There’s nothing like a compelling icon when no compelling argument is available. That is just how Kenneth Pollack’s book, The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq, is presented by its publisher (the venerable Council on Foreign Relations) and how it is used. It was hailed by the managing editor of Foreign Affairs (which is published by the council as well) as “one of the most important books on American foreign policy in years.” Of course, the overwhelming majority of those who will cite the book to support a US-led war in Iraq will not read it. They will rely on its title, its publication by the Council on Foreign Relations and the titillating biography of the author–a former CIA analyst whose advice to be tough on Iraq went unheeded during the Clinton years. It has become a talisman, not an argument.
But what does the book actually do? It provides an excellent review of the history of the up-and-down relationship between Saddam’s Iraq and its neighbors and between Saddam and the United States. It vividly documents the horrors of Saddam’s repressive regime. It argues that neither containment nor deterrence nor sanctions can be relied upon (individually) to prevent him from gaining access to nuclear weapons. It spells out the author’s (reluctantly arrived at) belief that only an American invasion, mounted to do the job even without help from Middle Eastern or European allies, can succeed.
Most of this is unsurprising to anyone who has read reviews of the book, or even to those who have read its first 300 pages. However, lurking in the book’s last 100 pages is the decisive but largely ignored aspect of its argument. What may be surprising is that Pollack here spells out, somewhat unsystematically yet with admirable clarity, the conditions under which his advice for an all-out, US-led invasion of Iraq should actually be taken. What is glaringly apparent is that not a single one of these conditions has been met.
Before launching an invasion, writes Pollack, the United States must judge itself ready to commit all the resources necessary “to rebuild Iraq as a stable, functioning nation.” His own estimate of the requirements for this objective includes maintaining US troops in Iraq “for five to ten years” at a cost of “$5 billion to $10 billion on reconstruction over that same period of time, plus as much as another $10 billion to $20 billion to maintain a military presence in the country.” Elsewhere, Pollack suggests that the US bill for reconstruction “could easily amount to several billion dollars per year for as long as a decade.” But even this higher estimate is almost certainly absurdly low, especially for bringing a heavily damaged country to the kind of “stable, prosperous, and pacific” state Pollack says is the sine qua non for not substituting one “intolerable threat” for another.
In this regard, it is sobering to consider that Washington has agreed to pay Turkey more or less the entire amount Pollack estimates will be needed to rebuild Iraq just to compensate it for expected damage to its economy from a war–and the war is not even supposed to be fought in Turkey! Indeed, as Pollack writes, “our information about the situation in Iraq is poor. Once we arrive in the country, we might discover that the reality was quite different from what we had expected.” Whatever the costs of reconstruction and Iraqi nation-building are, they will be high, and Pollack’s point is that unless the United States is willing to pay them it should not invade. No statements emanating from Washington suggest that the Bush Administration has made that judgment. Certainly the American people have not.
Pollack also warns that other “significant price tags” will be attached to the war he has suggested. To wage that war requires that “the United States would have to be willing” to incur those costs and risks. These include the likelihood “that deaths from an invasion would number in the high hundreds for U.S. military personnel and the high thousands for Iraqi civilians,” but that “we might suffer several thousand American military personnel killed and several tens of thousands of Iraq civilians killed.” No poll I have seen that includes significant estimates of US casualties reports a response rate anywhere near a majority of Americans in support of an invasion. Nor has the Administration itself indicated its readiness to accept this many American deaths and the much larger number of wounded that would be associated with it.