The War Behind Closed Doors
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interview: kenneth pollack
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Pollack served as director for Gulf affairs at the National Security Council from 1995-1996 and from 1999-2001. Before that, he spent seven years in the CIA as a Persian Gulf military analyst. He is the author of The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq. In this interview, he argues that Iraq is "a unique threat that does require an extraordinary response, a preemptive response by the United States and its allies to prevent Saddam Hussein from ever acquiring the weapons of mass destruction, in particular the nuclear weapons that would make him perhaps an insurmountable threat." However, he warns that military action in Iraq should not be a blueprint for American foreign policy in other countries. This interview was conducted on Jan. 4, 2003.

[At the end of the Gulf War in 1991] where are you, and what do you think when you hear that it's over?

At the time I was at the Central Intelligence Agency. In fact, I was the junior Iran/Iraq military analyst at the time. And I would say when we first heard the order, first heard that the president decided to stop the war, our initial response was, "OK, the president probably knows better than we do. If he says it's over, it's over." Because in point of fact, the ground war had unfolded so quickly that we, back at CIA, were at least 24 hours behind the times. We were getting things 24 hours after they happened.

I think that we have to be very careful about seeing Iraq as a model for future [U.S.] behavior.  Iraq is a unique country with a unique set of circumstances.

So we assumed that the president had information that we simply didn't. But very quickly afterwards, within a matter of a day or so, we began to get evidence that seemed to suggest to us that maybe things weren't exactly as the president had believed. In particular, we began to get evidence, intelligence information of all kinds from our technical systems, that indicated that quite a bit of the Iraqi armed forces that had been in the Kuwaiti theater of operations seemed to have escaped. There was a concentration of about 842 Iraqi tanks sitting up near the southern Iraqi city of Basra. And about 400 of them were Republican Guard T-72s. And we began to suspect almost immediately that maybe the president wasn't aware of this, because we were pretty convinced that the president hadn't intended to let half the Republican Guard escape from the Kuwaiti theater of operations.

In your mind, when you look back on that, what do you think happened?

My understanding, my sense of what happened, was that U.S. Central Command, the command in Saudi Arabia that was running the war, got caught up in the fog of war and did not understand that U.S. field forces had not yet destroyed the Iraqi armed forces, and, in particular, hadn't destroyed the Republican Guard. Piecing it together after the fact, what was going on was that units out in the field in the middle of battle, with smoke and sand all around them, they'd report back to Central Command Headquarters in Riyadh. And they would say things like, "We have just engaged the Medina Division of the Republican Guard and have destroyed it," or, "We have destroyed 300 armed fighting vehicles." And Central Command back in Riyadh would make an assessment. In many cases they would say, "That many tanks dead, this unit is now gone. It only ever had 300 tanks. If there are 300 dead tanks, the unit is destroyed."

It would only be after the fact that what you'd sort out was that in the fog of battle, and the chaos of combat, there were different units, different tanks would all be shooting at the same Iraqi tank. You'd have 300 American tanks all reporting that they blew up five Iraqi tanks, when in point of fact, many of those American tanks may have all killed the same Iraqi tank 10 or 20 times over.

The problem was that the fog of war, even in the information age, was so thick that Central Command wasn't aware that so many Iraqi units were escaping until after the president had ordered the stop of the war.

And the president had no stomach for taking the kind of casualties that might have been required to march to Baghdad anyway.

My sense in what you get from all the after-action accounts, things I've heard from friends of mine who were with the president at the time, was that both the president and his senior advisers felt that additional damage was gratuitous after the Feb. 27. Remember, what they were hearing, what they all believed, was that they've destroyed the Republican Guard, they had evicted the Iraqis from Kuwait. What was left of the Iraqi armed forces was in shambles, and presented no real threat to anyone else. And those, of course, were the goals of the war. So, as far as they were concerned, the intelligence that they were being given indicated that the United States had achieved all of its goals. Unfortunately, again, the information intelligence that they were working off of turned out to be faulty.

