Why don't we care about the WMD?

So far, Americans are giving Bush a pass about the lies used to justify the Iraq war. But will fear, ignorance, and faith in the president's integrity keep him Teflon-coated forever?


Michelle Goldberg
June 19, 2003 11:26PM (UTC)

At some point we will know just how wrong President Bush and his advisors were about the threat that Iraq posed to America; we will learn whether our leaders were lying or mistaken, well-intentioned or duplicitous. Whatever their motives, though, it increasingly looks like Bush spurred America to war with falsehoods, that much of the information the administration offered the public as a justification for a war that has so far killed more than 100 Americans, 30 Britons and several thousand Iraqis was not true.

Americans, though, don't seem to care.

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Polls taken recently indicate that most Americans are either unconcerned at the apparent collapse of the rationale behind a war that's still killing their compatriots, or ignorant of the whole situation. Before the Iraq war, a Knight Ridder poll showed that nearly half of Americans surveyed believed, erroneously, that there were Iraqis among the Sept. 11 hijackers. During the war, a Los Angeles Times poll showed that 59 percent of respondents were convinced, despite all available evidence, that Saddam was either partly or mostly responsible for Sept. 11. Now that America's failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is becoming an increasingly contentious political issue, a third of respondents in a University of Maryland poll believed that the weapons already have been uncovered. A fifth of those polled think Iraq actually used such weapons in the war.

"Polls right now indicate that people are not believing that there was any fabrication or misleading" on the part of the administration, says John Zogby, president of the polling firm Zogby International. "Generally speaking, even in an era of greater distrust, most people still rely on their principal sources of information -- either news media or what leaders say via the news media. They get filtered information."

And, say some experts, because of the public's willingness to believe this "filtered information," the Bush team might remain unscathed even if it turns out they actively exaggerated Iraq's threat to the U.S. There are a number of reasons -- some historical, some intrinsic to all societies during wartime -- that Americans appear to believe things about the war that are demonstrably false, and there is a chance they'll never accept the idea that their president lied to them. The question, then, is whether American democracy can survive a citizenry that either doesn't know or doesn't care if its leaders tell the truth. At the very least, observe some experts, public ignorance, apathy or denial could change the kind of democracy under which Americans live.

In some respects, the issues of ignorance and denial have been perennial sources of anxiety in America. After each election, whenever fewer voters manage to drag themselves to the polls, there's a spate of "Whither democracy?" think pieces and intellectual handwringing about the country's declining civic culture. Books bemoaning Americans' benightedness are a staple of both the left and the right, from Noam Chomsky's voluminous writings on American domestic propaganda to Allan Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind."

"The country goes through periods of engagement in popular and political culture and periods of disengagement," says Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at NYU who studies the media's role in democracy. "If you look at any one political moment, there are issues on which there is a great deal of public engagement and issues on which there isn't. It has a lot to do with how difficult the issue is [to understand]."

Others point out that past scandals gestated for months before the public started paying attention. "I've gone through several major government scandals both inside and out of government," says Michael Greenberger, a University of Maryland law professor who worked on counterterrorism issues in the Clinton administration. "I think there is always a slowness on the uptake. It takes a while to sort of pierce the American psyche. The Vietnam War took a very, very long time to pierce the public's concern. Watergate took months and months." As Zogby says, "It took the jaws of life to get Nixon out of the White House, and that's when most Americans thought he was guilty." Essentially, there is nothing new about politicians lying or about Americans not paying close attention to them.

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This is of little comfort, though, to administration critics baffled by Americans' nonchalance toward the Bush administration's apparent dishonesty about Iraq. The Nation's David Corn spoke for many liberals when he wrote, "It is hard to resist reprising the GOP call of yesteryear, Where is the outrage? Just imagine how much shock and complaining there would be if we learned that 'American Idol' had been rigged. But Bush and his comrades can use deceptive means to launch a war and to pass trillion-dollar tax cuts that bust the bank -- and then skate away."

