Michael Totten

What Iraqis Want You to Hear

Two days ago ABC News released “a new poll of Iraqi public opinion”:http://www.abcnews.go.com/images/PollingUnit/1060a1IraqWhereThingsStand.pdf, and John Burns at the New York Times made “a very perceptive observation”:http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/16/weekinreview/16jburns.html?_r=2&pagewanted=3&oref=slogin that should be taken into account when looking it over.

Opinion polls, including those commissioned by the American command, have long suggested that a majority of Iraqis would like American troops withdrawn, but another lesson to be drawn from Saddam Hussein’s years is that any attempt to measure opinion in Iraq is fatally skewed by intimidation. More often than not, people tell pollsters and reporters what they think is safe, not necessarily what they believe. My own experience, invariably, was that Iraqis I met who felt secure enough to speak with candor had an overwhelming desire to see American troops remain long enough to restore stability.

This feels right to me, not only thanks to my experience in Iraq, but also in places like totalitarian Libya where no one dared criticize the regime in public, and where everyone I spoke to did so in private where they were safe. Saddam Hussein commanded a murder and intimidation regime in Iraq, and today’s insurgents wage a murder and intimidation campaign in the streets. In Fallujah and Ramadi, Iraqi civilians were murdered just for waving hello to Americans, and for accepting bags of rice as charity. Fear should not be ignored when gauging Iraqi public opinion, and that includes fear of American guns as well as fear of insurgents.
I’ve been to Iraq five times, and never once have I heard an Iraqi say anything hostile about Americans. Partly this is because I don’t spend time in insurgent circles. How could I? The Iraqis I’ve met don’t represent the full spectrum. Middle Easterners are also famous for their politeness and, unlike some people from other parts of the world, they will not get in your face if they don’t like where you come from. (Al Qaeda members are an obvious and extreme exception, but they’re hated everywhere in Iraq and are violently atypical.)
“Read the rest in Commentary Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/2998