"I've always felt that we had to go to war against Iraq sooner rather than later. But I didn't necessarily think it had to be this year. And there were always a whole bunch of things that I wanted to do to make sure that we were ready to go when we did go. But the problem that I face now is that I think we are so deep into this - we are so far down this road - that it is now or never. I think that if we don't go to war this time around I don't think we will ever go to war with Saddam Hussein until he's acquired nuclear weapons. And then he picks the time and place of going to war ... if given my preference I would prefer not to be in the position we're in. But I can't turn back time. And we're in the position we're in. And at this point in time, as messy as it may be, I think that it is now or never. And now is a much better option than never."
Those are the lines from my interview with Ken Pollack that most captured and confirmed the mix of resolution, ambivalence and anger I feel about the situation we're currently in with Iraq.
As regular readers know, TPM interviewed Pollack at the end of January and we published part one of the interview on January 29th. Tonight, we're happy to bring you part two.
(If you'd like to read parts one and two together -- which is probably the best way to read them -- we've added the entire interview the TPM Document Collection.)
Just to recap, Ken Pollack is the author of The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq and currently a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He served as a high-level government official in various capacities over the course of the 1990s, dealing with Iraq specifically and the Middle East generally.
There are a number of very important issues that we didn't get into in this interview -- many of them the big questions, like whether or not this whole thing is a good idea or not. That question is touched upon implicitly and indirectly, of course. But these issues are covered at great length in Pollack's book. You can get a copy here from Amazon (which I strongly recommend), read my review of it in The Washington Monthly, or read Pollack's earlier article in Foreign Affairs, upon which much of the book is based.
Finally, keep in mind that the interview took place on January 29th. So certain key points and questions have evolved with the events of the last three weeks.
BEGINNING OF PART II
TPM: A lot of people who are on the fence on this whole issue probably think the evidence is there, but they want the administration to show it. Why the reticence about putting out a lot of what we have? To make this more than a matter of taking our word for it?
POLLACK: Again, this is one of the problems of going the inspections route, of putting all of our eggs with the UN in this basket. We were inevitably going to find ourselves in the position of having to produce evidence which we were unlikely to have. And, again, the perverse thing about it is that we're not supposed to be the ones producing the evidence. It's the Iraqis who are supposed to be producing the evidence. So it's just bad all around. Now the administration is saying that they think they have the evidence. And if it's true then that's fantastic. Then they've hit the jackpot right there. If they can actually produce the evidence then all of this becomes easy. What Martin Indyk and I put in the piece that we did in the Los Angeles Times was basically making the argument that they are unlikely to have the evidence and instead what they need to do is to make the case differently.
And basically there are two broad approaches to that.
One: Make the point that everyone has basically agreed that the Iraqis need to come clean. And they're not coming clean. And that is something that you can demonstrate. And Blix really made that effort much easier with his report. And the second thing is to basically go to the Security Council members and in private say to them, 'Look, you know the Iraqis have it, we know that the Iraqis have it.' In some cases we can show them more information that we wouldn't necessarily show to the public. You can show governments things that you wouldn't necessarily want to make public, assuming you can trust the government. And there what you could do is to construct an argument and build the legitimacy of your case based on the number of countries who were willing to come forward and say 'Yes, we agree with the Bush administration. We agree with the United States that the Iraqis have not fully disarmed.' And our own feeling was that if you could get enough countries coming forward and saying that, that would be proof.
I think most Americans - I think most people in the world - are just looking for someone other than George Bush to be able to say that. And I think that if you had two or three dozen countries coming forward and saying 'We too are convinced of this. We too are convinced that Iraq has the stuff,' then that coalition, that group of people would in and of itself legitimize the effort. But, again, if the administration can actually produce the smoking gun, that's by far better, given where we are.
TPM: But your sense and I guess Martin's sense too, from having been on the inside, is that it may not be that easy to do?
POLLACK: Right. Absolutely. This was always the problem we had with the Iraqis. We knew they had this stuff, but we didn't know where they were hiding it. And therefore the likelihood that you were going to get something like Adlai Stevenson going to the UN and showing photographs of missiles was highly unlikely. And the Iraqis knew that. They know what our intelligence capabilities are and they were never going to put a missile out there where we could take a photograph of it. That was always the inherent problem.
TPM: When you and I talked months ago, one of the big issues was the back and forth between the civilians and the people in uniform at the Pentagon, about how you were going to do this, in operational terms, and also which countries you would need on board. Where is that part of this debate right now?
