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.
Pollack also argues that the United States should not and cannot conduct a successful war alone. At one point he goes so far as to say that the Persian Gulf states “have a veto over whether or not we invade Iraq.” Elsewhere he stipulates that “an invasion of Iraq would require a new coalition to support it”–a coalition that at minimum must include Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. Needless to say, of these necessary allies only Kuwait and, perhaps, Turkey (although its Parliament is balking), have been cajoled or coerced into joining our “coalition of the willing.”
One reason the coalition Pollack sees as necessary has not been established is that another key condition for the war has not been met. Pollack repeatedly emphasizes that as uncomfortable as it may be for many in Washington to accept, the Israeli-Palestinian problem would have to be radically reduced in scope, though not necessarily solved, before a war on Iraq would be advisable. “Much as we may not like mediating between Israel and the Palestinians, if we are going to deal with the problem of Saddam Hussein, it is necessary that we do so.” Only if we “deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict and get it moving in the right direction,” he writes, can we be confident of the access we will need to Egyptian air space, the support we need from the Egyptian government and the political barrier required to reduce the risk of regime collapse in several friendly Arab countries. The Israeli-Palestinian problem is identified as the source of most of the “bedlam” in the Middle East, and Pollack warns that levels of unrest in the region must be reduced if his characterization of an invasion as “the conservative course of action” is to be considered valid. “Unless and until we have done that preparatory work, an invasion of Iraq itself would be the risky option.” Again, needless to say, this condition is as far from being met now as it has been since the beginning of the second intifada in the fall of 2000.
Pollack also warns that despite the dangers he sees in Saddam’s Iraq and the inadequacies of other options he considers, no invasion should be undertaken unless key domestic political requirements are met. As in World War II and Vietnam, he writes, “the United States should not embark upon this [war] without the clear, expressed support of the American people.” A marker of this requisite level of public support would be “the endorsement of a congressional declaration of war.” Of course, Congress is nowhere near ready to pass such a declaration. Polls now show that no more than 55 percent of the American people support President Bush’s handling of the Iraq issue. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are marching in the streets against the war, and it has not even begun.
But of all the warnings Pollack offers, of all of the conditions he places upon the advisability of the war option, none are more categorical and more obviously unmet than his insistence that no war can be made on Iraq until after Al Qaeda has been defeated. According to Pollack, “it would be best to hold off on plans for an invasion until al-Qa’eda [is] more thoroughly eradicated.” In his conclusion he is more emphatic. “In the immediate wake of 9/11, we rightly devoted all of the United States’ diplomatic, intelligence, and military attention to eradicating the threat from al-Qa’eda, and as long as that remains the case we should not indulge in a distraction [sic!] as great as toppling Saddam.” Pollack is specifically afraid that a war in Iraq could itself lead to the transfer of weapons of mass destruction from Iraqi arsenals to terrorist networks like Al Qaeda. While allowing that the utter destruction of Al Qaeda would be too severe a condition for a US war in Iraq, “we certainly need to be at a point where we do not have monthly government warnings of possible terrorist attacks.” Oscillating as we have been, between Code Yellow and Code Orange alerts, it is clearly the case that this condition for war, however hedged, has not been met.
Having finished The Threatening Storm, the careful reader will wag his or her head in disbelief. How can a book resounding with so many warnings against an invasion be heralded as acompelling call to arms? The question parallels the large question ringing in the ears of millions of puzzled Americans. What is the reason for this war? What has made it such an urgent matter to dispose of Saddam Hussein? What has changed in Iraq to produce a threat to the United States and the world that was not present eight, six or four years ago? What is the “demand” for this war?
The answer is simple. This is a supply-side war. There is very little demand for the war, and nothing in the way of a compelling necessity for it. But the enormous supply of political capital flowing toward the President after 9/11 combines with the overweening preponderance of US military power on a global level to make the production of war in Iraq not a trivial affair but one that can be embraced with relatively little thought and almost no need to appeal to a readiness to sacrifice. That a war is militarily and politically so “easy” for the United States government can explain why so little reason for a war can produce so powerful a campaign for one. It also explains why so weak an argument for it, as is contained in the Pollack book, can be so widely regarded as persuasive.
