Jan 11, 2004 4:24 am


As most people know, Kenneth Pollack's book The Threatening Storm was very influential in making and strengthening the case for war with Iraq. In that light, a few excerpts from Pollack's lengthy new article about the failures of our intelligence prior to the Iraq invasion are worth noting. First, this one about the area where Pollack does explicitly blame the administration for its behavior:

The one action for which I cannot hold Administration officials blameless is their distortion of intelligence estimates when making the public case for going to war.

As best I can tell, these officials were guilty not of lying but of creative omission. They discussed only those elements of intelligence estimates that served their cause. This was particularly apparent in regard to the time frame for Iraq's acquisition of a nuclear weapon—the issue that most alarmed the American public and the rest of the world. Remember that the NIE said that Iraq was likely to have a nuclear weapon in five to seven years if it had to produce the fissile material indigenously, and that it might have one in less than a year if it could obtain the material from a foreign source. The intelligence community considered it highly unlikely that Iraq would be able to obtain weapons-grade material from a foreign source; it had been trying to do so for twenty-five years with no luck. However, time after time senior Administration officials discussed only the worst-case, and least likely, scenario, and failed to mention the intelligence community's most likely scenario. ...

None of these statements in itself was untrue. However, each told only a part of the story—the most sensational part. These statements all implied that the U.S. intelligence community believed that Saddam would have a nuclear weapon within a year unless the United States acted at once.

Some defenders of the Administration have reportedly countered that all it did was make the best possible case for war, playing a role similar to that of a defense attorney who is charged with presenting the best possible case for a client (even if the client is guilty). That is a false analogy. A defense attorney is responsible for presenting only one side of a dispute. The President is responsible for serving the entire nation. Only the Administration has access to all the information available to various agencies of the U.S. government—and withholding or downplaying some of that information for its own purposes is a betrayal of that responsibility.

The conclusion of Pollack's article is as follows:
Finally, the U.S. government must admit to the world that it was wrong about Iraq's WMD and show that it is taking far-reaching action to correct the problems that led to this error. Iraq is not going to be the last foreign-policy challenge in which we must make choices based on ambiguous evidence. When the United States confronts future challenges, the exaggerated estimates of Iraq's WMD will loom like an ugly shadow over the diplomatic discussions. Fairly or not, no foreigner trusts U.S. intelligence to get it right anymore, or trusts the Bush Administration to tell the truth. The only way that we can regain the world's trust is to demonstrate that we understand our mistakes and have changed our ways.
And I think it should be noted for the record that Pollack now says the following about his overall view of the Iraq war:
My reluctant conviction that war was our only option (although not at the time or in the manner in which the Bush Administration pursued it) was not entirely based on the nuclear threat, but that threat was the most important factor in it.

The war was not all bad. I do not believe that it was a strategic mistake, although the appalling handling of postwar planning was. There is no question that Saddam Hussein was a force for real instability in the Persian Gulf, and that his removal from power was a tremendous improvement. There is also no question that he was pure evil, and that he headed one of the most despicable regimes of the past fifty years. I am grateful that the United States no longer has to contend with the malign influence of Saddam's Iraq in this economically irreplaceable and increasingly fragile part of the world; nor can I begrudge the Iraqi people one day of their freedom. What's more, we should not forget that containment was failing. The shameful performance of the United Nations Security Council members (particularly France and Germany) in 2002-2003 was final proof that containment would not have lasted much longer; Saddam would eventually have reconstituted his WMD programs, although further in the future than we had thought. That said, the case for war—and for war sooner rather than later—was certainly less compelling than it appeared at the time. At the very least we should recognize that the Administration's rush to war was reckless even on the basis of what we thought we knew in March of 2003. It appears even more reckless in light of what we know today.

I think it is safe to say that this is not precisely a ringing and impassioned endorsement of this venture.

More about these issues, and about rumblings concerning Syria, in this post.

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Oscar Chamberlain - 1/11/2004

Thank you for this discussion of Pollack's views.

In many ways it seems that the most difficult position to articulate concerning the was in Iraq is the critical, yet supporting position such as Pollacks.

Those who support the war will clip the supporting passages. The fervent opponents will clip the critical passages.

That's the nature of our politics. More and more it seems like the old joke about the movie reviewer who called a new release a "magnificent flop," but was quoted by the movie's producer as saying it was "magnificent."

Perfectly accurate, of course.