The other element of the decision, was that President Bush and his advisers were being told by scores of people, many people inside the U.S. intelligence community, many of our closest allies in the region, many of the Iraq experts outside of the government, [that] Saddam Hussein cannot possibly survive in power after a defeat of this magnitude. Everyone was telling him, "Saddam Hussein can't possibly stay in power." And therefore, the assumption was the United States doesn't need to do anything else to bring about his downfall. And, therefore, any additional fighting, any additional damage would simply be gratuitous.

And when it becomes apparent that the estimates were wrong, that Saddam Hussein was about to crush the south and other things were about to happen how does [the president] react at that moment?

Well, I was not with the president at the time, so I can't really tell you how President Bush responded. But, it is pretty clear that at different points in time the administration debated [different] courses of action. The Shia revolted in southern Iraq, the Kurds had revolted in northern Iraq. These were very large revolts, at last, relative to other revolts in Iraqi history. They were fighting very hard, and asking us for support.

In the meantime, you had people suggesting that there were things that we could do. We could fly air cover for them to prevent them from using their helicopters. We could provide them with weaponry. We could restart the ground war with all kind of different options that we had. And the outcome, the decision that the president and his top advisers seem to have made, was again that it was unnecessary for the United States to do so because so many people continued to tell the president that Saddam Hussein was a goner, that there simply was no way he could stay in power. ...

What happens, of course, is that within a few months after the end of Desert Storm, it becomes clear that Saddam Hussein is not going to be ousted from power. He crushes the Shia and Kurdish revolts. He's able to reestablish himself in power. He purges the armed forces and other power elements, and makes it clear that he's going to be firmly in control.

The problem for the Bush administration at that point in time is that their whole policy toward Iraq was predicated on a false assumption, on the assumption Saddam wouldn't be in power. And so in that point in time, people within the administration have to start picking up the pieces of the failed policy, the assumption that Saddam would fall automatically to try to find some other way to deal with this. And the policy that they effectively come up with is one of containment. It's basically decided that well, we're going to try to keep Saddam Hussein pinned down, prevent him in particular from rebuilding his weapons of mass destruction, and the rest of his military power, keep him from being able to threaten of his neighbors, and also try to put as much pressure on him as we possibly can in hopes that that might cause his regime to fall.

But, it is very much, early on, an ad hoc policy. And, unfortunately, one of the problems that manifests itself throughout the 1990s is that the United States is trying to keep in place, hold together a containment policy that was mostly just an ad hoc response to the failure of the going-in policy, which was Saddam Hussein can't possibly survive in power, and all we need to do is hold on for a little while until he gets removed.

It's interesting, there are guys like Paul Wolfowitz and others, for whom this is a real bone in the throat, especially, then I suppose. Am I reading that right?

Yeah, I think that there were a lot of people in the Bush administration who had very strong emotional reactions to all of these different policy decisions. And I suspect, although I can't be certain, that many of the people who are currently involved in the current Bush administration, who took part in those decisions, that a lot of their judgments, and a lot of their decision-making about how to handle Iraq at this point in time, are in part being determined by their feelings about what the United States should have done back in 1990 and '91.

[At that time, what was your best estimate at that moment of what the future held across the 90s, in terms of Saddam's regime?]

I'd say collectively the CIA had pretty much stopped making estimates of how long Saddam Hussein was likely to remain in power. I know that I, and my fellow military analysts, felt that Saddam had weathered the greatest challenge to his regime, certainly within the last 15 years, and possibly that he had ever faced. And, therefore, it was certainly possible that he could be removed from power in the future, but that no one should bet on it, because having survived that kind of a challenge, it was hard to see another challenge of similar magnitude coming along. Which is not to say that Saddam might not have died at any moment during that point in time. He faced any number of coup attempts. But, what we were basically feeling was that, given the fact that he had survived this one, this big one, nobody should bet that he was going to fall from power anytime soon.

In the 90s, Saddam Hussein keeps popping up on the radar screen. We keep doing things to him, and he keeps doing things to the U.N. inspectors. Walk me through what Saddam is doing in the 90s, and what the Clinton administration is trying to do.

