By Brigitte L. Nacos
Most Americans are far more realistic than the Bush administration in judging the impact of the Iraqwar on the threat of terrorism. According to a new poll commissioned by The Third Way National Security Project, 55 percent of the public believe that the invasion of Iraq has made the United States less safe and 54 percent think that the Iraq war “is a distraction that diverts resources and attention away from the real war on terror.” I assume, the majority means that the real war on terrorism would concentrate on hunting down Al Qaeda leaders and followers around the world. Moreover, as Washington Post columnist David Broder writes, “Large majorities -- including most Republicans -- reject Vice President Cheney's contention that the absence of a second attack means we are safer. Instead, they say that the threat of terrorism has increased since 2001, and they believe that the war in Iraq has made us less safe, not more.” Indeed, four of five Americans disagree with the Vice President on this count (89 percent Democrats, 87 percent Independents, 67 percent Republicans). Three of four Americans (85 percent of Democrats, 63 percent of Republicans, and 75 percent of Independents) believe that “in the last few years, the US has focused too much on lofty ideals. We should focus instead on real threats to our own security.” These attitudes of the majority of Americans are contrary to the administration’s views. Like the President, most Americans believe that terrorism is a very serious threat (in fact, 86 percent consider “terrorism as serious a threat to America and the world today as Nazism and Communism were in the 20th century), but a majority no longer supports major assumptions and goals of his administration’s counterterrorist policies. Thus, two thirds of Americans want a foreign policy that protects American security regardless of “whether it spreads or ideals or not.” Nearly three of five Americans want the U.S.to consider negotiations with Iran and Syria, if that would be helpful to America’s security interests.
In the months and years following the terrorist attacks of
9/11, the news was dominated by administration sources and the positions they
took in the “war on terrorism.” Alternative sources and views were
under-covered or not covered at all. While it is true that most Washingtonians
went along, there were those sources that contradicted the administration’s
In their excellent book The Rational Public, Benjamin I. Page and Robert Y. Shapiro concluded that “information available to the public may sometimes be overwhelmingly false, misleading, or biased. When it is, and especially when virtually no dissenting elite voices are heard—in some foreign policy situations, for example, where the executive branch controls information and events or where “bipartisan” foreign policy holds sway—the public may be led astray. The rational public can be deceived.” That’s pretty much what happened after 9/11, during the build-up to the Iraq war and during and after the invasion phase. The not fully informed public rallied around the President and his policies.
As the news media and more members of the political elite overcame their 9/11syndrome, the public received information from a variety of sources with distinctly different views. Page and Shapiro consider the American public “as substantially capable of rational calculations about the merits of alternative public policies, based on the information that is made available to it…the public is surprisingly resistant to be fooled—so long as competing elites provide at least some alternative voices.”
Yes, when alternative voices were heard in the news, this changed America’s mass-mediated debate and in the process public attitudes about the war on terrorism.