The seemingly imminent war with Iraq does not lend itself to number-crunching, but there are a few questions that have a numerical aspect to them.
One of them is: How do we measure popular support for the war with Iraq? Paying undue attention to media pundits, Hollywood celebrities, or retired military officers is probably a bad idea. Trying futilely to count protesters or listening only to government officials is not much better.
But what about polls, about which we usually hear much more than we do now? Let's start with Europe.
Does Europe Support the U.S. Position?
One hears repeatedly that 16 of 19 European countries (including the big three of Albania, Bulgaria, and Croatia) support the U.S. position on Iraq. There is the implicit claim that Europe therefore supports the U.S. point of view.
A more modest conclusion is that for a wide variety of reasons the administrations of 16 of 19 European countries have decided to follow the Bush administration's lead. National polls indicate, however, that in almost all these countries there are solid, and in some cases huge, majorities opposed to war at this time. Even in the United Kingdom there is strong popular opposition.
Given the polls, it seems safe to say that the majority of Europeans agree with the minority position of the much-derided French, German, and Belgian governments. Since the questions of the various national polls differ and since different countries have different concerns, comparing them is a bit like comparing Camembert and Gorgonzola.
Nevertheless, the claim that Europe supports the U.S. position on Iraq is misleading at best.
What About Here and Elsewhere?
One problem with gauging war sentiment here and elsewhere in the world is that the situation is complex and volatile.
Most people's reasons for supporting or opposing the war depend on the rationale for it. A few of the possibilities: Is it that we're enforcing U.N. resolution 1441 on weapons? Is it that we're attempting regime change? Is it that we're planning to break the alleged Iraq-al Qaeda nexus? Is it that we're going to liberate the Iraqis? Is it that, like the man looking for his car keys under the street lamp after having lost them by the trees, we're attacking the street lamp of Iraq because the al Qaeda trees have been so maddeningly elusive?
Polls are always better than loud-mouthed talking heads when trying to assess public sentiment, but they're useful only to the extent that the samples are representative of the population, that the questions are neutrally phrased, and that the choices are independent and opinions about them not changing too fast.
As mentioned, the latter two conditions are especially problematic with regard to Iraq, and poll results often appear inconsistent as a result. For example, many recent polls in this country (such as that conducted in late February by the Pew Research Center) find majorities favoring an attack on Iraq as well as a second U.N. resolution before such an attack.
Even when the issue is uncomplicated, it's difficult to characterize a whole nation's beliefs or a whole continent's. This is all the more true in regions where polling and democracy are absent. What the "Arab street" thinks, for example, is often pure speculation. Who really knows the range of Iraqi, Egyptian, or Saudi opinion?
Is the Enemy of an Enemy a Friend?
Polls can't easily capture complexity, especially when there is a willful narrowing of perspectives.
One small, but telling example of the latter is the belief that al Qaeda and Iraq are linked simply because of their common enmity toward the U.S. Many who believe this subscribe to some version of "An enemy of my enemy is my friend." But if this proverb were literally true, it would be impossible for there ever to be three mutual enemies since any two of them, by virtue of having a common enemy, would be friends.
In particular, since both we and Iraq have been enemies of al Qaeda, we might just as easily conclude from the proverb that we're friends with Iraq. This is absurd, but no more so than the simplistic either-or mentality that seems to underlie so much discussion of the war.
And just as we can have a variety of enemies, we can have a variety of friends, which suggests that excoriating traditional allies for not immediately signing on to war is most unhelpful.
What Is the Price?
Finally, what might the price of war be? Estimates for its costs and for the more arduous post-war occupation and rebuilding range from $100 billion to three-quarters of a trillion dollars over five years. (Compare this with average annual U.S. foreign aid of approximately $10 billion.)
No matter one's position on the war, one has to acknowledge that this money could buy a lot of Iraqi containment, not to mention homeland defense.
In addition to these monetary expenditures are a variety of imponderable costs associated with an American-led war that lacked a broad international consensus. These latter — increased terrorism, gas attacks on Israel, damage to the rule of law — can't be quantified, but may nevertheless be the more significant.
In short, although numbers may be helpful, what's really needed is wisdom for which, alas, there is no formula. Every course of action can lead to a variety of outcomes — some good, some bad — whose probabilities we can only guess at.
Professor of mathematics at Temple University and adjunct professor of journalism at Columbia University, John Allen Paulos is the author of several best-selling books, including Innumeracy, and the forthcoming A Mathematician Plays the Market, which will be published in the spring. His Who’s Counting? column on ABCNEWS.com appears the first weekend of every month.