprise at hearing this after being told for so long there were no WMD in the country,” said Hoekstra spokesman Jamal Ware.
The question asked, however, wasn’t whether Saddam had an ongoing nuclear program or whether he had massive stockpiles of new chemical or biological weapons but rather he had weapons of mass destruction. Given only the choices Yes and No and Don’t Know, it’s befuddling that half those surveyed answered other than Yes.
As best we can determine at this point, Saddam himself believed he had ongoing nuclear, biological, and chemical programs. When all the WMD programs he had going in 1991 were cancelled and whether all the stockpiles he had documented were in fact destroyed is still unknown, perhaps unknowable. There is much speculation that they were shipped to Syria or elsewhere but virtually no evidence of that.
Regardless, I suspect that if Americans were asked whether Saddam’s WMD were a sufficient threat to the United States to justify going to war, the overwhelming majority would say No. A ny variant of the question that does not get to that essential formulation is meaningless.