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Published: Sunday, 7/13/2003

Americans conflicted about post-war Iraq

Webster's defines cognitive dissonance as “the confused mental condition that results from holding incongruous, often mutually contradictory beliefs, simultaneously.” It aptly describes what many Americans are experiencing as a result of the inconsistent, contradictory information disseminated by the Bush Administration on precisely why the country invaded Iraq and how long the United States plans to ride out its deadly entanglement.

Two polls released this month suggest Americans are increasingly conflicted about the post-war guerrilla action that's picking off their countrymen by the hour in Iraq. They're also disturbed by the questions being raised about whether the administration manipulated intelligence about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to make a case for war. But - here's where the cognitive dissonance part comes in - a majority of Americans continue to support the war while expressing doubt about the truthfulness of the administration's rationale for pre-emptive action against Iraq.

A nationwide survey by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland showed 52 percent of those polled agreed that the administration was “at least stretching the truth” when it presented evidence of Iraq's WMD. No evidence of such weapons has been found by occupying forces in Iraq, but only 1 in 10 surveyed said that the administration flat out lied.

A majority, 71 percent, believed the Bush Administration “implied that Iraq under Saddam Hussein was involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks,” although there is no evidence of such a role. The spin by the Bush White House to connect the dots from 9/11 to Baghdad worked so well that 25 percent of respondents told pollsters they thought Iraq was “directly involved in carrying out” those attacks. Yet despite acknowledgement that the government stretched the truth to exaggerate imminent threat, Americans still refuse to believe the worst about those who led them into battle and protracted nation-building in the Middle East.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer took perverse pleasure in that, noting that 61 percent of respondents in a recent Gallup-USA Today poll said the administration didn't deliberately mislead the public. Which must mean, through no fault of its own it used intelligence material - known by the administration to be disputed or suspected as fraudulent - to overplay the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. “I think the American people actually have a very good center of gravity about the situation in Iraq,” said Ari with a straight face.

Maybe Ari is leaving his job to avoid cognitive dissonance between official fiction and fact. What's really happening is Americans adamant about supporting their troops in sweltering Iraq - and by extension the war itself - have to screen out information that says the whole thing was a calculated mistake, or live with the troubling inconsistencies and official evasions. Sounds too much like the bad old days of Vietnam, when Americans believed and government lied.

Even with uneasiness about some of the Bush Administration's claims, and anxiety about the chaos enveloping U.S. occupiers in post-war Iraq, few dare believe it was all for naught. Americans died - and are dying. Thousands of Iraqis were killed. Getting rid of Saddam Hussein had to have been worth the war. The Gallup poll reflects that stubborn belief among those who support the war, although the foundation may be a little shaky.

According to the survey, 56 percent said the situation in Iraq was still “worth going to war over,” while 42 percent disagreed. That's down from 73 percent to 23 percent right after the fall of Baghdad. But after 9/11 Americans seem more willing to suppress old notions of fair play and support action that may offend their intellect, because settling scores feels good.

Oh, sure, there'll be hell to pay for being the bully on the block, but for once flexing our muscles is just the catharsis we need. We'll deal with our mutually contradictory beliefs later. Release the dogs of war.



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