POLLACK: It seems like it's mostly being resolved. First, on the pure military plan, it looks like the Pentagon - that is, the uniform services - have won out and that it is going to be the big military operation. And that seems to be part of what's going on is that it's going to take us a number of weeks more until we've got the forces in place to actually mount the big military operation. [That's] rather than Secretary Rumsfeld's initial desire for this rolling start that was mostly reliant on airpower. The big thing there is this issue of when the United States actually starts military operations. I can imagine scenarios where for political reasons President Bush decides he wants to move sooner. And if he moves sooner we may not have all of those troops in place. And we may have to start with something like the rolling start. On the other hand, the longer that the current diplomacy goes on the more likely it is that we're going to have the troops in place ready to go.
Basing is still out there as an issue. Look, we've got Kuwait. We've got Bahrain. We've got Qatar. We've got Oman. Those are the absolute necessities. And we've got those. We've also, it looks like, got Saudi permission to use their airspace and to use Prince Sultan airbase which - again - those are the minimums and it's good that we've got them.
The issues that are remaining out there are Turkey and in particular putting ground troops in Turkey and if we can do anything more with the Saudis and particularly whether the Saudis will allow us to put ground troops in Saudi Arabia. It looks unlikely. I think that unless we both got a new UN resolution and the administration were willing to do something on the peace process I think it'd be hard for the Saudis to come around on that issue. If we got the second resolution, maybe. But I think the Saudis would still want to see progress on the peace process before they actually gave in to a US military presence on the ground in the Kingdom.
TPM: So overall it sounds like no one is happy about it. But despite their unhappiness we have the bare minimums that we need.
POLLACK: Exactly. What we've got is good enough. It could be much better. But it's good enough. On Turkey, the Turks have made it clear they'll allow us to use their airbases. The question is ground troops and how many ground troops. My guess is that actually there we will get to bring in maybe a division's worth of troops. And in that case that will be better than good enough. A division of ground troops really is exactly what we'd want up in Turkey.
TPM: And this is to get in there in the north and make sure that things don't spin out of control when everything is happening?
POLLACK: There is the ostensible reason of wanting to threaten Baghdad from the north and wanting to pin down Iraq's forces in the north. And those are good reasons. And they're certainly true. But they're not the most important reason. The most important reason is that we can be on the ground to prevent the Kurds and the Turks from coming to blows.
TPM: My last question is this: People who aren't familiar with the region and also don't talk to people in the region always see this seeming disjuncture between what one sees and hears from various Saudi officials on TV, for instance, and what they actually seem to be saying behind closed doors. And from your column in the Times one of the main issues we're confronting now is that these leaders aren't crazy about how we got to this point, but that they'll be really pissed if we bring it to this level and then don't do anything.
POLLACK: Yeah, I mean, beyond pissed. This is one of the problems I have. As you well know, Josh, I've always felt that we had to go to war against Iraq sooner rather than later. But I didn't necessarily think it had to be this year. And there were always a whole bunch of things that I wanted to do to make sure that we were ready to go when we did go. But the problem that I face now is that I think we are so deep into this - we are so far down this road - that it is now or never. I think that if we don't go to war this time around I don't think we will ever go to war with Saddam Hussein until he's acquired nuclear weapons. And then he picks the time and place of going to war. And this is exactly what I'm hearing: There are a whole variety of different issues out there. There's the military issues. There's the domestic political issues. There's the international political issue in terms of we've spun up the entire world for this thing. Don't think we're going to do this again in the future. We've spun up the whole country. And don't think we're going to do this again. We're moving all of these divisions out there. We don't have replacements for these divisions. If they come back home it's going to be a while before they can go back out there.
But I think the biggest issue right now is the Gulf Arab states who are feeling extremely exposed and extremely unhappy. And it's exactly as you put it: they're not wild about how we got to this point. They wish we would have done things differently. But now we've built up these forces. We've publicly committed ourselves to doing it. We have forced them to publicly take positions and they're taking a great deal of heat from their own people and from other countries in the region. The last thing they want is to go through this again. And I'll put it even more strongly: They've seen the United States commit itself to a major effort against Iraq - to toppling the Iraqi regime - and seen us pull our punches and back away from it too many times. And what they're saying is, 'Look, we really thought at the end of the Clinton administration that you guys weren't going to go after Iraq. And then 9/11 happened and President Bush indicated he was serious and we took him at his word . If you guys don't go this time we don't think you will ever go. We think you'll do the same thing to us next time. You'll build up again and at the last minute you'll find a way to back out. And once again you will leave us out on a limb. And we're not going through that again.'
