Elvis and bin Laden

by John Q on March 25, 2004

The idea that the war in Iraq is a necessary part of the struggle against terrorism is probably the biggest single factor in the case supporting the war. Both political leaders and pro-war bloggers have made repeated claims that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein constitutes progress in the “War against Terror”. A variety of arguments in support of this view have been proposed, most notably the ‘flypaper’ or ‘bring ’em on’ theory that, by encouraging terrorists to fight in Iraq, the war made the rest of the world a safer place.

The most widely reported opinion poll in Australia is the Newspoll, which provides results for Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited papers (he has about half the Australian market). There was widespread discussion recently about a Newspoll showing that 65 per cent of people thought the war in Iraq had increased the danger of a terrorist attack in Australia[1],

However, the really striking result was ignored. This concerned the proportion of people who accepted the claim, made repeatedly by the government here, that the invasion of Iraq substantially reduced the danger of terrorist attack. Only 1 per cent of respondents said that the invasion had made a terrorist attack “less likely”. The view that the war made an attack “a lot less likely” got an asterisk (less than 0.5 per cent). You can read the details here (PDF file).

This is substantially less than the proportion of people who are reported (in other surveys) to believe that Elvis is alive or that aliens are controlling government policy. In fact, by coincidence, another story a couple of days later reported an opinion poll for a mayoral election in which an Elvis ‘tribute artist’ has 8 per cent support.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen an opinion poll in which the position of the government on a central issue of foreign policy is supported by a fraction of the population too small to be reported.

fn1. The question doesn’t distinguish between the interpretations ” our participation in the Iraq war has raised Australia’s profile as a target” and “the Iraq war has increased the risk of terrorism everywhere”. I have previously argued that the latter view is the right one.



sean 03.25.04 at 9:40 pm

I wonder what the percentage of people in Australia consider “the force” as their religion. In 2002 there was a story somewhere about answers to a census question about religion in Australia. I’d bet that’s higher then the 1% that think the war in Iraq made the country safer.


Conrad barwa 03.25.04 at 11:11 pm

Out of curiosity, have the moves to conduct some sort of inquiry into the intelligence failure over the war and the WMD issue had much impact on the way the debate is framed?


james 03.26.04 at 1:32 am

The distinction between raising the threat of terrorism generally, and raising a given country’s position on the “hitlist” is crucial. You refer to this distinction.

But at least as crucial is the distinction between short-term and long-term. If the Iraq “project” is successful it is possible that the war will have increased terrorism in the short term, but lessened it in the long term.


Rajeev Advani 03.26.04 at 1:50 am

How was the question worded? I have no illusions that the war in Iraq will decrease terrorism NOW but supported it only because I believe that it will decrease terror in the long run.

And the most significant reason for supporting the war is not the “fly-paper”, “bring-it-on” logic, but the “drain the swamp” ideal. The two are distinct, and to me the latter was always the most compelling…

The first point was put much better by my co-blogger here a few days ago.

But your point is taken about the opinion polls — that is … (for me) depressing.


bad Jim 03.26.04 at 8:21 am

Why are Americans so much less sane than Australians? Is it something in the air, or something that isn’t in the air?

It does make the upcoming elections sound that much more promising for both countries.


Jim Birch 03.26.04 at 10:25 am

It’s like arguing that WTC attacks made it less likely that that we (the west) would decide it’s a good idea to bomb some arabs.

I find it strange, disturbing, disgusting – what is the word? – that the business of a national government can be maintaining support for a position that is obviously completely crazy.

It’s the psychotic victory of semiotics over reality: People who inhabit the world of spin eventually develop the belief that truth doesn’t matter, it’s only the sign of truth that is important.


Jimi 03.26.04 at 12:41 pm

But, but, but … Elvis is alive.


Natalie Solent 03.26.04 at 3:28 pm

Well, I see that a couple of people have made the distinction between a more dangerous short term and a safer long term that I was going to. Not only do I personally think that describes the facts fairly well, I also think it factually describes the way pro-war governments presented them fairly well.

I can’t speak for Australia in detail, but here in Britain in the run-up to the war there were loads of government warnings and briefings and pronouncements that the country was on Code This and Alert Status That – all telling us explicitly that Al-Qaeda were more likely to hit Britain as a direct result of British support for the war. It would amaze me if Australia did not also declare an official heightened state of alert. In other words, I think your surprise is misplaced. The respondees to the poll are just saying that they could see the obvious.

