on the contrary

The War Expert

Wrong, wrong, wrong again. But the media still want Ken Pollack
November 26, 2007

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.

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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.

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.

Pollack did acknowledge that he had been wrong on one key issue—WMD. And, he said, it was fair to take that into account when evaluating his current writings. But, he observed, “I don’t think you should make a judgment about my work based on any [one] particular thing I’ve done. I would argue that if you went back and looked over my grand record on Iraq going back to the 1980s, I’ve actually got a very good track record.” He asked: “Should Churchill have been disqualified forever because of Gallipoli? I’m not trying to put myself in the same category as Churchill, but the point is that one mistake should not forever hang over a person’s head.”

It’s a valid point. If the Gallipoli standard were applied to Iraq, much of our foreign-policy commentariat would be out on the street. Christopher Hitchens would have to give up his column at Vanity Fair and Thomas Friedman would lose his perch at the Times. Half the columnists at The Washington Post would have to find a new line of work, and The New Republic would probably have to shut down. In the simple interest of journalistic employment, some slack must be allowed. It’s healthy, though, to be reminded of what these prognosticators have said in the past, especially when they continue to turn out such one-dimensional and one-sided assessments as the one that Kenneth Pollack and Michael O’Hanlon published in the July 30 Times. 

Michael Massing is a contributing editor to CJR and the author of Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq.