Friday, February 23, 2007

Should We Trust Murtha on What Iraqis Think

Jack Murtha and those who agree with him often cite Iraqi public opinion polls to demonstrate that Iraqis want US troops out of the country. Zev Chafets (in a NYPost piece several days old) questions where those numbers come from:

This is the sheerest nonsense. In today's (or yesterday's) Iraq, independent pollsters have as much chance of gathering genuine data as rabbis have of collecting donations from Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites.

The problem isn't unique to Iraq. It holds for opinion surveys in any society ruled by kinship, secrecy and fear of outsiders - in other words, almost every country in the Middle East.

In these places, it is a cardinal principle, founded in the folk wisdom of self-preservation, that you don't share honest opinions on controversial matters with inquisitive strangers. In Iraq, where Saddam Hussein's regime habituated citizens to speak in whispers even among their own families, the problem is especially acute...

The survey Murtha quotes was published last September by the Center on Policy Attitudes, a small think tank affiliated with the University of Maryland, "partnered" by the Brookings Institution's Saban Center.

Those are prestigious names - but neither Brookings nor the University of Maryland actually did any polling. They contracted the job out to a U.S. firm, D3 Systems - which subcontracted it to KA Research. Matt Warshaw, a D3 spokesman, says KA Research is owned by Iraqis and Turks, but isn't prepared to name them.

KA Research's Web site says it uses face-to-face interviews, computer-assisted phone queries, Web and postal interviews, and focus-group discussions to come up with its statistics. That claim invites skepticism. Do strangers really go around freely in Baghdad asking for political opinions? Conduct phone surveys among people with no phones, ask the folks in Anbar Province to return candid questionnaires via a non-existent postal service, go through the neighborhoods of Najaf requesting a few minutes with the lady of the house?

Warshaw claims they do; maybe so. But KA Research, that mystery subcontractor, also does its own quality control - with no real outside checks on its data. I was unable to find (and Washaw didn't know of) any contemporaneous American polls with which to compare results.

If this company has really been able to raise a nationwide army of courageous, reliable, honest and neutral pollsters, it should be put in charge of the Iraqi security forces.

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