Early on it is clear that Saddam Hussein made some very important miscalculations about what the future confrontation with the United States and the United Nations would look like. He underestimated the resolve of the international community, and of the United States and the ability of both the U.S. and the U.N. to keep him in check. He assumed early on that the inspections wouldn't be terribly meaningful; he'd be able to bribe or otherwise subvert the inspectors; the international community wouldn't keep its mind on these things for very long. And, in particular, [he thought] that the sanctions, as well, would start eroding very quickly. And as a result, all of these pieces of containment would wear away pretty quickly. So, his assumption was that all he needed to do was to give a little bit of cooperation. And after a period of months, the rest of the world would lose interest, and he would be able to go about his merry way.

He was proven wrong in that. He realized pretty soon that, in fact, the United States was going to pay very close attention, and we were going to hold the rest of the world's feet to the fire. And given his actions in Kuwait, the United Nations was willing to give the United States and our allies a lot of leeway in terms of making sure that Saddam complied.

So, for the first part of the 1990s, Saddam Hussein became increasingly frustrated. He couldn't get rid of the inspections; he couldn't get rid of the sanctions. Iraq was becoming increasingly impoverished. The Iraqi people were increasingly unhappy. And all of these things were creating internal security threats for him.

By about 1994, Saddam seems to have decided that the pressure on him was intolerable. And he began to do things to try to get rid of it, to try to destroy the entire U.N. system of containment. The first strategies that he embraced were mistakes. The first thing he did was, in 1994, he threatened to attack Kuwait. In fact, the best evidence that we have, which came from his son-in-law, Hussein Kamel, who is the number-two man in Iraq, was that he actually intended to attack Kuwait in an incredibly misguided effort to try to force the U.N. to lift the sanctions and get rid of the inspections.

Well, of course, the U.N. rallied around the United States. We amassed a huge military force in the Gulf, and convinced Saddam Hussein that this wasn't the right way to go.

After that, Saddam began to focus his attention on the inspectors, thinking that the inspectors were the weak point that he could use to start to erode the containment machine. And, in fact, he had intended to start a series of crises over the inspections in the summer of 1995. He got preempted though, by his son-in-law, Hussein Kamel, the number-two man in Iraq, [who] chose to defect basically as a result of a whole series of bizarre circumstances.

Hussein Kamel's defection threw a monkey wrench into Saddam's plans because Hussein Kamel knew everything about the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction programs. He had been the man responsible for building them. He was also part of the highest-level committee that Saddam had, that was responsible for hiding the weapons on mass destruction.

So, as a result, Saddam was temporarily forced to once again give in and comply with the inspections. And for a very brief period of time, he surrendered again a huge amount of WMD material to try to buy off the inspections and to say, "Well, yes, you know, Hussein Kamel did some things, but we're clean now."

Thereafter, though, he once again began to become frustrated. He encountered increasing internal difficulties. And by about 1996, '97, was once again at the point where he decided that he was going to go after the inspections, to try to erode the entire containment process. And so beginning in 1997, the Iraqis increasingly challenged the inspectors, prevented them from doing what they wanted, in some cases, threatened their physical safety. Did everything that they could to harm the inspectors, and to create multiple crises, recognizing that each crisis convinced the world that Saddam Hussein was just a big pain in the butt, and needed to be let alone.

[This] increasingly divided the United States from our other allies in the Security Council. Because with each crisis the United States wanted to mount a strong, firm response to push back on Saddam to convince him not to do this, whereas all of our allies were becoming increasingly weary, or many of our allies increasingly tempted by the financial incentives that Saddam Hussein was providing them. And as a result, with each crisis the U.S.'s ability to respond to Saddam became weaker and weaker. We became more and more divided.

By 1998, Saddam had gotten to the point where the United States really couldn't do anything about it. We went to the United Nations and said, "Saddam is not complying. He is not doing anything that he is supposed as a result of the U.N. resolutions." And the rest of the world simply said, "We don't care anymore."

And at that point the inspectors left Iraq, the U.S. [mounted] Operation Desert Fox, and that was pretty much it. Saddam had effectively triumphed at that point in time. He had figured out a strategy of hiding his weapons of mass destruction, preventing the U.N. inspectors from finding any and simultaneously, going back and challenging the inspections and the sanctions in clever ways that made it difficult for the United States to rally international support to mount some kind of a strong response.

As a result, by 1998, the inspections were effectively dead. And at that point Saddam went to work on the sanctions. And began to start to erode the sanctions by using the economic clout that Iraq had from the oil-for-food deal. In 1996 he had accepted the U.N.'s offer to allow Iraq to sell oil in return for food and other civilian goods. What Saddam did was he used leverage from that. Saddam got to decide who got the oil contracts, and he got to decide who got the food contracts. And he made it very clear, any country who wanted Iraqi contracts had to tow Baghdad's line.

And, unfortunately, he found a lot of countries that were willing to do that. In particular the Russians, the French, the Chinese and a number of other countries were more than glad to tailor their positions in the United Nations in return for Iraqi economic contracts. So, between 1998 and the present time, the Iraqis were able to greatly erode the sanctions by using this economic leverage, rewarding countries that help them cheat on the sanctions, and punishing those countries that didn't help them do so.

There are lots of people that George W. Bush could have picked, to talk to him, to teach him, and to come into his government. Yet, he ends up picking, talking to and listening to a lot of people who are talking about Iraq in 2000. Why?

... There's already a lot of revisionist history going on out there. A lot of members of the Bush administration, who seem to be trying to make it seem as if going after Saddam Hussein and the need for regime change in Iraq, were always a consistent policy of this administration, something that they had embraced from day one. In point of fact, it's just not true.

The first year of the administration, the tide had swung very much against that group of far right conservatives who had been arguing for Iraq. And it does seem very clear that after Sept. 11, this group seized upon the events of Sept. 11 to resurrect their policy of trying to go after Saddam Hussein and a regime change in Iraq. ...

From the first moments after Sept. 11, there was a group of people, both inside the administration and out, who believed that the war on terrorism should target Iraq. In fact, should target Iraq first. In many cases, they were simply reactively convinced that Saddam Hussein had to be behind Sept. 11, because they made Saddam Hussein out to be the greatest threat to the United States, and the source of all evil, if not in the world, then certainly in the Middle East. And they were pushing very early on to make Iraq the first stop in the war on terrorism.

Throughout the course of 2001, and 2002, they were pushing that line. Early on they were not successful in advancing it, because it became very clear that Al Qaeda had mounted the attack without the assistance of Saddam Hussein. And all the efforts to prove a link between Saddam Hussein and the Sept. 11 attacks came up without any evidence.

But, over time, you did have, and especially after the victory in Afghanistan, you did have a sense increasingly among moderates, even in the Bush administration, that while Saddam Hussein may not have been responsible for Sept. 11, and may not even be the primary culprit behind international terrorism, he was a very big threat. And that allowed the right wing of the Bush administration to increasingly make progress in steering the war on terrorism into a war on Iraq.

The Bush Doctrine was articulated, at least in big pieces [in his State of the Union speech in January 2002]. It was a kind of philosophy, a new way of thinking about the post-Cold World America. The thing about the evolution of things like that are that they're usually they're glacial, they take a long time. This doesn't seem to have taken a long time to begin to be articulated, this preemptive American use of force.

I think you have three things that came together at that moment in time for the Bush administration. First, you had a seminal event, like Sept. 11, which did fundamentally change the political landscape of the United States. We like to say that Sept. 11 changed the world. It didn't change the world. But, it changed America's perception of the world in a very fundamental way. And that opened up the possibility of remaking U.S. policy in very fundamental ways as well.

Second, you had already present in the administration a group of people who had ready on hand an ideological position, a theory about how the world works, and an idea for a strategy that could be developed from that ideology. And that strategy was what became the Bush Doctrine. And when this moment, Sept. 11 occurred and suddenly the world looked different, they stepped forward and said, "We have the right strategy for this new world."

And third, I think you have a president who was looking for something like that, in particular, after Sept. 11. Everything that we hear about the president, that his aides tell us, that people have interviewed, say is that President Bush is someone who looks for moral clarity. He does believe that there is evil in the world, and he looks for strategies and policies that allow him that kind of moral clarity. And the ideology, the strategy that was being offered up after Sept. 11, allowed for that kind of moral clarity. Stated a very clear purpose for the United States, which was deeply rooted in our values that set forth a very aggressive and, I guess you could use the word "proactive" way of thinking about the world, and taking action; very much in keeping with U.S. ideas about how we should act in the world. Something that resonated very deeply with the American people [was] the idea that no longer was the United States going to simply sit back and wait for these bad guys to come and attack us, but we were going to go out into the world, shape the international environment, root out the evil-doers, as the president always likes to call them, and take action to prevent them from doing anything before they could come and hurt us. And, I think, that it was that kind of a doctrine, and that moment, that really resonated both with President Bush, and with the American people.

Is it a remaking of the Middle East?

I don't think it's clear yet whether the Bush administration actually believes that invading Iraq will somehow transform the Middle East. There is a real debate within the administration over this. And I'll say for my part, that I think that it is reasonable to suggest that a U.S. invasion of Iraq could be part of broader changes in the Middle East. I think what's important to keep in mind are both the likely timelines and the potential for solving all of the region's problems. And, I think, we have to be very modest about both.

It is conceivable that if the United States removes Saddam Hussein from power and leads an international effort to rebuild Iraq and create a strong democracy there, that this could both succeed, and it could have an influence on other countries in the region. But, these are things that are going to take quite some time. Building a new Iraq, building democracy in Iraq is probably going to take years, if not decades. And the impact on the rest of the region is also likely to take years, if not decades.

By the same token, it is possible that a determined U.S. action in Iraq could have some kind of an impact on other problems in the region -- the Arab/Israeli dispute, the problems in the moderate Arab countries with increasingly disenfranchised youth, stagnant economies, legal and educational systems that are leading them nowhere. But, these are all massive problems, and we should not count on an invasion of Iraq to be the solution to all of them. At best they could help.

At best an invasion of Iraq, if done properly, might open up new opportunities that will allow the United States and our allies to start taking other actions that could address these problems. But I think that it would be dangerous to suggest that all we need to do, to solve all of the problems of the Middle East, is to get rid of Saddam Hussein.

Within the Bush administration, there does seem to be a great deal of debate as to whether or not the United States should mount a full-scale invasion of Iraq. But, there does seem to be consensus that if the United States is going to mount that full-scale invasion, if we do go to war to remove Saddam Hussein, that afterwards we must be committed to a long-term effort to rebuilding Iraqi society, and building a functional democratic Iraqi state because any other approach is going to lead to chaos in Iraq. And creating chaos in Iraq will simply be substituting one set of problems for the problems that we already have. That, however, is a very different point from saying that Iraq should become the first of many such endeavors around the world. And that, too, seems to be a real bone of contention within the Bush administration.


Oh, absolutely. And, I think, Colin Powell continues to fight this tooth and nail. I think that there are many within the State Department who have grave doubts about the wisdom of this course of action, and continue to argue over what the United States should do.

A very good case can be made, both legally and strategically, for going to war with Saddam Hussein to remove him as a threat to the United States. And if we do go to war with Saddam, then we do have to also be committed to rebuilding Iraq. But it's a very different thing to suggest that Iraq should then become a model for the United States to be taken and transplanted elsewhere around the world, in other words, that we would go to war with a whole variety of other countries -- Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Cuba, North Korea -- to remake their societies and their parts of the world.

We might not have to. We might just be able to say, "See, here's a case study, here's the example of what we can do. Don't make us come to your neighborhood."If that's the case, if the demonstration effect of a U.S. invasion of Iraq is enough to cause all of these other countries to suddenly reform their behavior, that would be wonderful. But we shouldn't count on it.

And what's more, I think that we have to be very careful about seeing Iraq as a model for future behavior. Iraq is a unique country with a unique set of circumstances. It does pose a threat to the vital interests of the Untied States that many of these other countries that we label as "rogues" don't. They are problems for the United States, but they aren't necessarily so vital that they require a full-scale U.S. invasion.

And what's more, in some cases, a full-scale U.S. invasion might not even solve the problem. Iran is a country of almost 70 million people. Invading Iran is probably not the best policy for the United States under almost any circumstances, except a direct Iranian attack on the United States. ...

[What is your] best case for why it is a terrible notion [to use Iraq as a test case for a new foreign policy doctrine of preemptive military intervention?]

Saddam Hussein's Iraq does pose a threat to the vital interests of the United States, and of the entire world. And that means that Iraq is, in some ways, a unique threat that does require an extraordinary response, a preemptive response by the United States and its allies to prevent Saddam Hussein from ever acquiring the weapons of mass destruction, in particular the nuclear weapons that would make him perhaps an insurmountable threat.

But, because Iraq is a unique threat, it also means that Iraq should not become the basis for a broader policy. And, in particular, this shouldn't be a one-size-fits-all policy. What's right for Iraq isn't necessarily what's right for the problems that we have with Iran, or North Korea, or Cuba, or Syria or Libya or any of these other countries with whom we do have very serious problems.

In many cases, a war would be the worst possible solution for these countries. Going to war with North Korea right now might be horrific, because the U.S. Intelligence Committee seems to believe that North Korea already possesses nuclear weapons. In other cases, as in Iran, probably the last thing we want is to try to occupy a country of 70 million people in Iran, a country four times the size of Iraq.

By the same token, though, I think that the Bush administration is actually hurting its case for war with Iraq by pushing a strategy of preemption more broadly. My own sense is that talking with Europeans and our other allies, they are often very deeply concerned about a war with Iraq, not because of the specifics of the Iraqi circumstance, but because they're afraid of setting a precedent. They're afraid that this will become the first of many preemptive wars fought by the United States. And I think that the administration could probably do a much better job in building support for a war with Iraq, if they did make the case that Iraq is, in fact, a unique threat which requires a unique response and that we aren't planning on mounting preemptive wars against any of a series of other countries.

Most of the countries around the world recognize that Saddam Hussein's regime is one of the most odious of the last 100 years; they recognize that this guy is a threat, that we've had to go to war with him once before and that ridding the world of this regime would make the world a much better place. But, they're very nervous about giving the United States carte blanche for a policy of preemption. And, I think, in many cases they're trying to throw the brakes on Iraq, and hope that this throws the brakes on this larger policy.

But, do you have any doubt that that group of people -- call them the far right, call them conservatives, call them whatever you want -- have actually, by the president articulating what is more or less the Bush Doctrine, have captured the flag already? That this game has already been more or less won?

I'm not convinced that the proponents of a hard-line view of the Bush Doctrine have actually captured the day. The National Security Strategy that the Bush administration released is actually fairly ambiguous, and it does allow for different interpretations. Let's remember there have been lots of presidential doctrines that have been articulated, which weren't always zealously enforced. The Nixon Doctrine, the Reagan Doctrine, the Carter Doctrine -- in many cases these were honored as much in the breach as in the observance.

And I think there is still a great deal to be decided within this administration as to exactly what the Bush Doctrine is going to mean. But, it certainly is the case that there is a strong contingency within the administration, and outside of it, that is pushing for a very hard-line interpretation of the Bush Doctrine, a very aggressive implementation of the letter of the document. ...

How will we know, outside observers, journalists, experts, human being citizens, which side has won the battle for the heart and soul of the Bush administration? Is it if we go for Iraq?

Whether or not the United States goes to war with Iraq, I think, is actually somewhat irrelevant for the Bush doctrine. Iraq is so threatening, Saddam Hussein is so dangerous and so evil, and the strikes against Iraq are so many, that Iraq can be justified regardless of whether or not one believes in the Bush Doctrine or not. The real cases will be after Iraq. And the real questions will be: How does the United States pursue its international agenda after Saddam Hussein has been removed? Do we, once again, take up arms against other countries, against Iran, against Syria, against Libya, against North Korea or Cuba? Or, do we look for solutions based on the specifics of each of those cases?

Unfortunately, it may be the fact that we don't know which side has won, though, until the very end of the Bush administration, when we can all look back on what wars the Bush administration chose to fight, and not to fight. And we can only say then whether or not it was the moderates or the hawks within the administration that prevailed.


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