Right now, polls show that a majority of Americans don't believe that the Bush administration used deceptive means to launch a war. Part of the group that continues to trust Bush is made up of those who fundamentally disagree with Corn's analysis or are willing to wait longer for proof. "To anyone who's fair-minded about this, it's too soon to draw any conclusion that the weapons aren't going to be found, and whether they're found or not, it's extremely far-fetched to conclude that he didn't have them," says Joshua Muravchik, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "Maybe he destroyed them. Maybe he's hidden them."

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Many Americans, though, haven't come to their conclusions through a fair-minded weighing of the facts, because they don't have the facts. The reason is partly that, in the case of Iraq, the president has disseminated false information, and Americans, as much as they like to think of themselves as skeptics and rebels, tend to believe their presidents. "Do I believe that this war was waged for the flimsiest of reasons? I certainly do," says Zogby. "However, people will be trusting. It takes quite a commitment to get people not to trust what their president says."

"This has been happening for along time," says Rosen. "I remember being on the phone with journalists who were obsessed with the way Reagan would say one thing and do another. There were stories about what he didn't know about the world." The left, he says, would survey America and wonder, "How could they vote for this guy Reagan? Don't they see what a clown he is? Are Americans so hoodwinked by this guy?"

Muravchik, for one, rejects the notion of Bush's mendacity out of hand. "There's no chance that the president lied to the people," he says. "It would be such a catastrophic thing to do. It would be 10 times stupider than having Monica at the White House. It's inconceivable. This is really fantasy land. The world doesn't work that way."

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Views like Muravchik's grow more common during wartime, says Dana Ward, a Pitzer College professor who serves as the executive director of the International Society of Political Psychology. "There's a tendency to rally behind a leader whenever there's any kind of bullets flying," he says. "We saw it in the first Gulf War and we certainly saw it in the second Gulf War. That is a normal part of the process. What's not normal, though it's precedented, is for the administration to put out information designed to manipulate public opinion."

Thus it's not surprising that Americans believed Bush when he said that Saddam was seeking nuclear components, backing al-Qaida and threatening America with obliteration. Nor is it surprising that many people accepted it when he said, bluntly and wrongly, that America has found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

In his State of the Union address on Jan. 28, Bush told Americans, "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa," though American intelligence agencies knew the only evidence underlying this assertion was a crude forgery. At his press conference on March 6, Bush said that Saddam Hussein "has trained and financed al-Qaida-type organizations before, al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations," though no link between Saddam and al-Qaida has emerged. On "Meet the Press" on March 16, Vice President Dick Cheney said, "[W]e believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons. On Polish TV on May 30, Bush said, "But for those who say we haven't found the banned manufacturing devices or banned weapons, they're wrong, we found them."

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If the ignorance of many Americans is simply a result of believing their president (and many Democrats, who echoed the White House's assessment), such credulity is exacerbated by the mainstream press, which until recently hardly challenged the White House's assertions. Greenberger blames "captive media" that's wholly devoted to spouting the White House line. "That is something new and may be a reason it takes longer to sort of pierce the public's understanding of this. You have at least a half-dozen nationally known talk-show hosts who were supportive of [the Iraq war] and continue to articulate views that would make the average citizen believe there's not a problem here."

To simply say that the public has been duped by the White House and Fox News is far too reductive, though. While some Americans are deluded about Iraq's WMD, others simply don't care. After all, if a third of Americans surveyed believe weapons of mass destruction have been found, two-thirds realize they haven't been. Meanwhile, there's been an important shift in public opinion suggesting that Americans aren't much more attached to the president's initial justification for war with Iraq than Bush himself is. Before the war, a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll showed that only 38 percent of Americans felt the war would be justified even if weapons of mass destruction were not found. When the same pollsters asked that question two weeks ago, 56 percent of Americans felt the war was justified even if the weapons are never uncovered.

This jibes with the idea, favored by New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, that weapons of mass destruction don't matter after all, both because Saddam was such a psychopathic sadist and because, post 9/11, America needed to strike somewhere in the Middle East as a show of strength.

Friedman expounds that idea as if it were a sophisticated bit of realpolitik, but a dumbed-down version of it may be at work in American life. "In a way, it's Americans' insularity, their isolationism, that may be showing its ugly head," says Susan Tifft, a Duke University professor and former Time magazine writer who's written several books about American journalism. "Saddam, Osama, they all sound the same, they're all rag-heads, so who cares? I don't think a lot of Americans have taken the time or considerable trouble to find the difference between Shiite and Sunni or Saddam and Osama."