And it is obvious. To use the cowboy metaphor so popular on both sides of the Atlantic, no one would believe that when Gary Cooper puts on his gun to fight the bad guy in High Noon he is actually reducing his risk of getting shot that afternoon.

The question at issue (the answer to which I concede is not obvious, though I know which answer I go for) is whether in shooting the bad guy he has made the town safer or not.


dipnut 03.26.04 at 5:42 pm

Thank you, Natalie.

It’s not a perfect world, and in any war there will be something to complain about; usually there is the stench of millions of corpses, most of them non-combatants, most of them slaughtered to no particular purpose. This war (Iraq specifically), by any reasonable standard, has been unbelievably efficient, clean, and positive in its results.

Nevertheless, it might conceivably have gone better. So the antis complain. But they are terribly weak on the question of might-have-beens.

Does anyone seriously believe that the threat of Saddam Hussein could have been defused without a fight? Does anyone seriously believe that containment in perpetuity was a viable option? No. There would be a war, or a catastrophic breakdown, eventually.

So we chose to fight, immediately and on our own terms, at decisive advantage. And the danger has momentarily increased, as was inevitable.

We might have chosen otherwise, which would be only to defer the inevitable moment of danger and give our enemies time and space in which to prepare. Explain, if you can, how things could possibly have gotten better without first getting worse.

Daniel Davies, if you’re reading this, I long ago answered your anti-this-war-now argument. Maybe you don’t read your referrer logs, but my working hypothesis is that you’re a chicken.


anonymous 03.26.04 at 6:49 pm

But, but, but … Elvis is alive.

Does anyone seriously believe that the threat of Saddam Hussein could have been defused without a fight? Does anyone seriously believe that containment in perpetuity was a viable option? No. There would be a war, or a catastrophic breakdown, eventually.

A majority in about the whole of Europe answered yes to that last question instead of no, but then if Elvis is alive, a simple logic deduction could lead you to that opposite answer.


gamini 03.26.04 at 6:49 pm

Does anyone seriously believe that the threat of Saddam Hussein could have been defused without a fight?

Does anyone seriously believe that Saddam Hussein posed a threat? You seem to, but by smuggling this into your argument as a taken-for-granted assumption, rather than a highly controversial and increasingly untenable claim of fact, you cast yourself with the Elvis believers.

And yes, I know that he posed a threat to those people unfortunate enough to live in Iraq, and also that he posed a serious threat to his regional neighbours up until the early nineties. Neither is relevant here.


Jeffrey Bogdan 03.26.04 at 7:17 pm

Natalie Solent and dipnut, here’s your homework: in a billion words or less, explain why it would have been impossible to contain Saddam Hussein although containing the Soviet Union was within our grasp.


dipnut 03.26.04 at 7:23 pm

A majority in about the whole of Europe answered yes to the question [is containment in perpetuity a viable option?]

Then they weren’t serious. (I did say “seriously”.) The proposition is ludicrous.

…he posed a threat to those people unfortunate enough to live in Iraq, and…he posed a serious threat to his regional neighbours up until the early nineties. Neither is relevant here.


Saddam was a threat to his regional neighbors throughout his reign. Only a counter-threat, maintained at great cost, kept him within his borders. Free from this constraint, he might have brought enough of the world’s oil reserves under his power to establish a throttlehold on the global economy (with Kuwait, he was halfway there). Saddam’s Arab-fascist ideology was essentially expansionist; his personal ambition was enough to dwarf any mere megalomania; his hatred of Israel was implacable. He bankrolled the Intifada to the bitter end.

Worst of all, Saddam existed. As long as he survived, he showed how a ruthless tyrant might brutalize his own people, terrorize other nations, and grin in the faces of the feckless international enforcers, all while farting through silk. His example emboldened dictators and terrorists everywhere.

And his fall seems to have taken considerable wind out of them.


dipnut 03.26.04 at 8:07 pm

…explain why it would have been impossible to contain Saddam Hussein although containing the Soviet Union was within our grasp.

I didn’t say it was impossible. I said it wasn’t viable. Containment was a lousy option, compared to war.

