The Best and the Brightest: (Former Clintonite) Kenneth Pollack

The Times has a fine piece today on Hillary Clinton that mentions that Jonathan Tasini is going to primary her over her dismal Iraq policy.

This touches on the LA Times articleI mentioned a couple days back that says that neoconservatism is not limited to the Bush Administration, that neocons are a significant part of the Democratic Party braintrust. By neoconservatism, I mean here the belief that using force to change regimes in the Arab world is a good thing, and essential to establishing stability in the Mideast. This doctrine is widely held among even Dems who call themselves liberals, from Lieberman to Berman. It’s important to identify this strain of thinking because if you have any hope of winning political campaigns based on an antiwar policy, or a liberal internationalist realist policy (the various antimilitarist ideas that are in the air, from Fukuyama to Lieven), you have to attack this thinking and offer an alternative.

Put simply, more than half the country has come around to the dovish position that the Iraq war was a mistake. Who will address that majority constituency? And how? If the Democratic party is going to do it, it will have to sort out those who favor the use of force to change regimes from those who don’t. This is hard political work. Especially if you believe, as I do, that it means stating forcefully: we must have a more evenhanded approach to Israel/Palestine. Howard Dean tried to say that two years ago and then quailed because of the pro-Israel lobby.

But let’s return to the ideas. Here I’d like to point specifically at Kenneth M. Pollack, the head of research at the Saban Center at the “liberal” Brookings Institution. Pollack served in the National Security Council for Bill Clinton. His argument for invading Iraq in 2002, in the book, The Threatening Storm, was hugely influential, and Pollack appeared again and again on the Op-Ed page of the Times in the runup to the war, offering the centrist Democratic bloc to Bush’s coalition of the willing. Pollack was influential because he seemed so reasonable, arguing that we needed to invade Iraq to lower the temperature in the Middle East. He was a liberal Establishment type, he had grown up on the Upper East Side and graduated from Yale and served on the Council of Foreign Relations. Also Pollack writes very clearly and thoughtfully—and he’s mediawise (married to Ted Koppel’s daughter).

I am going to highlight an argument from that 2002 book. I understand that Pollack’s thinking has changed somewhat since that book, but I don’t believe that he has come to terms publicly with what he wrote here.

Toward the end of the book, Pollack argued that the U.S. should not conduct a “pragmatic,” efficient invasion—removing Saddam and then getting out of there. It should reconstruct Iraq and build a stable, inclusive new Iraqi political system. By following this expensive “Reconstruction Approach,” the U.S. would “transform its reputation in the Arab world,” and transform the Arab world. The emphasis here is all mine.

The critics of the Reconstruction Approach raise several objections. First, they argue that it may not work, that there has never been a functional Arab democracy nor anything close to it. They argue that Iraqi political society is entirely unprepared for representative government and that it would therefore take many false starts to make it work—if it ever could. The critics contend that during this long period of transformation, the United States would have to remain in the country in force and would inevitably become a target of Iraqi grievances, leading to attacks on American forces. They believe that the United States would be seen as an imperialist occupying power that would stir up Iraqi nationalism, feeding such animosities and creating concomitant security problems.

The critics also believe that the costs of such a transformation for the United States would be well beyond what the American people would be willing to pay—that transforming Iraq’s political and economic systems would cost tens (if not hundreds) of billions of dollars and last many years.

I told you he was a good writer. I certainly couldn’t have put it better myself.

Now here is Pollack’s response, two pages on, to those crazy critics.

[T]he critics tend to exaggerate the likely costs to the United States of pursuing the Reconstruction Approach. In purely economic terms, Iraq itself, with its vast oil wealth, would pay for most of its reconstruction. It might take some time to bring the oil back online.. but it is hard to imagine that it would take more than two to three years to have Iraq back to 2000 to 2001 production levels… Consequently, in purely economic terms, it is unimaginable that the United States would have to contribute hundreds of billions of dollars and highly unlikely that we would have to contribute even tens of billions of dollars. The United States probably would have to provide $5 to $10 billion over the first three years to help get Iraq’s oil industry back on its feet, initiate the reconstrution of Iraq’s economy, and support the Iraqi people in the meantime… redeveloping infrastructure and other basic costs. However, the need for direct U.S. aid should decline steeply therafter.

“Those who argue that the United States would inevitably become the target of unhappy Iraqis generally also assume that the Iraqi population would be hostile to U.S. forces from the outset. However, the best evidence we have suggests that the Iraqi people would be pleased to be liberated, and over the longer term, their acceptance of U.S. forces would likely be determined by the efforts the United States undertook….”

I believe that Pollack’s defense of these statements would be along the lines: I was for doing it completely differently from Bush, with a wider coalition. Etc. Similar arguments are now heard widely. There is a giant unfolding Chinese menu with pictures of the way we should have invaded Iraq. These people are rearranging the deck chairs. The invasion was a bad idea, America knows that, and our leaders lined up behind it and the best and the brightest promoted it. Progressives need to come up with better ideas.