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INTERVIEW WITH DR. KENNETH POLLACK
SENIOR FELLOW

The Brookings Institution

conducted by David Denny
Washington File

October 9, 2002

 

QUESTION: Opponents of a pre-emptive strike against Iraq cite a lack of new and current evidence to suggest a threat that would necessitate a U.S. attack on Iraq. Is the administration right to consider Iraq a real and dangerous threat? What reasons or rationale would you advance to support an invasion of Iraq?

POLLACK: Very important question: The truth of the matter is that there isnít any particularly new evidence. The problem is that we are simply further along in time. What I say in the book is that we are going to have to deal with this threat sooner rather than later, although we may not have to deal with it, necessarily, immediately. In fact I lay out a number of conditions that Iíd like to see the United States secure before we actually go ahead and invade Iraq.

But in terms of the timing, the real issue is the progress of Saddam Husseinís nuclear weapons. Itís been four years since the inspections ended in Iraq, and during that time the information we have is that Saddam Hussein has continued to pursue nuclear weapons. We know that he was pursuing nuclear weapons even when the inspectors were in Iraq during the early 1990s.

The question thatís out there is the ticking clock of Saddam Husseinís nuclear weapons program. What all the Western intelligence agencies believe -- and thatís the U.S., the French, the British, and the Germans -- all believe that it is only a matter of time before Saddam Hussein acquires nuclear weapons. They believe that it will probably be somewhere between three and six years -- although their estimates vary -- about three-to-six years before he is able to build one indigenously.

Now, what weíve found in the past is that Western intelligence has consistently underestimated Saddamís progress toward nuclear weapons. So even when you hear three-to-six years, you want to err on the side of caution. And beyond that, of course, this is one we canít afford to get wrong -- because once he has a nuclear weapon, then all bets are off, and the option of an invasion is off the table, because no one is going to invade Iraq once Saddam has a nuclear weapon.

So the point is, weíve got to get it right. We canít afford to misjudge this, and even the intelligence agencies believe that itís simply a matter of a few years. What that suggests is, we may not have to do it immediately, but we canít wait too long.

And Iíll add one thing: The estimates of the intelligence communities are based on the assumption that Saddam is not able to acquire highly enriched uranium on the black market. What theyíre afraid of is that, if he is able to do so, it would be more like a matter of months, or at most a year or two, before he could build a nuclear weapon -- something he has been trying to do for 25 years, and has never been successful at.

Q: You have written that, historically, Saddam has not been deterred by the threat of retaliatory strikes and thus the potential for his use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is not as constrained as one might expect. Could you elaborate on this point?

A: The problem of Saddam Hussein is not that he is irrational or suicidal; the problem is that he is a serial "miscalculator." He is aggressive and risk-taking by nature, and what we have found, watching him in power for 34 years, is that faced with a difficult situation, Saddam Hussein will interpret reality in ways that accord with what he wants to have happen -- often regardless of how bizarre or fantastic his conclusions are. And in fact, time and again we have found that other senior Iraqis around Saddam have greatly disagreed with Saddamís own assessments of the situation and the likelihood of success in some of his more outrageous adventures. But none of them has been in a position to tell him that it was a mistake to do so, because Saddam has a bad habit of shooting the messenger.

Q: There is a lot of back-and-forth about Saddam's support of terrorists. Do you think he presents a serious threat to the world as a result of his history or present proclivities?

A: Saddamís Iraq is a state sponsor of terrorism. There is no question about that. They were a charter member of the State Departmentís list of state sponsors of terrorism, and well-deserved. That said, it is also true that in the 1980s, Saddam changed his relationship with different terrorist groups. He ratcheted down -- diminished somewhat -- his support for international terrorist groups, and instead focused more on regional terrorist groups -- groups that he used against his own enemies. So he supported the Mujahadin e Khalq against Iran; he supported the Kurdish Workers Party, the PKK, against Turkey.

Now what we are finding in 2002 is that Saddam has started ratcheting up his support for Palestinian terrorist groups against Israel, as a way of exacerbating the violence between Israelis and Palestinians in a desperate bid to divert attention from his own misdeeds and prevent the United States from coming after him.

Q: Are you talking specifically about -- or only about -- this giving money to the families of suicide --

A: No, more than that. "Sixty Minutes" actually did a wonderful piece on Sunday [September 29] which was about how the Israelis have uncovered all kinds of documents -- when they went into Ramallah and raided Arafatís headquarters -- uncovered all kinds of documents linking the Iraqis much more directly with certain Palestinian terrorist groups.

I should also say something about al-Qaeda. In the past, Saddamís relationship with al-Qaeda was always very tenuous -- not a whole lot you could pin on him, and I think there really isnít a very good case that he was somehow responsible for September 11th, or even involved in September 11th. That said, there are reports now and the administration is claiming that they have information -- in part from the Israelis -- that indicate that those ties have deepened. It is something thatís entirely possible. Weíve always known that because of the common interest between Iraq and al-Qaeda that there were people in these two different organizations that were trying to make contact with each other. But I think the administration is going to have to come forward with some of that evidence to make the case stronger than they have so far.

Q: On the face of it, youíd think that bin Laden wouldnít want anything to do with him, because heís secular. Heís not trying to install an Islamic regime. He attacked the first Islamic regime.

A: Correct. A line from the book: Heís killed far more mullahs than he has American soldiers in his lifetime. And this is why I think that anyoneís first position has to be skepticism that they have now made common cause, but nevertheless you also shouldnít rule it out.

Q: As a former member of the Clinton Administration's national security team and involved with U.S.-Iraq policy, you were an early voice in warning of the danger posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Why doesn't the case against Saddam have more resonance in the world, especially in Europe?

A: I think that the European governments have downplayed -- purposefully downplayed the threat of Iraq for years. One of the things that has always struck us Ė me, when I was in the government and outside -- is that at the technical level, their intelligence personnel, their foreign ministry personnel, share our assessments of the threat of Saddam Hussein. But their governments have done nothing to educate their people about this threat. As a result, the U.S. move toward a military operation against Saddam seems to come from a vacuum. Whereas the U.S. government over the last 10-12 years I think has done a much better job of educating the American people about the threat from Iraq.

Q: If Iraq attains nuclear capability, you outline a frightening scenario in which Saddam would again invade Kuwait and blunt any effort to stop him by threatening to use nuclear weapons on the oil fields of the Middle East. A nuclear attack on Middle East oil production would cause tremendous, long-lasting economic harm to the world. How credible is this threat? Is it by itself a sufficient argument for invading Iraq?

A: When I was at CIA [Central Intelligence Agency], one of my bosses, the deputy director for intelligence, a very senior official, gave the edict that we will not predict what Saddam Hussein will not do. It was a very wise edict, because Saddam Hussein is truly unpredictable. Again, he comes up with fantastic theories about how he is going to extricate himself from whatever mess heís gotten himself into, and they often make absolutely no sense to anyone else but Saddam -- not just westerners but even his own advisers.

And they lead him to do things that everyone else looks at and thinks theyíre foolish: invading Iran, invading Kuwait, deciding to stay in Kuwait in 1991, even threatening Kuwait again in 1994. At the time, everyone believed that Saddam would never do something like that, because everyone assumed that it was foolish and Saddam knew that it was foolish.

Q: They assumed heís a rational actor, and that he sees the world the way they do.

A: Correct. But the problem is, heís rational in the sense that he calculates, and he has a means-ends chain, and it is a rational calculation. The problem is, the inputs into the calculus are bizarre.

Q: Garbage in, garbage out.

A: Couldnít have said it better myself.

Q: Some critics of a U.S. pre-emptive strike against Iraq believe Saddam will not commit an unprovoked attack against the United States or Israel: Do you agree? What are the risks of such an attack by Saddam?

A: I think it is unlikely that Saddam would commit an unprovoked attack against the United States. That doesnít seem to be something heís ventured any interest in doing, and he seems to recognize the ramifications -- the consequences of doing something like that. But there are two important points. First, again, we should never try to -- never think that we can be certain in predicting his behavior, because he has consistently defied all predictions.

The second point is that the real danger is not that Saddam Hussein would use them necessarily against us. The real danger is that he will believe -- we have evidence that he does believe that when he possesses nuclear weapons, he will be unconstrained in terms of what he can do to other countries in the region. He will feel enabled to once again embark on new aggression against Kuwait, or Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Turkey -- you name it. I can come up plausible scenarios for why he might decide to attack any of those countries, and even though none of them may seem likely at this minute, we have seen him in power for 34 years, and he has consistently taken actions that stupefied all those trying to assess his likely behavior.

8. In your recent Foreign Affairs essay, you make a compelling presentation of Saddam's often-irrational behavior and the personality behind it. What is it about Saddam's personality and consequent behavior and his particular view of the world that makes him so dangerous or threatening?

A: The problems with Saddamís behavior are that he is aggressive by nature; his natural inclination when faced with a problem is to lash out against it; he is highly risk-tolerant; he has zero regard for human life; and also believes that it is often necessary to sustain tremendous damage to achieve an important goal; and believes that he can always outlast his adversary in terms of a willingness to take punishment. Finally, again, it is this proclivity to distort reality -- to interpret reality in line with what he wants to have happen -- his propensity toward wish fulfillment, which makes him truly dangerous.

Q: Do you give credibility to the argument by some Middle East observers that a U.S. attack with the goal of regime change in Iraq will start a domino effect that is certain to cause regional instability and would ultimately claim several other Middle Eastern governments?

A: I certainly think that the regional repercussions are a very important factor for the United States to take into account. I also believe that right now the Middle East is a very tense place, and therefore it makes that doubly necessary.

I think that there are a number of other points to be made. First of all, the leaders of the Arab states seem to be reasonably comfortable with the United States undertaking a large military operation, although they would like to see us take steps to reduce the violence between Israelis and Palestinians before doing so. Second point on that is that we heard claims that the "Arab street" was going to rise up many times in the past, and it never has. And that should also make you somewhat skeptical.