The USSR had the bomb, so plain-old war was out. Containment was the less-lousy option, but not by much. It was fraught and costly, you may recall. Containment of the Soviets got us the Vietnam war, the massacre of Cambodia, the Taliban/al-Qaeda, our unholy alliance with the House of Saud…the list goes on.

And we probably just got lucky. Remember glasnost and perestroika? That was all very nice; the USSR essentially defused itself when the internal situation got bad enough (and note that having an insane cowboy in the White House did affect Soviet morale). You think that could have happened in Iraq? What would Saddam (or Uday) do with the fellow who took a stand for open discussion of society’s problems? No, the downfall of the Hussein regime could only have been violent. And, given the range of outcomes from a power vacuum in Iraq, it’s better that American troops should be on the scene.

Finally, containment requires rationality on the part of the one contained. Saddam Hussein seems to have thought he was chosen by God to lead the Arabs to a new Empire. He suffered from notable lapses of judgement. His heir was worse. These are not the kind of people you want to play chicken with.

Since I’m posting Timber-hacking links today, here’s one that has some bearing on the diminishing utility of containment in the 21st century.


John Quiggin 03.26.04 at 8:33 pm

As regards the long-term vs short-term interpretation, the question left it open to respondents to interpret it as they see fit. But I’d be interested in hearing from supporters of the war, some estimate of the long term in which benefits will show up (clearly, phrases like “months rather than years”, which used to be heard, are no longer appropriate).

And, as I mentioned in the post, the Australian government has vigorously denied an increase in risk, to the point of public attacking the Federal Police Commissioner for stating the obvious.


GMT 03.26.04 at 9:20 pm


The fact that the Pentagon pulled the fighting force most equipped for hunting down Osama bin Laden from Afghanistan in March 2002 in order to pre- position it for Iraq cannot be denied.

Fifth Group Special Forces were a rare breed in the US military: they spoke Arabic, Pastun and Dari. They had been in Afghanistan for half a year, had developed a network of local sources and alliances, and believed that they were closing in on bin Laden.

Without warning, they were then given the task of tracking down Saddam. “We were going nuts on the ground about that decision,” one of them recalls.

“In spite of the fact that it had taken five months to establish trust, suddenly there were two days to hand over to people who spoke no Dari, Pastun or Arabic, and had no rapport.”

Along with the redeployment of human assets came a reallocation of sophisticated hardware. The US air force has only two specially-equipped RC135 U spy planes. They had successfully vectored in on al-Qaida leadership radio transmissions and cellphone calls, but they would no longer circle over the mountains of the Pakistan/Afghanistan border.


GMT 03.26.04 at 9:23 pm

Does anyone seriously believe that the threat of Saddam Hussein could have been defused without a fight?

What threat?


Rajeev Advani 03.26.04 at 10:34 pm

For long-term I am thinking around ten years, enough time for Iraq to mature into a stable democracy. Possibly more, hopefully less.


Natalie Solent 03.26.04 at 10:40 pm

1) In answer to John Quiggin: now! (referring to Libya deciding to abandon its WMD programme.)

OK, enough of being smart and back to your real question. What we are trying to do is compare two alternative timetracks, one for the world where we live in and one where the US invaded Afghanistan but not Iraq. On reflection I don’t see this as a simple crossover, although my earlier comment implied that I did. The risk graph for our timetrack shows a peak superimposed on a downward trend. Both peak and downward trend have the same cause: the Iraq war. Some part of that downwardness comes from direct military effect, but more of it comes from the fact that (as Dipnut says in slightly different form) America broke the mould of accomodation with Saddam and his ilk. The rising risk timetrack for the alternative world where Saddam is still in power – and the world is still on a course set by a dynamic Islamofascism jabbing ever more strongly at a recumbent liberal/democratic civilisation – crosses that peak at a point where its width is, guessing wildly, one or two years wide. As you see, I disagree with your statement that “months rather than years” is not appropriate.

2) If the Australian government is denying the risk they are being rather feeble and poll-driven, in my opinion. On the other hand, the fact that Australia was attacked (in Bali) before the Iraq war may make it natural for them to think that they are targeted anyway.

3) Jeffrey Bogdan asked for a billion words or less as to why it was possible to contain the USSR but not Saddam Hussein. Very crudely, since I have a good deal short of a billion minutes: like Dipnut said except that I rate Reagan much higher (I didn’t at the time). Another point is that your formulation assumes containment is more desirable than overthrow. I don’t assume this, though it is usually more prudent.


