Monday, October 25, 2004

The Kingdom Of The Blind

In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king - or when speaking of this country, president. Such are the troubling findings from a series of polls conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA). What the findings suggest is that the majority of Bush's supporters are ignorant regarding several of the key foreign policy realities that exist and affect the positions of each candidate. Please note that I am not saying that all Bush supporters are ignorant. Quite clearly that is not the case, especially in the blogosphere which tends to attract hyper-informed watchers from all political camps. That being said, there is a disturbing trend:

Even after the final report of Charles Duelfer to Congress saying that Iraq did not have a significant WMD program, 72% of Bush supporters continue to believe that Iraq had actual WMD (47%) or a major program for developing them (25%). Fifty-six percent assume that most experts believe Iraq had actual WMD and 57% also assume, incorrectly, that Duelfer concluded Iraq had at least a major WMD program. Kerry supporters hold opposite beliefs on all these points.

Similarly, 75% of Bush supporters continue to believe that Iraq was providing substantial support to al Qaeda, and 63% believe that clear evidence of this support has been found. Sixty percent of Bush supporters assume that this is also the conclusion of most experts, and 55% assume, incorrectly, that this was the conclusion of the 9/11 Commission. Here again, large majorities of Kerry supporters have exactly opposite perceptions. [emphasis added]
Some of these numbers are quite startling, and some are easier to explain. Part of the blame for the confusion lies with Bush administration officials themselves. On numerous occasions, both President Bush and Vice President Cheney have declared that we have found WMD's in Iraq, only to have their bold statements qualified and spun later by press secretaries and media liasons (Cheney being the more frequent offender of the two). Unfortunately for the public, and fortunate for Bush/Cheney, many Americans do not have the time or interest level to search out the subsequent corrections and qualifications, especially if their only news source is a less than fair or balanced one. Cheney has also been stubbornly persistent in misinforming the public about the illusory connection between al-Qaeda and Saddam, continuing to parrot information that has been proven unreliable and false - even in the face of stern rebukes from bi-partisan sources like the 9/11 Commission. Looking at the results, it is hard to argue with the strategy - unless you appeal to the more noble sense of democracy and respect for the public. Apparently Bush and Cheney do not.

Part of the problem can also be attributed to cognitive dissonance - or the ability of human beings to ignore or disregard facts or realities that contradict a pre-conceived notion of the world or a particular series of events. As
George Lakoff and others have noted, facts don't always carry the day, especially in a political context. Human nature and our physical makeup are not always a facts-friendly landscape. Here is an excerpt from his book Don't Think Of An Elephant!:

Neuroscience tells us that each of the concepts we have - the long-term concepts that structure how we think - is instantiated in the synapses of our brains. Concepts are not things that can be changed just by someone telling us a fact. We may be presented with facts, but for us to make sense of them, they have to fit what is already in the synapses of the brain. Otherwise facts go in and they go right back out. They are not heard, or they are not accepted as fact, or they mystify us: Why would anyone have said that? Then we label the fact as irrational, crazy, or stupid. [p. 17, emphasis added]
Lakoff makes a compelling case, especially when you consider all the evidence of hostility to the facts, which does not end with WMDs and al-Qaeda connections:

This tendency of Bush supporters to ignore dissonant information extends to other realms as well. Despite an abundance of evidence--including polls conducted by Gallup International in 38 countries, and more recently by a consortium of leading newspapers in 10 major countries--only 31% of Bush supporters recognize that the majority of people in the world oppose the US having gone to war with Iraq. Forty-two percent assume that views are evenly divided, and 26% assume that the majority approves. Among Kerry supporters, 74% assume that the majority of the world is opposed.

Similarly, 57% of Bush supporters assume that the majority of people in the world would favor Bush's reelection; 33% assumed that views are evenly divided and only 9% assumed that Kerry would be preferred. A recent poll by GlobeScan and PIPA of 35 of the major countries around the world found that in 30, a majority or plurality favored Kerry, while in just 3 Bush was favored. On average, Kerry was preferred more than two to one.
The director of PIPA, Steven Kull, takes a position similar to Lakoff's when he weighs in on the effects of cognitive dissonance amongst Bush supporters:

"The roots of the Bush supporters' resistance to information," according to Steven Kull, "very likely lie in the traumatic experience of 9/11 and equally in the near pitch-perfect leadership that President Bush showed in its immediate wake. 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 could be critical of his policies or that the President could hold foreign policy positions that are at odds with his supporters."
While I appreciate the psychological roots of this almost willful ignorance, cognitive dissonance alone is not the only factor. As I mentioned above, the Bush/Cheney administration has been deft at manipulating public opinion on several of these issues of fact by releasing misinformation, stubbornly defending it, and then leaving it to impartial fact-checkers to parse truth from propaganda after many Americans, and most Bush supporters, have tuned out. But there is also another factor: the right wing media and punditry have created a cocoon of sorts, that shields Bush supporters from the nastiness of facts that run contrary to pre-conceived notions. In this sense, entities like Fox News, enable the ignorance that cognitive dissonance initiates. Journalist Eric Alterman describes the findings of another PIPA study:

An in-depth study undertaken for the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes and published around the time of the second anniversary of the attacks found that over sixty percent of Americans believed one of the following misperceptions:

1. There's clear evidence that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein worked closely with the Sept. 11 terrorists.
2. U.S. forces found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
3. People in foreign countries generally either backed the U.S. - led war or were evenly split between supporting and opposing it.

Moreover, the researchers discovered a direct correlation between these misperceptions and the consumption of television news as opposed to newspapers or National Public Radio. According to its figures, 80 percent of Fox News' audience and 71 percent of CBS's bought into at least one of the above falsehoods. Meanwhile only 47 percent of newspaper and magazine readers and just 23 percent of those who said they relied on PBS or NPR found themselves similarly misled. And lest we forget, phony ideas have consequences. Support for Bush's war reached 53 percent among those who believed one of the lies, 78 percent among those who accepted two of them and a full 86 percent among those who embraced all three. Meanwhile fewer than a quarter of people who understood the truth of the situation--rejecting all three phony canards - were willing to take a trip on Bush and Cheney's not-so excellent adventure. [emphasis added]
With this in mind, I am a little pessimistic that the latest bombshell of bad news emanating from Iraq will sway any die-hard Bush supporters - despite the implications of what conservative pundit Andrew Sullivan described as "criminal negligence." I am referring to the article which appears in today's New York Times which contains the startling revelation that "380 tons of powerful conventional explosives - used to demolish buildings, make missile warheads and detonate nuclear weapons - are missing from one of Iraq's most sensitive former military installations."

This is one more bit of evidence which lends credence to the assertion that the Bush team's plan for post-war Iraq is a model of incompetence and poor judgment. There never were enough troops in Iraq to perform all of the necessary tasks post-invasion: providing security, creating lawful order, preventing looting, patrolling the borders, and quelling the insurgency. That this facility was not considered enough of a priority to receive adequate protection is either a testament to the dearth of adequate forces, or just plain reckless negligence. Take your pick.

The huge facility, called Al Qaqaa, was supposed to be under American military control but is now a no man's land, still picked over by looters as recently as Sunday. United Nations weapons inspectors had monitored the explosives for many years, but White House and Pentagon officials acknowledge that the explosives vanished sometime after the American-led invasion last year.
What is most discouraging is the fact that these facilities, and the materials they stored, were known about before the war, and were in fact policed and safeguarded by weapons inspectors and nuclear watchdogs. Our invasion of Iraq has actually unleashed a threat that was previously contained - a self-fulfilling prophecy of Iraq's danger to the world.

The International Atomic Energy Agency publicly warned about the danger of these explosives before the war, and after the invasion it specifically told United States officials about the need to keep the explosives secured, European diplomats said in interviews last week. Administration officials say they cannot explain why the explosives were not safeguarded, beyond the fact that the occupation force was overwhelmed by the amount of munitions they found throughout the country....

Earlier this month, in a letter to the I.A.E.A. in Vienna, a senior official from Iraq's Ministry of Science and Technology wrote that the stockpile disappeared after early April 2003 because of "the theft and looting of the governmental installations due to lack of security."
And they had good reason to be concerned about these particular munitions. Here is a brief summary of the destructive capacity of some of the materials looted from the site:

American weapons experts say their immediate concern is that the explosives could be used in major bombing attacks against American or Iraqi forces: the explosives, mainly HMX and RDX, could produce bombs strong enough to shatter airplanes or tear apart buildings...

The explosives could also be used to trigger a nuclear weapon, which was why international nuclear inspectors had kept a watch on the material, and even sealed and locked some of it. The other components of an atom bomb - the design and the radioactive fuel - are more difficult to obtain....

More worrisome to the I.A.E.A. - and to some in Washington - is that HMX and RDX are used in standard nuclear weapons design. In a nuclear implosion weapon, the explosives crush a hollow sphere of uranium or plutonium into a critical mass, initiating the nuclear explosion.
Think about the implications for a moment. The United States invaded Iraq because Saddam supposedly had vast "stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons" (to quote Donald Rumsfeld), but we didn't plan ahead to provide the necessary troop presence to secure even the most sensitive of sites? What if the Bush administration was right about Saddam's WMDs? What if his arsenal was extensive and far flung, what position would we be in now? In a sense, we should all be thankful that the Bush team was so spectacularly wrong and dishonest about the WMD threat that Iraq posed. If they had been right, is there any doubt that Saddam's WMDs would be disseminated throughout the world, ending up in the hands of terrorists - which was the pre-invasion worst case scenario.

While that is cause for some comfort, the weapons that have already escaped present their own unique threats.

A special property of HMX and RDX lends them to smuggling and terrorism, experts said. While violently energetic when detonated, they are insensitive to shock and physical abuse during handling and transport because of their chemical stability. A hammer blow does nothing. It takes a detonator, like a blasting cap, to release the stored energy.

Experts said the insensitivity made them safer to transport than the millions of unexploded shells, mines and pieces of live ammunition that litter Iraq. And its benign appearance makes it easy to disguise as harmless goods, easily slipped across borders.
Those properties, and the destructive capacity of HMX and RDX, might explain the meaning of "an internal I.A.E.A. memorandum [which] warned that terrorists might be helping 'themselves to the greatest explosives bonanza in history.'"

Rather than viewing this latest revelation concerning the bgreathtaking dimensions of the Bush administration's gross incompetence in the planning and execution of the war, the forces of cognitive dissonance will likely push these unfortunate facts out of the reasoning of Bush's staunchest supporters. That being said, there is hope that news such as this will help to inform and influence moderates who are not so firmly entrenched in either camp and whose minds are more apt to process information impartially. One week from tomorrow, we will behold whether truth or ignorance prevails.

[Update: Cyndy at MouseMusings has concocted a telling timeline of the looting of various sensitive facilities in Iraq and the subsequent release, or leaking, of that information to the public.]

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