On July 30, as the debate over the Bush administration’s “surge” in Iraq was heating up, The New York Times ran an op-ed article that enthusiastically endorsed it. Titled A WAR WE MIGHT JUST WIN, it was written by Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack, both of the Brookings Institution, and, reading through it, I grew increasingly irritated. Part of the problem was the piece’s gushing tone. “After the furnace-like heat,” they wrote, “the first thing you notice when you land in Baghdad is the morale of our troops.” Soldiers and marines “told us they feel that they now have a superb commander in Gen. David Petraeus; they are confident in his strategy, they see real results, and they feel now they have the numbers needed to make a real difference.”
From Ramadi, where they talked with a Marine captain whose company “was living in harmony” with Iraqi security forces; to Baghdad’s Ghazaliya neighborhood, which was “slowly coming back to life with stores and shoppers”; to the northern cities of Tal Afar and Mosul, where Iraqi security forces had “stepped up to the plate,” the surge was helping produce a “new Iraq,” O’Hanlon and Pollack argued, and as a result, “Congress should plan on sustaining the effort at least into 2008.”
From reading their report, it was impossible to tell that U.S. soldiers were still being blown up by IEDs and that mangled corpses continued to appear on Baghdad’s streets. O’Hanlon and Pollack noted that they had spent eight days in Iraq, and I wondered how freely they had been able to move about. An answer was provided two weeks later by Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, who wrote that O’Hanlon told him in an interview that the two had largely followed an itinerary developed by the Defense Department. No mention of this had been made in their article.
Even more misleading, I felt, was O’Hanlon and Pollack’s description of themselves as “two analysts who have harshly criticized the Bush administration’s miserable handling of Iraq.” This claim caught the attention of other news organizations. In “a bit of a surprise,” Charles Gibson declared on ABC’s World News, “two long and persistent critics of the Bush administration’s handling of the war” had written of a significant change in Iraq; the White House was so “thrilled” with the piece, Martha Raddatz reported, that it had distributed it to the press corps. O’Hanlon and Pollack were invited to discuss their findings on CNN, Fox News, NPR’s Talk of the Nation, and MSNBC’s Hardball.
Yet the quickest of Google searches would have raised doubts about both men’s bona fides as critics of the war. While they have strongly criticized some Bush policies in Iraq—who hasn’t?—both were supporters of the invasion. Pollack was especially vocal. In The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq, published in 2002, he argued that Saddam Hussein was actively seeking a nuclear weapon, that if he got one, he would no doubt use it to blackmail the U.S., that the UN’s sanctions-based containment policy was breaking down, and that as a result, only a full-scale invasion could deter him. Pollack had worked for President Clinton’s National Security Council, and his liberal credentials helped win over many commentators otherwise skeptical of George W. Bush. In a piece headlined, THE I-CAN’T-BELIEVE-I’M-A-HAWK CLUB, in February 2003, Bill Keller (then a columnist for the Times, now its executive editor), wrote admiringly that “Kenneth Pollack, the Clinton National Security Council expert whose argument for invading Iraq is surely the most influential book of this season, has provided intellectual cover for every liberal who finds himself inclining toward war but uneasy about Mr. Bush.”
In addition, Pollack, from late September 2002 to mid-February 2003, wrote or co-authored three op-eds for the Times, each more insistent than the last on the need to invade. If Saddam were not ousted, Pollack warned, he was certain to gain a nuclear weapon in the second half of this decade, if not before. Pollack disparaged the efforts of UN weapons inspectors, dismissed assurances from the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Mohamed ElBaradei that Iraq’s nuclear program was in check, and urged President Bush to avoid the “inspections trap.” “Yes,” he declared, “we must weigh the costs of a war with Iraq today, but on the other side of the balance we must place the cost of a war with a nuclear-armed Iraq tomorrow.” Pollack elaborated on NPR, CBS, Fox News, MSNBC, Charlie Rose, Oprah, and, most frequently, CNN, where he was a consultant.
In light of all this, Pollack’s effort to pass himself off as a harsh critic of the Bush administration seemed less than forthcoming. And it was disappointing to see the Times—which had published his earlier briefs for the invasion and thus knew his position—let him get away with it.