A Required Briefing For War Protesters: Pollack on Iraq

The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq , by Kenneth M. Pollack. Random House, $25.95, 494 pages.

Sean Penn needs to read this book. So do Mike Farrell, George Clooney and all the protesters who marched and chanted against an American-led war on Iraq in cities across the world last weekend. (Patti Smith, who kept on singing “People Have the Power” at the rally in Washington, D.C., could benefit just from skimming page 123, which briefly visits Saddam Hussein’s eye-gouging, bone-crushing, acid-soaking policies toward his people when they touch-or are deliriously imagined to touch-a hair on the head of his power.) If, in their eyes, Kenneth Pollack fails to make the case for a full-scale invasion, he will have made an awfully strong argument-an argument that opponents of the war must confront, in all its depth, breadth and detail, if they do not wish to be patted on their heads and sent out to play with their placards.

The book’s capital-O ominous title is a clear play on Winston Churchill’s words on the gathering storm before World War II. Its body, however, bears more comparison to Churchill’s famous pronouncement on democracy. As treated here, war really is the absolute worst-case scenario, except for all the other remotely realistic case scenarios-which Mr. Pollack, a former military analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council, lays out with due respect, if not more.

Ironically enough for a book that makes the Bush administration’s Iraq argument much more cogently than the administration has yet dreamt of doing, this one achieves its authority by virtue of its total refusal to paint the question in Bush-tones of black and white. Start to finish, Mr. Pollack keeps the terms of debate to dark and darker: the bad versus the worse, Saddam now versus Saddam later. Then again, any other terms are fiction. At this moment, it’s still possible to hope for a shockingly satisfying disposal of the current United Nations weapons inspections-or even for the dictator’s opting to pack up his delusions of himself as avenging Arab angel and make for Riyadh.

Barring such felicities, however, the choice at hand is not a choice between war and peace. The options are not a) engaging in a terrible, variously costly, internationally dreaded war, or b) leaving the people of Iraq to their own oil, the rest of the world to its own beeswax, and the United Nations to its vaguely alleged task of more patiently mitigating the eclectic horrors of this regime. Rather, the options are a) engaging in a terrible, variously costly, internationally dreaded war, or b) leaving Iraq to its own misery, the world to the ramifications of a militarily resurgent and politically triumphant Saddam, and the United Nations in a state of even less ability and inclination to do a thing about him.

No question, it’s an excruciating dilemma, and there are valid reasons to come down on the antiwar side of it. But people of conscience must first do the work of facing the facts, and the facts are clearly and calmly laid out here.

Not, it bears noting, that opponents of the war ought to be confused automatically with people of conscience. As the “no-blood-for-oil” crowd sometimes forgets to mention, there is no shortage of brutally self-interested doves, and they presumably will greet everything in this book with the same ” feh !” with which they’ve greeted every other proof of treachery that Saddam has offered since he was ordered to disarm after the Persian Gulf War. More thoughtful readers, however, will note that many-not all, but many-of what pass for antiwar arguments are not arguments at all, but assumptions. It is these assumptions that this book is most useful in flattening.

For starters, there’s the assumption that the international policy of containment of Iraq was going along perfectly well, thank you, until the U.S.-mad as hell after Sept. 11-put its cowboy hat on and decided to ride roughshod over it. As Mr. Pollack is not the first to note, international efforts at containment have long been losing traction, and Saddam’s efforts at circumvention have long been gaining it. Take the sanctions (please!). Particularly since 1996, when the establishment of the so-called “oil for food” program theoretically allowed Saddam to trade oil for humanitarian goods-and practically allowed him to do a lot more than that-well, the average sieve would be mortified to have half so many holes in it. It is bitterly hilarious that the so-called “world community” should plead for patience with the so-called “U.N. system” when members of that community have been doing everything possible to undermine that system for years.

It is fair, indeed essential, to examine what selfish motives-such as a lust for oil-may propel the U.S. in the direction of war. But it is preposterous to do so without also asking what is propelling the likes of France and Russia-which have brazenly traded Security Council favors to Iraq in exchange for lucrative contracts from Iraq-in the direction away from war. More to the point for those truly and primarily concerned about the suffering of Iraqis, the sanctions-even if they could be rendered effective-present a hideous choice within the hideous choice. Absent the convincing disempowerment of Saddam one way or another, there is the inhumanity of tightening them versus the insanity of lifting them.

Mr. Pollack raises, then razes, one commonly but mistakenly cited objection after another, explaining why, for purposes of threat assessment, it doesn’t really matter whether or not Saddam had anything to do with Sept. 11; why a nice clean round of air strikes won’t cut it; why some variety of coup can’t be contracted out to a few good Shiites; why, in terms of establishing any sort of American claim to any sort of trust in the region, there may well be at least as much risk in backing down as there is in revving up.

He also disentangles the question of whether the U.S. is significantly to blame for Saddam’s having obtained the damnable weapons in the first place (it is) from the question of whether the U.S. can now legitimately call for his ouster (why not?). This reveals another strong point: Although the book certainly examines the question in terms of American interests, it doesn’t see the region through red-white-and-blue-colored glasses. There is a major difference between concluding that war in Iraq is the best of a bunch of bad options, and concluding that American foreign policy in the Middle East over the past five or six decades has been just ginger-peachy. Mr. Pollack doesn’t try to deny or minimize the fact and impact of U.S. support for Saddam throughout and after his 1980-88 war with Iran, which was then viewed as American enemy No. 1 in the region. Nor does he try to pretend that America’s involvement in Iraq can be seen in isolation from America’s involvement or non-involvement elsewhere, most notably in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

There are those who will argue that, even in hindsight, the pro-Iraqi tilt looks better than having risked the advancement of revolutionary Iran. But even the most resilient adherent to that position has got to wonder whether we had to be quite so gung-ho about it. Not even the coldest warrior can fail to bristle at the American non-response to the 1988 chemical massacre at the Kurdish city of Halabja. Not even the shiniest Yankee Doodle Dandy can fault the average Iranian, Arab or Kurd for having serious reservations about supporting the U.S., which must therefore appreciate the urgency and absoluteness of the imperative to communicate-and, indeed, have-decent, reality-based ideas about Iraq. All that said, such observations constitute an argument for conducting business better in the future. They constitute nothing like an argument against heading off the potentially dire consequences of the badly conducted business of the past.

As for the administration’s firm commitment to the doing of squat vis-à-vis Israel and the Palestinians, Mr. Pollack states its most obvious failing: Neighboring powers want the administration to do something-and, like it or not, neighboring powers count. “Some on the far right complain that by agreeing to take actions on the Palestinian-Israeli dispute we are giving the moderate Arab states a veto over our actions,” he writes. “What this claim misses is that the Gulf states do have a veto over whether or not we invade Iraq.”

That sentence suggests something else to recommend this book: It is in English. Despite his life in bureaucracy, Mr. Pollack writes as if he has seen daylight and encountered normal people with some regularity. Chapter subheadings run along the lines of “What smart bombs do and don’t do” and-after a careful but fanciful treatment of what would be required to invigorate the sanctions-”Why none of this will ever happen.” Especially when the material moves into the technical, the text helpfully steers toward the conversational: “In ground war, being small doesn’t make you quick and nimble; it makes you tentative.” When it comes to military ins and outs, I am not the person to assess Mr. Pollack’s assessments. But I can say that it took me only one read to be clear on what his assessments are.

This isn’t War and Peace , any more than it is about war or peace. But for the well-meaning war critic, it is something to be read and refuted before the next round of chanting

Tish Durkin, a former political reporter for The New York Observer , now writes about the Middle East for a variety of publications.