Ken Pollack’s Biggest Mistake: Not Listening to Ken Pollack

19 Aug

Dan Drezner surveys the current debate about the foreign policy community and adds some important insights. An excerpt:

Does this mean, as Greenwald implies, that there is no debate within the FPC? Hell no. There can and should be vigorous debates over what constitutes a “vital national interest,” whether force should be used multilaterally or unilaterally, what other policy tools should be used, etc. That’s not a small zone of disagreement. Indeed, as Chris Sullentrop pointed out in March 2003, Pollack’s Threatening Storm rebuked an awful lot of the Bush administration’s approach to Iraq.

Pollack comes in for no small amount of criticism in the blogosphere. Some of it is deserved (why he would team up with O’Hanlon to write this op-ed is beyond me¹), but much of it misses the fact that Pollack is a smart military and intelligence expert who, as Ilan Goldenberg points out, actually knows the Middle East (but was wrong about the war). He’s no neocon hack, and as Drezner’s post highlights, his pro regime-change book , The Threatening Storm, had some serious caveats for an Iraq invasion:

In The Threatening Storm, Pollack cautions the United States against behaving as a “rogue superpower” that does whatever it wants, whenever it wants: “If we behave in this fashion, we will alienate our allies and convince much of the rest of the world to band together against us to try to keep us under control. Rather than increasing our security and prosperity, such a development would drastically undermine it.”

Herein lies Pollack’s biggest mistake: not trusting his own judgment and, I believe, putting too much faith in the institutional power of the CIA, DOD, and State departments, while ignoring the shortcomings of an Executive that disdained the bureaucracies of all three. What evidence we had in the run up to the war suggested there were WMD to be found in Iraq. Pollack, and others in the intelligence community, used past mistakes (finding post Gulf War that Saddam had a nuke program) as a heuristic to gauge the level of the program, and to second guess inspectors’ findings (no WMD wasn’t enough–it just proved we couldn’t find them). When Bush decided to go to war, Pollack reasoned that doing something (i.e. deposing Saddam) was the better and safer option than merely waiting around, or never going in at all. For Pollack, I would bet that he felt a certain amount of reassurance that career professionals he had worked with in NSC, CIA–and a State Department led by a liberal internationalist (Colin Powell) who had prosecuted a war in the same country a decade earlier–wouldn’t botch the reconstruction and post-war planning for such a serious and consequential undertaking.

Of course, he was wrong; the administration didn’t do things right, and Powell’s State Department was benched for reconstruction planning in favor Rumsfeld’s new theory of nation building. Pollack’s mistake was not sticking to the plan he outlined in his own book. If an imprudent and poorly executed war might “even be counterproductive,” then it was incumbent upon Pollack to say “No, wait, stop. I can’t support this war because this isn’t the way to go about it. Doing it wrong is more costly than doing nothing.” As Pollack acknowledged, others saw the warning signs:

Bill Galston is one helluva debater. In the fall of 2002, well before the invasion of Iraq, I faced Bill—a University of Maryland professor and a former colleague of mine in the Clinton administration—in a public debate, and he kicked my rhetorical ass. He did it by holding up a copy of my book, The Threatening Storm, and saying to the audience, “If we were going to get Ken Pollack’s war, I could be persuaded to support it. But we are not going to get Ken Pollack’s war; we are going to get George Bush’s war, and that is a war I will not support.” Bill’s words haunted me throughout the run-up to the invasion. Several months ago, I sent him a note conceding that he had been right.

From where we sit today, it’s hard to speculate what Saddam Hussein would have done if we hadn’t invaded Iraq. There are good arguments to be made that a more forceful inspections regime (coercive inspections), or even a less rigorous investigation would have raised some serious questions about the case for war. Maybe Saddam would have continued pursing WMD; this seems likely, though how successful he would have been is another matter, as our sanctions did a better job of keeping WMD out of Iraq than we originally believed. I think there are also arguments to be made that we would have had to go into Iraq eventually (perhaps years from now, after rebuilding Afghanistan), because Saddam could not be deterred from seeking nuclear weapons. It’s also possible that he might have put aside some of his more monomaniacal tendencies and supported (or at least tacitly ignored) terrorist groups like al Qadea, or some similar terrorist group looking for safe haven, turning Iraq into a de facto base of operations.

Perhaps most depressingly though, Drezner makes the case that one our Commander in Chief had decided to go to war, the game of foreign policy debate and the wisdom of military intervention was already lost:

The moment George W. Bush decided he wanted to oust Saddam Hussein, the debate was effectively over. Nothing the foreign policy community did or could have done affected the outcome (Pollack is a possible exception — The Threatening Storm did play the role of “useful cover” for many Democrats, but if it wasn’t Pollack’s book it would have been something else).

Pollack’s role as “useful cover” and conservative symbol of “respectable liberal opinion” (they’ve since switched him to the role of “war critic”) is what has damned him in the minds of many of the netroots and progressive community (of course for some, supporting the war would put you on permanent outs). But what they neglect is that Ken Pollack would still be a wonk-in-good-standing if he had only paid closer attention to his own counsel.

UPDATE: Alexander Dietz thinks Pollack would have been foolish to expect the bungled reconstruction and that the foreign policy community risks its objectivity when it argues against a policy because of the administration in power.

¹ Actually, I think it has something to do with trying to convince Democratic presidential candidates not to support wholesale withdrawal from Iraq which he sees (I think rightly) as potentially disastrous.

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