Cognitive dissonance, the War in Iraq, and the War on Terror

If “victory” in Iraq is necessary to success against terror, we shouldn’t hastily get our troops out of Iraq. But Americans want those troops home, pronto. The more the hawks insist that the Iraq-terror linkage requires an open-ended commitment to Iraq, the less the populace will believe in that linkage.

Greg Sargent notes that the latest WaPo poll has 57% of respondents saying that we can succeed against terror without winning in Iraq, (as against 37% who think otherwise) , while only 47% (vs. 44%) thought so in January.

Over the past four months the percentage of respondents who think the US “must win” in Iraq for the sake of the broader “war on terror” dropped eight points. Meanwhile, the percentage who think victory is not necessary to it has gone up a surprising ten points. This is striking &#8212 because in that four months or so since Dems took power in January the overriding message that the White House, the GOP and all of their lackeys and shills in the media have been blaring at the electorate in every conceivable forum is that (a) victory is absolutely essential in Iraq and failure is not an option lest America become less secure; and (b) leaving Iraq would constitute a catastrophic defeat in the broader war on terror.

I agree that the GOP rhetorical failure is impressive (along with their failure to demonize Nancy Pelosi, cruising along at 53% job performance). But the obvious interpretation is not that people have stopped believing that victory in Iraq is necessary to victory against terror despite hearing that over and over as the central talking point of those who favor an open-ended commitment to Iraq. The obvious interpretation is the insistence on the linkage by advocates of that policy has caused people to disagree with it.

For good reasons or bad, Americans overwhelmingly want out of Iraq. If they believed that leaving Iraq would mean surrendering to terror, they would feel bad about their desire to get out. But they have no strong belief either way about the purported linkage. So the comfortable thing to do is to deny the linkage.

Offering an argument for a conclusion people don’t want to believe is a good way to get them to disbelieve the premises of that argument. That’s lousy logic, but it’s straightforward cognitive psychology.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: