The wisdom of crowds
When poll results are announced in a sound bite or presented in a single sentence, the mind often fills in the rest. Some prediction markets, for example, have consistently recorded that trades believe a Democrat will win the 2008 Presidential elections, the odds trading at about 60%.
Based on that one snippet of information, one would anticipate that the same future market would predict the campaign in Iraq will soon be be drawing down. But interestingly, the percentage of traders who believed "U.S. Troops will begin leaving Iraq soon" dropped precipitously from an average of about 40% at the end of July to about 5% today. Here's the graph by month. The lower graph shows volume of trades.
This may reflect a more nuanced public understanding of the relationship between electoral politics and foreign policy. Or it may be a reflection of a change in perception in progress in Iraq, reasoning that no President, Republican or Democrat, can abandon a war that is being won.
People are funny. Let's look at a BBC-commissioned poll of Iraqis taken before the Surge, in March of 2007. The explanatory note says: "the poll was conducted by D3 Systems for the BBC, ABC News, ARD German TV and USA Today. More than 2,000 people were questioned in more than 450 neighbourhoods and villages across all 18 provinces of Iraq between 25 February and 5 March 2007. The margin of error is + or – 2.5%."
Question 16 on the BBC poll asks: "I am going to name a number of organizations. For each one, please tell me if you have a great deal of confidence, quite a lot of confidence, not very much confidence, or none at all?"
Here are the percentages for the US and UK forces:
|Great deal of confidence||6||7||8||7|
|Quite a lot of confidence||12||11||17||12|
|Not very much confidence||30||23||23||20|
|None at all||52||55||43||52|
It was mildly surprising to see the percentage of people with a "great deal" and "quite a lot" of confidence unchanged from 2005 and 2003. But the surprises continue. Here's the answer set for "local leaders in your community".
|Great deal of confidence||11||17||17||19|
|Quite a lot of confidence||34||23||34||26|
|Not very much confidence||34||29||22||21|
|None at all||21||21||16||17|
Now here's the answer set for the Iraqi Army.
|Great deal of confidence||24||36||18||13|
|Quite a lot of confidence||37||31||38||25|
|Not very much confidence||25||18||25||29|
|None at all||14||12||10||16|
US and UK forces are less popular than "local leaders in your community", but surprisingly, not by that wide a margin. And if the BBC poll results are to be taken at face value, the respondents trust the Iraqi Army more than their local leaders. Does this reflect a general suspiciousness in Iraqi society? Who knows. But clearly a soundbite saying that only 18% of the Iraqi public have confidence in Coalition forces won't be fully understood until the reader goes straight to the full poll result.
In April, 2007 the University of Maryland surveyed attitudes in four Islamic countries, Morocco, Egypt, Pakistan and Indonesia as part of an effort to measure the effect of the War on Terror on perceptions in these countries. Here's a sample of the results of various questions.
Views of the US government
The US Should Withdraw Forces From Islamic Countries
Approve on attacks on US troops in Iraq
Approve on attacks on US troops in Afghanistan
What's really striking about these figures is that Egypt, which is an American "ally", the end product of sophisticated diplomacy, the recipient of lavish aid apparently hates America worst of all. Going by the figures the US may be more popular in Iraq (as per BBC poll) and Pakistan (where there is US campaign against the Taliban right across the border) than in Egypt or Morocco. Moreover, there's hardly a dime's worth of difference between the perception of US forces in Afghanistan and in Iraq. The approvals of attacks on US troops in Afghanistan are virtually the same as those for Iraq. So which is the "good" war? And how is it again that returning to diplomacy will improve the image in the Arab world? In Egypt are we seeing the effects of the media perception of American actions as against the direct perception of American actions by the people of Iraq? Again who knows. But the example illustrates how hard it is to draw conclusions based on a partial reading of the polls.