TPM: So to characterize where you are on this: If we could rewind to where we were a year ago it sounds like you very much wouldn't want to be where we are right now. But now that we are here - with the options we have and with everything as it is right now - we really don't have much choice but to move ahead.
POLLACK: Right. I think that if you could have turned back time we could have handled this a lot better than we actually did. But we are where we are. And I do want to give the administration some credit. They actually have addressed a number of issues out there. There are some things that I actually think they've handled quite well. Jordan was one. I had a great deal of concerns about what was going to happen with Jordan. And I don't think the administration has absolutely solved the problem. But they've taken some very important steps to make sure that the Jordanians are shielded from the brunt of this war. That's really important.
TPM: Does that mean the economic brunt of it?
POLLACK: Yeah. They've made a number of arrangements with countries to make up for the Iraqi oil. And that's huge. That's something that we in the Clinton administration could never make happen. And so I give them credit there. But I think there are a whole bunch of other things which this administration has not handled particularly well. There are a number of other issues out there which have not been addressed fully. And, yeah, if given my preference I would prefer not to be in the position we're in. But I can't turn back time. And we're in the position we're in. And at this point in time, as messy as it may be, I think that it is now or never. And now is a much better option than never.
TPM: As long as we're on this subject, what are the other areas - as far putting this all together - that the administration has handled well.
POLLACK: I think the military plan, as I said, I think they've gotten to the right place on that. It was a fitful process. But I think they have gotten it to the right place. I think they've also done a pretty good job in terms of the 'day after'. I think you probably saw the piece by David Sanger and Eric Schmidt in the New York Times a couple weeks ago. That does really reflect, as best I can tell, where the administration is. And that's a pretty good approach to handling the 'day after'. They've given up their early ideas that we would just install a new dictator, or that we would install one of the Iraqi oppositionists, or that we just walk away from the problem the way we did in Afghanistan. They recognize this is going to be a big issue and that we have to be committed.
They're still arguing over whether the reconstruction should have a US head or a UN head. But even there I think they're leaning in the direction of the UN. And I think that that's the right answer. So I think they've addressed the 'day after' properly. I think there's still an issue out there of whether they will actually follow through on the 'day after'. But just in terms of the planning and doing everything necessary I think they're well on the road. So that's another one where I tend to give them some credit. I think that they've handled that one pretty well.
The Congress is another one. When I first wrote the book it was a time when you had administration figures coming out and saying 'We don't need anything from Congress. We've got all the authority that we need.' And [yet] they went to the Congress. And they got the war resolution, which I think was very important. To some extent the UN as well. You've heard me say any number of times that I wish they hadn't pursued this route with the UN. But, again, when I wrote the book they were in the mode of 'We don't need the UN. We've got all the authority we need to go ahead and do this.' And instead they recognized that that was a mistake. And they have gone to the UN. Unfortunately the route they took may have cost them as much support as it built them. Nevertheless, I appreciate the fact that they at least made the effort.
Just to cap it off, there are at least two big areas that we haven't talked about where I don't think that the administration is as far along as I would like to see them. Those are a Middle East peace process and the war on terrorism. On the Middle East peace process I think they've singularly failed. They haven't even put out their road map. I think this is a big issue. And I think that if we have problems in the Middle East as a result of the war they will largely be because the administration refused to really engage on getting negotiations resumed between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And I think they've missed some real opportunities there. I hope that the war goes smoothly enough that this doesn't come back to bite us. I'm afraid that it will though.
And then the other issue is the war on terrorism. I think the administration is fighting as hard as they can. I don't have too many complaints about how they're doing it. It's just that I think that there is the risk that when we go to war with Iraq it will reduce some of the pressure on al Qaida. The administration will be focusing on Iraq. It will be making its biggest efforts there. These are very important things. There are countries out there - many counties in the world like Saudi Arabia - that are going to say to us 'Whatever your top priority is, we'll make that our top priority too. But you only get one priority.' And if that priority is Iraq we're not going to get the same level of cooperation from them on terrorism than we would if terrorism were our highest priority. So my preference would have been that we'd be further along on the war on terrorism, that al Qaida would be weaker when we go into Iraq than they are today.
Now I think the president's right. I think that we've won some important victories against al Qaida. And I think to a certain extent they are scattered. They are on their heels. They're trying to knit themselves back together. But they're not out. They might be down. But they're not out.
END OF PART II