Respond to this Article November 2002

The Reluctant Hawk

The skeptical case for regime change in Iraq.

By Joshua Micah Marshall

Late last Spring, I asked one of Washington's more notable Iraq hawks, Danielle Pletka, her opinion of Ken Pollack. "Oh, Ken 'my-mind-has-chang-ed-so-often' Pollack?" she zinged back with satisfied ridicule. Pletka has a flair for the sound bite. But behind that barb lies a tale. From 1992 until earlier this year, Pletka was Jesse Helms's chief senior professional staff member for Near East and South Asia on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In that role, she was one of the key players using any means necessary to press a deeply reluctant Clinton administration to adopt the policy of "regime change" for Iraq. During the 1990s, Iraq cut through the surface of American political life only at those occasional moments when the Iraqis would buck some demand and the United States would lob over a few cruise missiles to knock them back into line. Behind the scenes, however, especially in the latter part of the decade, Iraq policy became a virtually nonstop foreign policy street fight, pitting hawkish congressional staffers like Pletka and other out-of-government regime-change crusaders against administration officials like Pollack, who was National Security Council director for Persian Gulf affairs from 1999 to 2001.

Through tours at the CIA, the NSC, National Defense University, and back at the NSC again, Pollack developed a reputation as a hawk--by Clinton administration standards--and as a steady opponent of the Iraq hawks' efforts to shove American policy behind Iraqi opposition leaders who would, they claimed, overthrow Saddam through some hybrid of an insurrection and a coup. The target of Pletka's barb was an article Pollack wrote in the March/April 2002 issue of Foreign Affairs in which he announced that the United States should, after all, invade Iraq to settle the Saddam problem once and for all. To the hawks who had been crusading for "regime change" for years, Pollack was simply shifting positions to suit the changing guard in George W.'s Washington. Not a few of his former Clinton administration colleagues agreed. In truth, Pollack's change was not so stark as his critics alleged, since he still strenuously opposed the Bay-of-Pigs-style overthrow that the hawks supported. The calculus of domestic political support, moreover, had changed dramatically after September 11. But the article played a key role in making a military solution to the Iraq problem respectable within the nation's foreign policy establishment. 

The Threatening Storm is Pollack's follow-up to and expansion of that article, in which he presents a thoroughgoing case for invading Iraq in the context of a detailed history of U.S.-Iraq relations stretching back some 30 years. Pollack has spent virtually his entire professional life wrestling with the problem of Iraq. (In the summer of 1990, for instance, he was a junior CIA analyst dashing off prescient, but largely disregarded, memos predicting that Saddam Hussein would invade Kuwait.) And he manages to use this personal knowledge without abusing it, resisting the temptation to load the book with too many anecdotes about his own exploits in the D.C.-Iraq wars or to settle too many scores, of which there are no doubt many. Running almost 400 pages, the final product could have done with a more rigorous edit. There is a lot of repetition, and the writing often falls short of elegance. Still, the book is not intended as a work of literary nonfiction, but as an effort to provide a complete treatment of a critical question of national security policy. By that measure, it's an indisputable success. Pollack manages to eschew the cant, stupidity, and obfuscation which are the common currency of much of the current public debate over Iraq policy and has produced one of the key books--probably the key book--for anyone trying to grapple with the Iraq question.

Nuclear Hinter

For Pollack, the "threatening storm" isn't a sudden crisis. He expresses little fear that Saddam will make any serious trouble in the near future or that he'll actually threaten the United States proper for some time to come. This is a different kind of argument. Pollack sketches out a series of intersecting trends that, he argues, will almost certainly make Saddam into a very big threat in the near future. He further argues that there is really no good way to prevent that from happening short of a military overthrow of the current regime. And he makes a pretty convincing case.

The essence of the problem is straightforward. Iraq sits astride the chokepoint of the world economy, the oil-rich Middle East. Saddam has a long history of aggression, brutality, and, most important, ill-considered and reckless actions. So long as he has only conventional weapons we can overawe him with our armed forces and clobber him back into line if he misbehaves. Once he gets nuclear weapons, though, everything will change. And there is little doubt that, left to his own devices, he will acquire them in the not-too-distant future. (One theme running through this book is Pollack's belief--no doubt accurate--that nuclear weapons are the real issue, with chemicals and bioweapons running several laps behind. Frightening as they are, it is simply very difficult to kill large numbers of people with chemical or biological weapons.)