Andrew Boucher 03.26.04 at 11:26 pm

“But I’d be interested in hearing from supporters of the war, some estimate of the long term in which benefits will show up (clearly, phrases like “months rather than years”, which used to be heard, are no longer appropriate).”

Maybe there’s a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy lurking in JQ’s attitude? If anti-war countries and people don’t help to stabilize the situation in Iraq (“it wasn’t our war, it’s not our problem”), then indeed benefits may show up very late or indeed never. But last time I checked, we’re all living on the same smallish planet, and what happens to Iraq now does matter, and it does matter in the so-called war on terrorism. An Iraq which collapses into anarchy would be even a greater incubator for terrorists than Taliban Afghanistan, not to mention providing a truly awful example for other peoples in the Middle East.

Refusing to help only makes sense if one thinks failure is inevitable even with help – the throwing good-money-after-bad thesis – or that success is inevitable without it – no need to help because everything will turn out all right anyway. If one thinks that a uniform effort by everyone would tip the balance, then it would seem to be important that everyone begins to start to help tip that balance. I don’t know enough about the situation or the prospects in Iraq to know what is the most plausible scenario. But the question seems not even to be correctly framed, because some anti-wars are more keen to show that They Were Right rather than worrying what is the right thing to do now.


Anon E. Mous 03.26.04 at 11:35 pm

Why is that everyone is talking about everything else except the whacking big elephant in the room ?

The war was the idea of Rumsfeld, Perle, Wolfowitz and their cronies at the American Enterprise Institute, most of whose loyalties are with Israel first and America second – Rumsfeld was even accused of being the agent of a foreign government in a previous Presidency. Consequently, the basic purpose of the war was to eliminate another threat to Israel in the middle-east, especially one who was increasingly posturing himself as a strong backer of Arab-Palestinian aspirations.

All the other justifications are PR BS, and they are falling apart on t heir own anyway, so there’s no reason to belabour them again.

Pakistan funded and trained the Taleban and sold nuclear technology to terrorists; Libya trained and equipped half the terrorist outfits in the world; why has the West never bothered to invade them ? Obviously because they have never been a direct threat to Israel.



John Quiggin 03.26.04 at 11:47 pm

Natalie if your answer is “now!”, you presumably are claiming that, on balance, the Iraq war has already reduced the danger of terrorist attack. I doubt that you really believe this.

In any case, as I’m sure you’re aware, Libya’s shift away from terrorism predates the invasion of Iraq and even S11. The Lockerbie bombers were handed over in 1999. By presenting himself as a test case for the Bush doctrine, Gaddafi has done a very good job of playing a weak hand.


dipnut 03.27.04 at 3:29 am

[Rumsfeld’s] loyalties are with Israel first and America second…the basic purpose of the war was to eliminate another threat to Israel.


What is this, amateur hour at IndyMedia?

I did say something about Saddam’s support for the intifada being a main argument for his ouster. You got a problem with that, Mr. anon e. mous?

You might want to ponder why we hosed the Pak ISI’s proxy armies in Afghanistan as our first order of business. I don’t think they posed as immediate a threat to the Jooooooooooz as certain elements in Syria and Lebanon.


Natalie Solent 03.27.04 at 8:11 am

John, yes I do really believe it.

Since September 11 2001 the really big terrorist spectacular has well and truly entered the vocabulary, so to speak. It cannot be disinvented in any of my timelines. I suspect that even in the most optimistic scenario some terrorist group or other will get lucky several times more in my lifetime.

Still, we can push the odds back down somewhat.

I hope it isn’t a breach of etiquette round here to quote one’s own blog, because I’m going to do so to save thinking up new words to say the same thing:

“Somalia taught the Islamofascists and their fellow-travellers that if you kill a few Westerners the rest run. My source: Osama Bin Laden.

Afghanistan and Iraq taught them otherwise.

The Iraq war has made us safer (safety is not to be had) because every Arab leader now has a mental image of his own statues crashing down – and his own sons laid out on a slab.

The new lesson is: Beware. You can only push the infidels so far.”