Let us consider this point more closely. History and international relations theory both teach us that unchecked power leads to hegemonic ambitions and violent efforts to achieve them. In any country there will be small groups with powerful fantasies that can have access to power. Those fantasies are usually irrelevant because of countervailing power and the all-too-apparent risks of miscalculation. But when the margin of military power is as great as it is now, it takes less to render decisive the access to power enjoyed by small groups holding extravagant, hegemonic ambitions.
Since the 1980s there has been a small but powerful group of neoconservative hawks who see in the “‘remoralization’ of American foreign policy” the restoration of “a sense of the heroic” and the establishment of an American position of “benevolent global hegemony” as not only good in themselves but as necessary to insure the repeated election of conservative Presidents (William Kristol and Robert Kagan, “Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 1996).The idea is to use the glories and dangers of overseas adventures to redefine the agenda of political contestation away from the bread-and-butter issues used by liberals to win elections.
With these factors in mind one can understand that the proximate cause of the Bush Administration’s campaign for war in Iraq was the terrorist attack on September 11. Before that, the cabal of neocon warriors driving this juggernaut–including Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney and the tom-tom beaters of the Weekly Standard–could not prevail in the battle for the President’s foreign policy agenda against the prudent realism of the old Republican guard, represented (at that time) by Colin Powell and now-silenced veterans of earlier Republican administrations: Brent Scowcroft, James Baker and Henry Kissinger. After 9/11 the amount of political capital available to the President for doing anything at all that could be massaged to look relevant to 9/11 increased beyond measure. This campaign for an invasion of Iraq is thus aptly understood as a supply-side war because it is not driven by a particular threat, a particularly accentuated threat or a “demand” for war associated with the struggle against Al Qaeda, but because of the combination of an enormous supply of military power and political capital and the proximity to the highest echelons of the American government of a small cabal long ago committed to just this sort of war.
The agenda of this cabal includes not so much oil (though cheap, American-controlled oil is a part of the plan) but a desire to repeat in the Middle East the “miracle” of the fall of the Berlin wall, the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the spread of democracy throughout Eastern Europe. Demonstrating the usefulness and usability of American arms is taken, by this group, to be necessary to allow the United States to get its way in other regions, and to accomplish a wide array of goals in pursuit of its hegemonic position, without always having to use force. There is also an unstated but powerful objective to transform the Arab countries in the Middle East from states putatively obsessed with irrational hatreds of a wholly innocent Israel into rational, accommodating democracies that will give up on the Palestinian problem and let right-wing Israeli governments determine the future of the occupied territories without external pressures.
Just as Pollack’s book is useful for identifying the long list of reasons the fantasies of this group are likely to lead to disaster for the Middle East and for us, so too does it document this supply-side interpretation. Pollack was close to the circles that wanted a war on Iraq during the Clinton years. He and others were frustrated by the inability to move the US government toward that objective. What changed? Pollack is very clear:
We need to keep in mind that what makes any of this discussion possible is the shock to the American populace as a result of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the public’s willingness to make sacrifices and take forceful action to eliminate other such threats. This willingness may not last forever.
“This willingness may not last forever.” Exactly. As the American people gain perspective on the character of the threats they do and do not face, as they learn to distinguish Al Qaeda from Iraq, and Iraq from anthrax attacks in New Jersey and Washington, and as they gain the capacity to think rationally about the costs and risks associated with various options for combating national security threats, support for the invasion and occupation of Iraq will virtually disappear. This appreciation of the closing window of political opportunity for the war is another reason for the insistence on it now and the determination to ignore all evidence to the contrary when it comes to discussion of the wisdom of that course of action.