I was further disappointed to see the paper allow Pollack back onto its op-ed page at all, given how often he’d been wrong in the past. Saddam had no nuclear weapons program. His regime had been contained. The inspectors were doing an effective job of investigating potential weapons sites. Mohamed ElBaradei’s assurances proved well founded. (As late as June 2003, Pollack, in another op-ed for the Times, assured us, as the headline put it, SADDAM’S BOMBS? WE’LL FIND THEM.)
Pollack seemed no more prescient about the likely consequences of an invasion. “Being rid of Saddam Hussein,” he wrote in The Threatening Storm, “would be an enormous boon to U.S. foreign policy.” It would allow the United States to reduce its presence in the Gulf region. It would improve the prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. And, while perhaps increasing anti-Americanism among Arabs in the short term, in the long run it would remove an important source of such antipathy (the confrontation with Saddam). “Imagine how different the Middle East and the world would be,” he wrote, “if a new Iraqi state were stable, prosperous, and a force for progress in the region.”
Achieving such a state, Pollack went on, would likely prove neither difficult nor costly. With contributions from wealthy allies, he wrote, “it is unimaginable that the United States would have to contribute hundreds of billions of dollars and highly unlikely that we would have to contribute even tens of billions of dollars.” Likewise, he wrote, “we should not exaggerate the danger of casualties among American troops. U.S. forces in Bosnia have not suffered a single casualty from hostile action because they have become so attentive and skillful at force protection.” While the United States “may not enjoy such incredible success in Iraq, neither should we assume that we would suffer large numbers of casualties.”
By the time Pollack and O’Hanlon arrived in Iraq to assess the surge, more than 3,600 U.S. soldiers had died and nearly 30,000 had been injured; total U.S. outlays in Iraq were approaching $330 billion, with another $3 billion being spent every week.
In a phone interview, I asked Pollack about these discrepancies. In his book, he said, he had made it clear that his predictions were based on the expectation that the Bush administration, or whoever else might invade Iraq, would mount a full-scale reconstruction of the country rather than pursue a quick-fix “pragmatic” approach. “My point was that if you rushed and used too few resources, which is what the Bush administration has done,” he said, “you’d get civil war and warlordism, which is exactly what we’ve got now.”
As for his position on the invasion itself, Pollack maintained that he had not been a strong advocate for the war but rather a “tortured” one. “I know I wrote a number of pieces that were very helpful to the Bush administration in making its case,” he said. “But that’s not why I wrote them.” In The Threatening Storm, he told me, “I said that this wasn’t a war we needed to fight right away, that there were other things we needed to do first, like work on the Middle East peace process and run down al Qaeda .I don’t like to characterize myself as a supporter of the invasion.” Yet his book contains a whole chapter titled “The Case for an Invasion.” In it, he states flatly that “the only prudent and realistic course of action left to the United States is to mount a full-scale invasion of Iraq to smash the Iraqi armed forces, depose Saddam’s regime, and rid the country of weapons of mass destruction.”
And what about those hawkish op-eds in the Times? “I did write those op-eds, and I believed everything I put in them, but that was simply making one side of the case,” he said. “Often I was responding to arguments against going to war, which I felt were very weak.” He added: “I’ve learned over the course of time that op-eds are an imperfect medium for expressing complex views on a subject. That’s why I’ve greatly diminished the op-ed writing I’ve done.” Such sentiments, however, had not stopped him from writing his July op-ed about the merits of the surge.