“…the Arab and Muslim world broke out in delighted celebration at the slaughter (yes, I’m perfectly aware that this does not apply to every individual) and if nothing salutary had been done their entire culture, from rulers to the famous ‘street’ would have been emboldened to attack us repeatedly to get more of the same glory. Now the picture is very different. I speak not only of the leaders but also of the zeitgeist. I think there is now a chance for the more benign possibilities inherent in Islam and Arab culture to come back into their own. ”


John Quiggin 03.27.04 at 8:56 pm

“Afghanistan and Iraq taught them otherwise.”

The crucial issue here is the claim that Afghanistan and Iraq are complements, not substitutes. A striking fact that came out about the same time as the poll mentioned above is that Australia has 850 troops in Iraq and one oficer in Afghanistan. This matches reports that the US troops best qualified to search for bin Laden were diverted to Iraq and are only now being returned to Afghanistan.

To myself in return “the case against Blair, Aznar and Howard is not that they’ve stepped to the forefront of the war against terrorism when prudence would have dictated leaving the Americans to fight it by themselves. Rather it’s that they’ve aided and abetted the Bush administration in its decision to use the war against terrorism as a pretext for settling old and unrelated scores, and that by doing so they’ve increased the danger facing both their own citizens and everyone else.”

“every Arab leader now has a mental image of his own statues crashing down – and his own sons laid out on a slab.”

I pointed out here the striking lack of any impact on the Iranian mullahs (any effects in other Axis of Evil countries such as Syria and North Korea have been similarly marginal. Again the explanation is that the resources consumed by the Iraq war preclude another exercise of the same kind.

Still, I share the hope expressed in your last sentence


Rajeev Advani 03.27.04 at 11:51 pm

Quiggin: You never seem to address the prospects of democratic reform in the Middle East reducing terrorism, beginning with Iraq. It appears you do not think very highly of domino theories — may I ask why not? The way I see it any claim that Iraq is irrelevent to the War on Terror, which from day one was defined as a long-term multi-front endeavor, must first debunk the theory of draining the swamp.


John Quiggin 03.28.04 at 2:01 am

rajeev, I have a couple of points to make on this.

First, I think that very little progress is going to be made in ‘draining the swamp’ of the Middle East until the Israel-Palestine dispute is resolved. Everyone knows down to fairly fine details what the resolution has to be, but there has so far not been any time when sufficient pressure has been applied to marginalise the rejectionists on both sides. Until there is a Palestinian state, this will be a standing grievance that can be exploited by all anti-Western groups, including al Qaeda.

Second, whatever the status of Israel-Palestine, Iraq seems to be just about the least promising place in the entire region to start a project of democratisation. I’ll post in more detail on this soon, I hope, but my view is that the best outcome in prospect for Iraq is a more moderate version of Iran.

If the West were going to push for democracy in the Middle East, why not start with Kuwait, which is under a big debt of obligation, or Egypt (a big recipient of US money) or Saudi Arabia (the biggest single source of terrorist ideas, recruits and money).


Rajeev Advani 03.28.04 at 6:37 pm

Thanks for addressing that, John, and I look forward to you posting more on the issue.

My rejoinders:

1) Agreed that the Israeli-Palestinian issue must be resolved. But one year ago there was another queen grievance that all could exploit: sanctions in Iraq. Regime change tackled (a bit forcefully) that one. The other grievance is US support for autocratic regimes. Here again, a US-friendly and democratic Iraq permits the US to no longer latch onto the Saudi gas station.

2) Iraq being the least promising place to implant democracy is exactly what makes it the most compelling. If a country as culturally and ethnically rich as Iraq can establish democracy, no other Middle Eastern nation can legitimize autocratic rule. Pressuring Kuwait, as you mention, would be a great thing, but it would be a bit like expecting the political system of Luxembourg to influence that of Germany. In other words it wouldn’t carry the impact necessary to set off the dominos.

Finally, I agree again about Saudi Arabia but due to our oil reliance I don’t see as many actionable avenues…


John Quiggin 03.29.04 at 12:09 am

rajeev, as Tom Friedman has pointed out ad nauseam addressing US reliance on oil, for example through gasoline taxes and energy conservation would be the obvious way to pressure the Saudis.

The fact that this has not even been contemplated is one of the many reasons people like myself, who might have supported an invasion of Iraq under some circumstances, didn’t trust Bush on the subject. I think our distrust has been amply justified by what has come out since.

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