Three out of four self-described supporters of President George W. Bush still believe pre-war Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or active programs to produce them, and that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein gave "substantial support" to al-Qaeda terrorists, according to a survey released Thursday.
Moreover, as many or more Bush supporters hold those beliefs today than they did several months ago, before the publication of a series of well-publicized official government reports that debunked both notions.
Those are among the most striking findings of the survey, which was conducted in mid-October by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) and Knowledge Networks, a California-based polling firm.
The survey, which polled the views of nearly 900 randomly chosen respondents equally divided between Bush supporters and those intending to vote for Democratic Senator John Kerry in November's presidential election, found a yawning gap in the worldviews, particularly as regards pre-war Iraq, between the two groups.
"It is normal during elections for supporters of presidential candidates to have fundamental disagreements about values or strategies," said an analysis produced by PIPA.
But "the current election is unique in that Bush supporters and Kerry supporters have profoundly different perceptions of reality. In the face of a stream of high-level assessments about prewar Iraq, Bush supporters cling to the refuted beliefs that Iraq had WMD or supported al-Qaeda."
Indeed, the only issue on which the survey found broad agreement between the two sets of voters was on the question of whether the administration itself actively propagated the misconceptions about Iraq's WMD and connections to al-Qaeda.
"One of the reasons that Bush supporters have these [erroneous] beliefs is that they perceive the Bush administration confirming them," noted PIPA Director Steven Kull. "Interestingly, this is one point on which Bush and Kerry supporters agree."
The survey also found a major gap between Bush's stated positions on a number of international issues and what his supporters believe that position to be. A strong majority of Bush backers believe, for example, that the president supports a range of global treaties and institutions, which he is actually on record as opposing.
On pre-war Iraq, the survey asked each respondent questions about WMD and links to al-Qaeda on three levels: 1) what the respondents themselves believed about the two issues; 2) what they believed "most experts" had concluded about them; and 3) what they believed the Bush administration was saying about them.
The survey found 72 percent of Bush supporters believe either that Iraq had actual WMD (47 percent) or a major program for making them (25 percent), despite the widespread media coverage in early October of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA's) Duelfer Report, the final word on the subject by the $1 billion, 15-month investigation by the Iraq Survey Group.
It concluded Hussein had dismantled all of his WMD programs shortly after the 1991 Gulf War and had never tried to reconstitute them.
Nonetheless, 56 percent of Bush supporters said they thought most experts currently believe Iraq had actual WMD, and 57 percent said they thought the Duelfer Report had concluded that Iraq either had WMD (19 percent) or a major WMD program (38 percent).
Only 26 percent of Kerry supporters, by contrast, said they believed that pre-war Iraq had either actual WMD or a WMD program, and only 18 percent said they believed "most experts" agreed with those two possibilities.
Similar results were found with respect to Hussein's alleged support for al-Qaeda, a theory that has been most persistently asserted by Vice President Dick Cheney, but that was thoroughly debunked by the final report of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission earlier this summer.
Seventy-five percent of Bush supporters said they believed Iraq was providing "substantial" support to al-Qaeda, with 20 percent asserting Baghdad was directly involved in the 9/11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
Sixty-three percent of Bush supporters even believed that clear evidence of such support has been found, and 60 percent believed "most experts" have reached the same conclusion.
By contrast, only 30 percent of Kerry supporters said they believe such a link existed and that most experts agree.
But large majorities of both Bush and Kerry supporters agree that the administration is saying Iraq had WMD and was providing substantial support to al-Qaeda. In regard to WMD, those majorities have actually grown since last summer, according to PIPA.
Remarkably, asked whether the United States should have gone to war with Iraq if U.S. intelligence had concluded Baghdad did not have a WMD program and was not supporting al-Qaeda, 58 percent of Bush supporters said no, and 61 percent said they assumed the president would also not have gone to war under those circumstances.
"To support the president and to accept that he took the U.S. to war based on mistaken assumptions," said Kull, "likely creates substantial cognitive dissonance and leads Bush supporters to suppress awareness of unsettling information about prewar Iraq."
Kull added that this "cognitive dissonance" could also help explain other remarkable findings in the survey, particularly with respect to Bush supporters' misperceptions about the president's own positions.
In particular, majorities of Bush supporters incorrectly assumed he supports multilateral approaches to various international issues, including the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) (69 percent), the land mine treaty (72 percent), and the Kyoto Protocol to curb greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming (51 percent).
In all of these cases, majorities of Bush supporters said they favored the positions that they imputed, incorrectly, to the president.
Large majorities of Kerry supporters, on the other hand, showed they knew both their candidate's and Bush's positions on the same issues.
Bush supporters were also found to hold misperceptions regarding international support for the president and his policies.
Despite a steady flow over the past year of official statements by foreign governments and public-opinion polls showing strong opposition to the Iraq war, less than one-third of Bush supporters believed that most people in foreign countries opposed Washington having gone to war.
Two-thirds said they believed foreign views were either evenly divided on the war (42 percent) or that the majority of foreigners actually favored the war (26 percent).
Three of every four Kerry supporters, on the other hand, said they understood that most of the rest of the world opposed the war.
Kull, who has been analyzing U.S. public opinion on foreign-policy issues for two decades, said misperceptions of Bush supporters showed, if anything, the hold the president has over his loyalists.
"The roots of the Bush supporters' resistance to information very likely lie in the traumatic experience of 9/11 and equally into the near pitch-perfect leadership that President Bush showed in its immediate wake," he said.
"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 judgment before the war, that world public opinion would be critical of his policies or that the president could hold foreign-policy positions that are at odds with his supporters."
Jim Lobe is a political analyst with Foreign Policy in Focus (online at www.fpif.org) and a correspondent with Inter Press Service, where this article first appeared. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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