The problem isn't that Saddam will just start tossing off nukes for the hell of it. Readers will find none of the deception and hysteria most Iraq hawks pepper their arguments with in public debate. There's no talk about nuclear blackmail over American cities, and little speculation about al Qaeda-Saddam alliances. The problem, Pollack explains, is Saddam's dangerously dysfunctional relationship with the outside world, one likely to grow infinitely worse if he gets the bomb. Saddam is often portrayed as shrewd and wily--and in certain contexts he is. But he's more of a serial self-deceiver, a strongman from the provinces surrounded by tremulous yes-men who fear giving him bad news. As a result, he has a history of wild miscalculation, of running risks that are likely far greater than even he imagined. In 1980, for instance, he tried to grab some land from Iran, a bigger neighbor. He wound up losing a million troops, and gaining not an inch of new territory. Pollack also reveals that, according to our best intelligence, Saddam assumed that when he invaded Kuwait, America would respond militarily. He just figured he could beat us.

Were he to get his hands on nuclear weapons, Saddam would likely resume his quest to become the hegemon of the Persian Gulf. Only now he'd be operating under his own nuclear umbrella, believing--not without some justification--that his nukes would deter us. Of course, we have more nukes than he would have. So, in theory, this ought to allow us to deter his aggression. Indeed, defenders of this deterrence strategy note that Saddam didn't use chemical or biological weapons during the Gulf War after the Bush administration hinted that were he to do so the United States would respond with nuclear weapons.

It's easy to say that Saddam won't do this or that because if he did we'd "nuke" him, or "exterminate" him, or "annihilate" him, or whatever. But in practice, would we really drop the big one on Iraq? Saddam has some reason to think we might not. Pollack reveals that during the Gulf War the Bush administration also hinted at a nuclear response if Saddam blew up Kuwaiti oil fields. Saddam ignored the threat, torched the fields, and suffered no nuclear retaliation. Say he calls our bluff again and blows up Riyadh or perhaps a few Saudi oil fields. Deterrence theory suggests that we should respond by vaporizing Baghdad. But that city has a population of some 5 million. Will an American president really sign off on an attack that might well kill in a single blow nearly as many men, women, and children as died in the Holocaust? More to the point, do we ever want an American president to face that choice?

Brass Action

If deterrence is unlikely to work against Saddam, what about the alternative policy that many critics of regime change advocate: containment? After all, containment has kept Saddam from any major mischief for a decade. Couldn't we just run out the clock and wait for the guy to die? The answer, Pollack argues--again persuasively--is no. To begin with, no American administration ever chose the containment policy.  Its pillars--economic sanctions, inspections, no-fly zones and the rest--were hastily assembled in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War with the assumption that Saddam's regime could not last long and would in any case abide by U.N. disarmament resolutions. When it became clear that neither assumption was true, bureaucrats and mid-level political appointees--first under Bush senior and then under Clinton--began cob-bling these pieces together into a policy that would keep Iraq on ice until something better came along. Only nothing ever did. And though containment did keep Saddam in the proverbial box for many years, over time it became a running wound, one that Saddam could tolerate far better than we.

Economic sanctions, the noose around Saddam's throat, have been getting looser for years--in part due to progressive adjustments by the United Nations, in part to the increasingly open flouting of the sanctions by Iraq's neighbors. Every year the burden of sanctions weighs lighter on Saddam--the regime gets to sell more oil for humanitarian and other non-military purposes. As the flow of revenue rises, more can be skimmed off for military objectives. And every year the diplomatic capital we must expend to keep the sanctions in place grows. The Muslim world blames us for the civilian deaths, the images of dying babies--even if these tragedies are mainly due to Saddam's manipulation of sanctions rather than the sanctions themselves. Similarly, we pay a heavy price for the garrisons that we maintain in the region to keep Iraq contained. One needn't be an Osama bin Laden appeaser to recognize that the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia has been a major rallying cry for al Qaeda recruitment. All told, if Saddam's in a box, we're in there with him. Yes, war against Iraq would be violent, destructive, and destabilizing. What supporters of containment often ignore is that their policy has quite similar results--just spread out over time. And for all its geopolitical costs, Pollack argues, containment still probably won't keep Saddam from eventually obtaining nuclear warheads. Which of course brings us back to unworkable deterrence.