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Tifft, for one, finds the Friedman meme terrifying. "The idea that it doesn't matter whether we find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or not is to me one of the most dangerous notions that's been put out anywhere in my lifetime," she says. "Basically, what it's saying is that the ends justify the means. In this case, it's hard to argue with the ends. As chaotic as things are, no one can say Iraq isn't better off without this psychopath. But if Americans buy into that notion, what they're saying is it's OK to destroy democracy at home in order to export it overseas.

"You cannot have a democracy if you have a government lying to you about the reasons that you're going to war," she continues. "If we're signing off on that tacitly or explicitly, we're living in a very different country than we ever did before."

It's unlikely, though, that many Americans have explicitly bought into this notion. In the end, say some experts, you can't understand public opinion regarding war if you assume it's based on literalism and rationality.

Rosen suggests that Americans were aware of the unspoken motives behind the Iraq war, which partly accounts for their current indifference. "If they didn't take the official rationale all that seriously in the first place, they don't necessarily feel they were lied to about it," he says. "People know certain things are done with a wink. They know there are public relations statements. They know something like propaganda exists. There may have already been a discounting of the weapons of mass destruction. How many people really took that seriously? A large percentage of the country was behind the war whatever the reason was."

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This thesis helps explain the curious calm among many war supporters regarding Iraq's WMD. After all, if one was to take Bush's rhetoric seriously, it would mean that massive amounts of apocalyptic weapons are now lost in a chaotic country infested with al-Qaida supporters. Yet few war supporters seem to be panicking.

Chris Hedges, veteran New York Times war correspondent and author of "War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning," says that logical justifications have little to do with rallying populations to war. "It's emotional," he says. "What people find enticing about war is that sense of empowerment, that sense of ennoblement, that sense of cohesion, where we suddenly feel that we belong to the nation, to the community. That almost blissful state is one that when it slips from our grasp, our response is to recreate it, not to criticize it."

Thus there's a psychological aversion from information that would challenge the heroic myths of a nation at war. "War is a very powerful narcotic," Hedges says. "It seems to be very difficult for individuals in society to face the poison of war and their own culpability in wartime. It's true in any society."

For those who backed the war out of an inchoate sense that it would avenge Sept. 11 and make America safer, it would be terrifying to think that it did neither of these things. "There is so much hope that the administration's plans have made us safe, that the public almost instinctually goes with its hope rather than with whatever knowledge it might have," says Tifft.

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Muravchik's comments that Bush can't be lying because the world doesn't work that way get to the heart of the issue. What you think of Bush's honesty about Iraq is largely determined by the way you think the world operates. And the vision of the world that seems so self-evident to many liberals -- that an incompetent president deceived his way into a war that does nothing to protect Americans -- is not one that most people will accept, no matter what evidence is put forward.

Says Ward, "I've been at demonstrations trying to talk to those who are in support of the Bush administration. It's remarkable how thoroughly convinced they are that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11. No matter what you tell them, they end up saying that the president knows things that you don't know. Even if true information gets out there, there's no guarantee it's going to convince anyone."

But if large segments of the public, traumatized by Sept. 11 and galvanized by the perpetual war on terror, remain unreceptive to whatever evidence is put forward, what happens to American democracy?

"In wartime, democracy always suffers," says Hedges. "The state, when at war, accrues for itself all sorts of power and privileges that don't accrue in peacetime." None of this, he stresses, is unique to America.

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What is unique to America, at least at the moment, is that the country is embarked on a festering, many-fronted war whose end is nowhere in sight. That doesn't mean that if current trends continue American democracy is doomed. It may mean, though, that American democracy will turn into something different than it has been in the past.

"There are different ways a democracy can work," says Rosen. "Some of them involve public participation and popular mobilization and some don't. Some, we might say, are way more democratic than others. How can it be a democracy if people act this way? It can be a guardian democracy, a democracy run by an elite, where the general public is not tyrannized by this elite but allows it to be in charge and knows some things well and doesn't know a lot of other things. That's a condition that democracy can fall into."


Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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