The Magazine

While Clinton Slept

How Osama and Saddam got away with it.

Feb 10, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 21 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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Pollack attacks the long-standing arguments for deterrence made by the French, by many within the Near Eastern Bureau of the State Department, and by more than a few antiwar realpolitik Americans. Their case is quite simple: Saddam Hussein won't egregiously misbehave again, since he knows that we would retaliate with equal or greater force. And even if Saddam got a nuke, it wouldn't give him a decisive advantage, since he would know that we (or the Israelis) would incinerate Baghdad. Saddam is ultimately checkmated, and we should calm down.

But as Pollack points out, the issue is not whether Saddam is deterrable--and Saddam's past actions suggest that he might not be--but whether the United States is. Every Western intelligence service knows that the Iraqi ruler has been trying since 1976 to build a nuclear weapon. If the Israelis hadn't bombed the Osirak reactor in 1981, and if America hadn't responded to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Saddam Hussein would now have an atomic weapon. Thus the question is "whether we would be willing to risk sacrificing New York--or Tel Aviv, or the Saudi oil fields--to save Kuwait, Jordan, or Syria." As Pollack remarks, "Saddam's foreign policy history is littered with bizarre decisions, poor judgment, and catastrophic miscalculations. . . . His track record argues that if we allow him to acquire nuclear weapons, we are likely to find ourselves in a new crisis . . . in which we will not be able to predict what he will do, and his personality and his history can only lead us to expect the worst. Leaving Saddam free to acquire nuclear weapons and then hoping that in spite of his track record he can be deterred would be a terrifically dangerous gamble."

In similar terms, Pollack demolishes covert action, the other favorite option of American foreign policy. With some discernible remorse--Pollack appears to have at one time been fond of different covert-action scenarios--he enumerates the failed coups against Saddam, including the CIA-backed coup attempt in 1996 by the Iraqi National Accord. "Today, a covert action program would be tantamount to admitting that the United States is unwilling," Pollack flatly writes, "to make the sacrifices necessary to remove Saddam's regime before it acquires the weaponry to threaten the region and the world."

AND YET, despite this pro-war book, Pollack came to prominence as a critic of Washington's leading Iraq hawks. His 1999 Foreign Affairs essay was a somewhat mean-spirited attack on some of Clinton's most forceful Iraq critics, though it eschewed any harsh words about the president himself. Pollack and his co-writers depicted Clinton's approach to Iraq as being the only practicable policy, since the American people were obviously a debellicized lot, incapable of being persuaded by an American president to go to war. The oppositionist plans for rollback or insurrection were thus defective not just militarily but also politically. Pollack especially ridiculed the current deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz, who was then the dean of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, for suggesting before Congress that the key for downing Saddam was a president's mustering "the necessary strength of purpose."

In "The Threatening Storm," Pollack describes himself as a "moderate hawk" on Iraq throughout his government career. It's not always clear exactly what this meant inside the Clinton administration. In the company of such doves as Warren Christopher and national security adviser Anthony Lake, the firing of cruise missiles in the early morning at an empty Iraqi intelligence building could seem like a bold, bellicose act. Certainly Pollack wants to separate himself from the "extreme hawks" (including Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, the Democratic senators Bob Kerrey and Joseph Lieberman, and the editors of this magazine), who believed Saddam had to go and who all were willing to militarily support the opposition through the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act.

Still, at least Pollack and the other "moderate hawks" grasped at some level the point made by the "extremists": The Clinton administration's policy toward Iraq was inadequate. In "The Threatening Storm," Pollack even confesses the same point. "Ultimately," he writes, "the only real difference between the two groups of hawks was that the moderates believed that a policy of determined regime change would be so difficult and costly that senior policy makers (President Clinton in particular) would never agree to it--so they advocated an aggressive form of containment with accompanying efforts toward regime change as the best policy that was politically possible."