Saddam and Gomorrah

War hawks in the press have embraced Pollack's book for its thorough dismantling of the policy of equivocation and postponement which the United States long pursued and which he himself once, albeit perhaps grudgingly, endorsed. He actually opposes, for instance, the entire effort to take one more crack at inspections, even if only as a tactical prelude to war. Pollack argues, with some persuasiveness, that inspections are simply a losing game since Saddam can flip back and forth between compliance and obstruction far more quickly than we can mobilize a credible threat to overthrow his regime. If today, for instance, we build up a massive 200,000- to 300,000-man force on his borders Saddam can comply with inspections for, say, six months or a year.  But it would be extremely onerous for us in military, diplomatic, and economic terms to keep such a force in place for that long. Probably impossible. Eventually, the United States would have to stand down its forces and at that point the same old cat-and-mouse game would resume--no doubt, only to be followed in turn by more build-ups and more compliance and then more draw downs and more obstruction. Eventually, the United States would have to say, "Time's up," and invade, whether or not Iraq began another period of compliance. So why, Pollack asks, not just do it now?

The answer, as recent weeks seem to have shown, is that we have interests beyond the Middle East which make it worth going through the old cat-and-mouse game one more time. The complexities of getting the U.N. Security Council on board--at least in acquiescence to, if not in support of--U.S. policy, securing the same from our NATO allies, and giving international law its due if not being subservient to it, all argue in favor of giving sanctions one more try even if we know Saddam will just be up to his old tricks.

But if Pollack's endorsement of the necessity of regime change by force is congenial to conservatives, the book also bristles with warnings about, and contempt for, the slapdash and ill-considered way most of the Iraq hawks want to prosecute the coming war. Pollack shares the fears of most of America's uniformed military that the current administration will somehow try to effect regime change on the cheap, winging it with some mix of airpower, special forces, and opposition militias. Doing so, the brass believes, would probably produce more American combat casualties than would be the case if we went in with overwhelming force. Yes, a lighter, faster strike might succeed, as it did in Afghanistan. But it might not.  And in the time it took to succeed, or more likely to fail, the violence and commotion might push our allies' governments to the breaking point or beyond. 

Most of our moderate Arab allies share that fear. One of Pollack's most noteworthy claims is that they would actually prefer that we invade Iraq and settle the whole matter once and for all--at least after the current round of Israeli-Palestinian bloodletting slows to a tolerable level. Their key concern is that the United States do it quickly, decisively, and without leaving a doubt. (One often hears such things from Middle East experts--what Arab leaders really say to them in private as opposed to what they say publicly. Unless you're one of the select group of people who have frequent heart-to-heart talks with high-ranking Arab government ministers, you just have to take the person's word for it.) Why are the Arabs so keen on our using overwhelming military force to do the job? Because anything less risks failure, or at least a long, more drawn-out conflict, either of which could destabilize their regimes. One issue that never gets quite enough attention in this book is the fact that many of the supporters of war in the current administration don't really care how destabilizing a strike against Iraq would be. They are, at heart, revisionists who would like to roll the dice again and come up with an entirely new Middle East, one in which many of our allies' governments wouldn't exist at all. That's clearly a view Pollack doesn't share.

A test of the current public debate over Iraq will be whether Pollack's book is received as just another endorsement of war or a much more complicated critique of the Bush administration's approach toward this war, the Middle East, and foreign and security policy in general. The current public discussion on Iraq is largely between Iraq-hawks in and outside the administration--many of whom are simply hotheads and borderline cranks--and opponents (mostly Democrats) who are hesitant to openly oppose the war and so instead seem inclined to equivocate--perhaps permanently--in the face of it. Pollack's views represent a realistic, sensible, and tough middle ground. One need not favor war to occupy that position: Pollack provides enough depth of detail and countervailing arguments to construct a case for something other than war, or at least contingent alternatives short of war, like demanding truly unfettered and intensive inspections and removal of prohibited materials under the threat of immediate and overwhelming force. In one revealing passage, Pollack tells readers about his own surprise and momentary disbelief that he is actually endorsing the invasion-first policy he proposes, but says he cannot see another viable alternative. Democrats and others who oppose the course the Bush administration has taken would do well to sit down with this book's hard reasoning and wrestle with it. After reading it, it would be hard for any sensible person not to think to themselves, "There must be some other solution." But, like Pollack, you may be hard-pressed to find one.

Joshua Micah Marshall writes the Talking Points Memo.


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