Printer Friendly Page Blood for Oil? Bad Polls Hide Important Truths  ~ #16

Blood for Oil? Bad Polls Hide Important Truths ~ #16

By Alan F. Kay, PhD
2002, (fair use with attribution and copy to authors)
Dec. 26, 2002

After floating in a sea of lovely, joyous carols calling for peace in the world, the U.S. faces the New Year and a crazy contrast. Almost every American (97+%) wants the U.S. (preferably with the UN) to "take clear action" to stop at least the most heinous crimes that dictators perpetrate against the world and/or their own people. Saddam Hussein has headed the list of such evil dictators for over a decade.

When a U.S. military intervention is under consideration, good polling can shed light on vital information as nothing else can. Today's column shows: (1) How much bloodshed the people themselves are willing to accept, both of the enemy and of U.S. troops; (2) The American people believe that the President's top goal in invading Iraq in 1991 was to control the oil, while their own top goal was to produce a lasting peace in the Middle East. Unfortunately, to my knowledge no poll has explored the difference in goals of top U.S. leaders and the public for any prospective Middle East intervention.

From hundreds of polls asked in the last few months about support for a war with Iraq, 49 to 78% approve, while 17 to 40% disapprove, depending on the assumptions made in the questions. Despite these huge ranges, the favorable always outnumber the unfavorable.

How much killing is acceptable to the American people? In June 1991 after the Gulf War, polls produced amazing answers to these questions:

"When a dictator's behavior calls upon us to 'take clear action' to stop him, please tell me which of the following is closer to what you would favor"?

"First diplomatic initiatives and economic sanctions, but not the use of military force" . . . . . . . . . . 20% favor.

"Second, if economic sanctions and diplomatic initiatives don't work, then the use of military intervention and combat that does not involve too much loss of life" . . . . . 79% favor.

The interviewer then says:
"I would like to get some idea of what you think 'too much loss of life' is in a military intervention. What would be the rough figure you would use as a limit to an acceptable number of ________ deaths?"
[U.S./enemy, rotated]

"Just stop me when I reach the limit you would use"
[Interviewer then slowly reads],

"One? ...Ten? ... A hundred? ..." and so on, up to "A million? ..." ending with "No limit? ...."

The results were:

  Percentages of U.S. public saying "ACCEPTABLE"
  U.S. Deaths
Enemy Deaths






Less than


















No Limit



Large minorities say NO deaths are acceptable, United States OR enemy. Perhaps surprisingly, majorities are quite willing to respond with specific limits, 59% for U.S. deaths and 64% for enemy deaths. The difference between U.S. and enemy deaths in each category reminds us that U.S. soldiers in WWII and others at other times have made bravado (or chauvinist) remarks, like "The life of one or our troops is worth ten enemy lives". The table shows about 11% of the public saying just that, in sharp contrast to the overwhelming majority who commendably within an order of magnitude make no distinction between American and enemy deaths.

United States leaders, no matter how hawkish, avoid saying publicly that any deaths are "acceptable", but the people who will do the fighting and dying and the whole U.S. population, which supports them, are more realistic and more honest. When George W. Bush accepted a slightly risky smallpox vaccination, he said that he would not ask others to take a risk that he himself refused. Sounded good. But he will not be in the front lines of any invading U.S. forces, nor will Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Perle, Adelman, Ashcroft, Pipes, and the other hawks who are making our "war-no war" decisions. Why not? If they survived, they might appreciate what retiring marine general Anthony Zinni, battle-hardened former head of the U.S. Middle Central Command (covering most of the Middle East and Central Asia) said, "I've never seen fighting that justified the fight."

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has stated that "An Iraq war has absolutely nothing to do with oil." He and the other hawks controlling the "war/ no war" decision are somewhat challenged by recent poll results. According to the largest polling database, there have been in the past six months two poll questions that come close to asking whether a war against Iraq is motivated by the desire to control oil supplies, as follows:

GALLUP. "Is 'ensuring a more stable supply of oil' a major reason, or not, why the Bush administration is considering taking military action to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq?" (Gallup/CNN/U.S.A Today, Sept. 2002):

     RESPONSES: 55% yes, 40% no.

PEW. "In your opinion, which of the following better explains why the United States might use military force against Iraq? Is it more because the U.S. believes that Saddam Hussein is a threat to stability in the Middle East and world peace or is it more because the U.S. wants to control Iraqi oil?" (Pew Research Center/ Princeton Survey Research Associates, Nov 4-10, 2002):

     RESPONSES: Saddam's threat, 67%; Control Iraqi oil, 22%; DK/refused, 11%.

Neither these two questions concerning the relationship between "control of oil" and "a war against Iraq" (nor any others in the database) were asked in a way that allowed people to make a distinction between what they themselves want and (1) what the administration wants, in the case of Gallup, or (2) what the U.S. will do, in the case of Pew or more generally, (3) what top leaders want.

But such questions can be asked. As Iraq and the U.S. were building toward war, in Sept., 1990, I and my colleagues introduced a question of this kind by asking the public to rate for importance 11 possible U.S. objectives and how likely their achievement would be. We then followed up with: "Among these 11 objectives, which do you think should be the number one goal of the U.S.?" Lastly we asked "Which is the number one goal of President Bush?"

The top goal of President Bush among 11 goals tested, was "Make sure oil from the Middle East flows freely out to the world" according to 26% of the public, while it was only the top goal for 12% of the public. No other Bush goal scored higher than 13%. Each goal was selected as a top goal on average by 9% of the public.

Americans Talk Issues was not afraid to show that the public and the President do not always see eye to eye. Why have no other pollsters done that anytime in the six months of a brewing Iraq/U.S. confrontation? We need to get the people's goals and the leaders goals aligned. Mainstream media not reporting the misalignment is a tragedy for everybody.



>>> 2.5  The Polling Critic

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