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The Threatening Storm by Kenneth M. Pollack

The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq
by Kenneth M. Pollack
Random House. 384 pp. $25.95

The invasion of Iraq is an essential requirement of American and global security. That is not simply because Saddam Hussein possesses chemical and biological weapons, or even because he is actively working to acquire nuclear weapons. It is because he is a violent megalomaniac determined to recast the Middle East in his image and willing to use absolutely any means to do so, even if it results in his own destruction.

This is the conclusion propounded with great force, care, balance, and articulateness by Kenneth Pollack in The Threatening Storm. A CIA analyst specializing in the Middle East prior to the Gulf war of 1991, Pollack was among those who at that time warned of the impending danger, to no avail. Subsequently he served in the Clinton administration in a variety of posts, including as director for Gulf affairs at the National Security Council. Although he does not here comment upon or criticize the unwillingness of either Bill Clinton or the pre-9/11 George W. Bush to focus on Iraq, much less to recognize the weakness and failures of American policy in the region, he puts his formidable expertise and rhetorical skill to the task of ensuring that the United States does not repeat its past errors. The result is a work that will stand the test of time.

Unlike many “crisis books” that race quickly and superficially through the background, Pollack takes time to describe Saddam’s rise to power and the course of his relationship both with the West and with the other states of the Middle East. The first part of the book is devoted to rehearsing that history, as well as to a detailed study of the development and fortunes of American policy vis-à-vis Iraq. Pollack then moves in the second section to the situation today, sketching the present state of Iraqi society, government, and armed forces, as well as of American policy and the diplomatic status quo in the region.

Considering the complexity of these subjects, Pollack’s treatment of them is both thorough and admirably concise. But by far the most impressive part of the book is the third section, where he lays out the various options the U.S. might now pursue. In each case, he tries hard to make the best possible argument, exploring the advantages and disadvantages of a given approach and always citing responsible experts and senior officials. Case by case, he shows why every alternative to invasion is unacceptable.

The policy currently in place is one of economic and military sanctions coupled with UN inspections of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. This approach, which Pollack calls “containment,” has collapsed to the point where it is irretrievable. The inspections program, as is well known, was ineffectual and in any case was terminated in 1998 and has yet to resume. In the meantime, the oil-for-food deals that were struck with Saddam, by means of which the international community hoped to alleviate the effects on the Iraqi people of UN-imposed sanctions, have only given him powerful economic weapons to use for his own ends. The two powers that have benefited the most under these programs have been France and Russia, which by no coincidence have also been the two states most staunchly opposed to President Bush’s determination to oust Saddam from power. By now, any chance of preventing Saddam through relatively peaceful means from developing weapons of mass destruction has been lost.

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The next option Pollack considers is “deterrence.” Abandoning containment altogether, the U.S. could proceed to lift the sanctions, do away with its patrols of the skies over Iraq, and rely on its overwhelming military superiority and the threat of devastating retaliation to deter Saddam from using the nuclear weapons he will inevitably acquire. Unfortunately, Pollack argues, there is considerable evidence that Saddam is not deferrable. It is not that he is insane, but that he regularly miscalculates his own capabilities and those of his enemies, and regularly fails to perceive others’ intentions in a rational way. As Pollack points out, Saddam has no experience of the West and no comprehension of it, and his intelligence apparatus fears giving him bad news more than it fears giving him bad information. A successful policy of deterrence rests on a basis of mutual understanding between adversaries, which simply does not exist in this case.

Concerning the next option, covert action, Pollack can speak with special authority, having worked with many of the groups in Iraq that we would rely on to execute it. His conclusion: it is hopeless. Saddam’s control has been so pervasive, and the Iraqi population is so terrified, that the U.S. has had no success whatsoever in developing a meaningful opposition inside the country, while the organizations outside Iraq have no links or ties to anyone within. Although it is conceivable that some disaffected general or lucky assassin might manage to kill Saddam, we ourselves are not capable of developing a plan for an assassination or a coup d’état that would have any significant prospect of success.

Next is what Pollack calls the Afghan approach: arm and train a group of indigenous fighters and support them with American air-power and special forces but not with conventional ground troops. This approach is also hopeless. The only indigenous forces capable of bringing combat power into the field are the Kurds and the Shiites. Trying to enlist the former would inevitably alienate Turkey—without whose support such an operation could not succeed—as well as most of our allies in the region who rightly fear a descent into chaos. Enlisting the latter would bring us into line with the Iranians—and put us at their mercy.

In this connection, Pollack is also careful to note that Iraq is not Afghanistan. There, the combatants we used had already been fighting for twenty years to overthrow a weak and unpopular government. In Iraq, by contrast, no opposition group has fighters in the field at this time, and Saddam’s military, although no match for American skill and technology, could easily handle any effort that local forces might hope to mount. Nor, Pollack argues, could we rely on airpower to prevent such a fate, as a close look at our experience in similar situations in Kosovo and even in the Gulf war reveals.

In the end, there is only one option left: massive and rapid invasion. In Pollack’s view, there can be no doubt of the outcome of such an enterprise, only of the cost and the effort required. The probability, he writes, is that we would win the military battle fairly easily, quickly, and at relatively little cost. But victory for Pollack does not mean only depriving Saddam of weapons of mass destruction; it means depriving Saddam of power, and then taking an active part in helping to shape the peace that follows.

As Pollack makes clear, Saddam’s regime is as deeply evil as any since Stalin’s Russia—which is no surprise, given that he consciously studied both Stalin’s and Hitler’s methods before improving upon them. Just as in Soviet Russia of the 1930’s, children are encouraged to inform on their parents and publicly rewarded for doing so. Torture, as well as the rape of female family members, is the method of first resort even for those merely under suspicion of disloyalty. Saddam has frequently used chemical agents against his own population, and has conducted punitive operations against Kurds and Shiites designed to exterminate whole villages and destroy whole areas of settlement. His troops have created an ecological disaster in the south by draining the swamps that hid Shiite rebels—to say nothing of the cataclysm he caused by igniting the Kuwaiti oilfields and dumping oil into the Persian Gulf.

For all these reasons, not to mention our own record of sitting by or delaying while we knew what atrocities were taking place, the question of who replaces Saddam, Pollack argues, must be a matter of great importance to us. We cannot permit the country to break into warring regions or to fall under the sway of one or more of its neighbors. And there are other options in Iraq that, if not as bad as Saddam himself, are still completely unacceptable. Would we allow him to be succeeded by his maniacal and murderous son Qusayy? Or by a senior general of the Republican Guard? The carelessness with which we have dealt with postwar Afghanistan cannot be tolerated in a country that controls a significant portion of the world’s oil supply, has a highly advanced program to develop weapons of mass destruction, and still maintains powerful armed forces. On the other hand, a peaceful and liberalizing regime in that country could have a transforming effect on the entire region.

Removing Saddam Hussein from power and replacing him with a stable government bent on the well-being of the Iraqi people is an extraordinary priority of this country. The only way to accomplish that task is by means of a large-scale ground and air invasion of Iraq. No fair reader of Kenneth Pollack’s indispensable book can fail to be convinced of the correctness and justice of this conclusion.

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