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A lesson from the Brits

ARE THE British better informed as citizens than Americans?

A poll conducted in June by the Program on International Policy Attitudes reveals some eye-opening information about the American public's lack of political information.

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While 52 percent of those polled correctly knew that weapons of mass destruction have not been found in Iraq, 34 percent of Americans believe that WMD have been found; 7 percent were unsure. Even more amazing, the poll found that 22 percent of Americans believe Saddam Hussein used chemical or biological weapons during the March war.

Moreover, despite no evidence of WMD in Iraq - the initial and most important reason given for going to war - President Bush is doing well in the polls.

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At the same time, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has lost both public and his party's support over questions dealing with intelligence used as justification of the war. The British public, which seems to be better informed on the events of the war, is outraged at the notion that government officials fabricated or embellished the truth to promote the invasion of Iraq. Are the British taking WMD more seriously than Americans?

Why has the American public been more forgiving of Mr. Bush than the British have been of Mr. Blair, and how has he escaped the "Blair backlash" syndrome?

Perhaps the main reason is the lack of organized dissent in the United States. The Democrats have been unable to effectively organize a critical assessment of the causes of the Iraqi war. They at first claimed patriotism and later failed to mobilize against it. The Bush administration has successfully branded any opposition to the Iraq war as "minor" or "the voice of a small focus group" or even "leftist rantings."

But in Britain, there has been serious opposition at the government level. Labor Cabinet members Clare Short and Robin Cook publicly opposed the war and, true to British tradition, finally resigned from their positions in protest. Both now accuse Mr. Blair of lying and intentionally manipulating facts to promote war efforts.

Throughout most of the winter, a majority of the British opposed going to war. The bump in Mr. Blair's opinion rating caused by a relatively quick and successful war has long faded. It appears that the British government is at least discussing and grappling with issues of transparency and accountability with regards to Iraq. By contrast, Mr. Bush avoids and dodges any question about his actions and statements, even after intelligence information has been discredited publicly.

Perhaps the difference in approaches results from the different forms of government in each country. Parliament's term is not fixed, meaning it could fall at any time or be subject to a vote of confidence. The Bush administration could be counting on the public's short attention span; the 2004 elections are beyond the horizon.

But the American public is not guiltless in its appalling record on understanding current events. All citizens in a democracy have the civic obligation to understand events in their country in order to make informed decisions and to judge responsibly.

Even now, confronted with direct evidence of the distortion of intelligence information about Iraq, the American public seems content to focus on the successful outcome of the war that Mr. Bush has promised but has not yet delivered. Where has the critical American public gone?

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Edward Wagner is a researcher at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. He lives in Providence, R.I.


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