Interview : Kenneth Pollak Discusses Why He Is Convinced Now Is the Right Time to Invade Iraq

All Things Considered, Sunday: November 10, 2002

Making the Case For War


Author Kenneth Pollack says he's convinced it's the right time to attack Iraq. Pollack was a Persian Gulf military analyst for the CIA and then a National Security Council official in the Clinton administration. Now he's written a book arguing in favor of war, even though he says it may not be easy. And Kenneth Pollack joins us now.

Kenneth, welcome.

Mr. KENNETH POLLACK (Former CIA Analyst; Author, "The Threatening Storm"): Thanks very much, Steve. It's great to be here.

INSKEEP: Maybe the question that's on a lot of people's minds is that although Iraq is clearly a dangerous country, why now? Why attack now?

Mr. POLLACK: I believe that we are going to have to go war with Iraq sooner rather than later. The reason that it has to be sooner rather than later is because of Iraq's development of nuclear weapons. What we've heard from all of the intelligence communities in the West--there seems to be a consensus among our own, the British, the French, the Germans, the Israelis--they all believe that Saddam Hussein has effectively everything that he needs to build nuclear weapons.

INSKEEP: Except uranium, highly enriched uranium.

Mr. POLLACK: Well, he's got the uranium. He hasn't enriched it yet. But what that says is that we do have a window. We don't want Saddam Hussein to get nuclear weapons. If he were to acquire them, it would be tremendously dangerous, possibly tragic for the entire world.

INSKEEP: You were in the White House during the Clinton administration, which pursued a policy of containing Saddam Hussein. What has persuaded you that that policy just won't work anymore?

Mr. POLLACK: Well, the problem is that containment was a good policy when it was put in place, but by 1996, '98, we realized that it really was failing. The inspectors weren't finding anything. The Iraqis had gotten so good at hiding their weapons of mass destruction that the inspectors just couldn't find anything. And what's more, we found that international support for the containment of Iraq was eroding on a daily basis. And it is important to remember that the containment regime that was set up in 1991 was a multinational containment regime. It's one the US just couldn't keep in place by itself. The big difference between 1998 and today is that in 1998, there was no one who thought that we would be able to summon the public support for a full-scale invasion, which we knew was the only way to be certain that you could get rid of Saddam.

INSKEEP: Is that a big part of the answer to the question `Why now?' simply because public opinion polls now suggest that more Americans would support a war against Iraq than was the case four or five years ago?

Mr. POLLACK: Certainly, it's part of it. I think there is a recognition that September 11th did change the American public's thinking about foreign threats. Before September 11th, I think there was a sense among most Americans that foreign threats were small and distant and really didn't require a great deal of effort. That was certainly the perception in Washington. And after September 11th, that perception seemed to change, that the American public recognized that, in fact, there were some very dangerous threats out there in the world and that the United States did need to make a much greater effort to deal with those threats. And so that change has made invasion the one sure way to get rid of Saddam Hussein, to solve this threat. It made it suddenly a realistic prospect.

INSKEEP: Do you think the public is prepared for the potential cost of this war?

Mr. POLLACK: I think that the public is getting there. I don't think the administration has done a very good job explaining this operation to the public. I don't think that they've yet done a great job of explaining why it is necessary, of what the threat from Iraq is and why it has to be addressed. I also don't think they have done a terrific job in talking about both the costs and the ways that the United States can minimize the costs.

That said, I still think we've got quite a bit of time. The administration is willing to make a full-scale effort to start talking to the American public and really explaining both the threat and what the United States is going to do to deal with the potential problems. I think they've got the time if they're willing to use it.

INSKEEP: Pentagon officials, of course, have been giving a lot of thought to some of the possible costs and consequences of a war. I'd like to play you a piece of tape. Stephen Younger is director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, an important Pentagon agency. He gave a speech the other day in which he predicted something that a lot of US intelligence officials are predicting: that if the US attacks Iraq, that Saddam Hussein is actually likely to use whatever chemical and biological weapons he may have.

Mr. STEPHEN YOUNGER (Director, Defense Threat Reduction Agency): (From audiotape) There is some discussion as to whether Iraqi commanders would actually utilize chemical or biological weapons if there were an invasion of Iraq. It seems pretty clear to me that they will, because the consequences of disobeying an order in Iraq are swift and sure; they are death.

INSKEEP: Kenneth Pollack, what does it mean, if that's true, that by starting a war, we actually trigger the event we're trying to prevent?

Mr. POLLACK: Actually, I do agree with the view that it is likely that if we invade Iraq, we will trigger their use of weapons of mass destruction. But I think there are a number of very important caveats to keep in mind. First, our ability, our military capabilities to deal with those threats is actually quite high. Our forces are well-prepared to deal in that kind of environment. And what's more, our offensive capabilities are very good, and chances are we can prevent the Iraqis from using a lot of that if we handle the operation correctly. And I noted the most recent newspaper article suggesting that this is going to be a massive invasion force; I think that's absolutely right. The bigger the force we bring to bear, the better our capabilities to prevent the Iraqis from using these weapons.

But another point to keep in mind is, again, if we go in now, Iraq's weapons of mass destruction capabilities at present are actually very limited. They're quite weak. And the real danger is waiting too long. At some point down the road, Saddam Hussein is going to acquire a nuclear weapon. He will probably acquire a very advanced biological and chemical agents. And the costs of a war under those circumstances would be orders of magnitude worse than what it would be today.

INSKEEP: US military forces can protect themselves from chemical and biological weapons. They've got those suits which are believed to work. You have to wonder if Iraqi civilians would be able to protect themselves if these weapons were used in an urban area, though.

Mr. POLLACK: Certainly, that's going to be one of the biggest concerns of an invasion. In fact, it's one of the tragic realities of such an operation as this is that the United States is probably going to be much more concerned about Iraqi civilian casualties than is their own leadership. While there's no question that there are going to be Iraqi civilians who are going to die as a result of any kind of an invasion, Iraqis live in utter misery today. Saddam Hussein is responsible for killing thousands, tens of thousands of Iraqis every year.

INSKEEP: I suppose you do have to consider whether the average Muslim or the average Arab watching Al-Jazeera, as this war unfolds, is going to see that logic that way or if they're going to just see civilian casualties and feel quite hostile toward the United States.

Mr. POLLACK: I think that anti-Americanism is so rife in the region right now that there's no doubt that you're going to have a lot of people who are going to be angry about this. But I think that the biggest consideration for many of them is going to be what the United States does afterwards. First, my expectation is that the Iraqi people are going to be very glad to be rid of Saddam Hussein. I think it's a little bit more unclear exactly how they're going to respond to the United States. My guess is if they see the United States making an effort to lead an international coalition to rebuild Iraq, construct a prosperous, stable Iraq, allow the Iraqis to govern themselves, then in fact the reaction from the Iraqi people is likely to be very positive.

On the other hand, if the US makes no such effort or if we simply install some puppet government under those circumstances, then I think the Iraqi people are going to be very unhappy with the American presence, and I think that'll spill over into the rest of the region and further inflame anti-Americanism.

INSKEEP: Kenneth Pollack is a former CIA analyst, a former Clinton administration national security official and the author of the new book "The Threatening Storm."

Mr. Pollack, thanks very much for coming by.

Mr. POLLACK: Please, it was my pleasure, Steve. Thanks for having me.

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