The final point is that while in the short term you probably will get a lot of anger at the United States, Iím also expecting that the Iraqi people will welcome a U.S. liberation of Iraq. That will mitigate any popular unrest in the medium term, but that over the longer term -- which I think in many ways is the most important -- the real outcome will be determined by what the U.S. does in Iraq after Saddamís fall.

In other words, if the United States leads a multinational effort to rebuild Iraq as a stable and prosperous Arab democracy, and makes the commitment and provides the resources necessary to do so, I have every expectation that both the Iraqi people and the Arab world will come to look on that extremely positively, and in fact will basically say, "I want the same thing for myself." I think the real risk is that if the United States doesnít make that effort -- if we do just topple Saddam and then cut and run, then weíre likely to leave chaos and civil war in Iraq, and that that will greatly exacerbate the anti-American sentiments present in the region today.

Q: Have U.N. sanctions-busting by several countries had much effect on Saddam's ability to achieve his current threat status?

A: Smuggling is one of the biggest problems that we have today with the demise of containment. Right now, Saddam Hussein is in control of about $3 billion [thousand million] of his annual revenue, and that is a huge amount of money for him to buy weapons of mass destruction, pay off his cronies, and keep his most important military units happy. And that number is growing. The Turks, the Syrians, the Jordanians are working as fast as they can to open up additional smuggling routes.

Q: Why not simply enforce the "smart sanctions," as the current administration wanted to do when it first came into office?

A: The smart sanctions were a clever idea, but they proved unworkable. And they proved unworkable for a few reasons. Most important of which is, that they relied on the cooperation of Saddamís neighbors. The problem is that Iraqís illegal trade with the neighbors is simply too profitable. The amount of money that it would have taken to -- basically -- bribe the neighbors to comply with the sanctions was exorbitant. Not only would you have to compensate them for the money that they were making from Saddam, but you would actually have to pay them enough to actually make it worthwhile to shut down the smuggling even after that.

In other words, the Syrians could very easily -- in fact, I think most people expect -- the Syrians would pocket whatever we gave them and then keep smuggling. So youíd have to be willing to pay them so much money that it would be worth it to them to not only take your money but then to not take Saddamís on top of it. And since the Syrians have been getting away with it for years, that would have to be a huge amount of money.

Q: Why not just send U.N. weapons inspectors back into Iraq?

A: There are two big problems with inspections. Both became manifest in the later half of the 1990s. The first problem with the inspections is that by 1996 Saddam had gotten so good at hiding his weapons of mass destruction that the inspectors had no idea where to look. In fact, all they were doing was trying to conduct inspections that would, hopefully, allow them to crack what we called the concealment mechanism, in hope that that would indirectly allow them to find some of the weapons of mass destruction.

Today, four years after the end of the inspection regime, the Iraqis seem very confident that the inspectors can come in and they wonít find anything.

The second big problem out there is that at the end of the day, because the inspectors canít find anything on their own, what the inspectors will tell you is that they canít take the weapons away from Saddam: the U.N. has to convince Saddam to surrender them. And the problem is, the U.N., the international community, has lost the stomach to force Saddam to comply.

And so even if we were to get inspectors in there, and even if the threat of a U.S. invasion did convince a number of countries to support coercive measures against Saddam in the short term, thereís no expectation that that could last for the years it would take to actually disarm Iraq.

Q: Why wouldn't the threat of U.S. air strikes against Iraq -- perhaps an outgrowth of the current regime of enforcing the northern and southern "no-fly" zones -- be sufficient to deter Saddam from building, acquiring and using/threatening to use WMD?

A: The problem is that we tried that. In 1998 we mounted Operation Desert Fox. Four days of air strikes, 650 sorties, 400 cruise missiles didnít stop him -- didnít deter him. So you have to ask yourself the question of how big these air strikes would have to be. I think itís probably true that if we mounted a bigger version of Desert Fox, one that went on for longer, he probably would give in and agree to inspections, and then begin to cheat again a few weeks or months later.

And so the question then becomes: How often do you have to mount these strikes? Are you doing it monthly? Every other month? Semiannually? Again, who in the world is going to support these kinds of repeated strikes? Who in the Arab world is going to let you mount them, given that they have made very clear that they no longer will support limited military operations against Iraq. The key there is the word "limited."

Q: Why not set up a "free Iraq" in northern Iraq, arming the Kurds and protecting them with air power?

A: I am sentimentally disposed in favor of doing something like that. The problem is the practical realities, which are, basically -- how do I put this? The big problem is, you have to fly those air strikes from a neighboring country. And the neighboring country -- basically, the only neighboring country we could do it from is Turkey. And Turkey does not want to see a free Iraq established in northern Iraq, because they believe that this will simply encourage Kurdish separatism. Without the Turks on board, we just canít physically do it.

Q: Why not use an approach like that toward Afghanistan, where U.S. special forces and massive air power destroyed enemy ground forces?

A: The problem is that, the reason the "Afghan approach" worked in Afghanistan is in large part because the Taliban was a fairly weak military force, and the Northern Alliance was actually quite close in terms of military capability. The Taliban, in fact, only had a hard core of maybe six-or-ten thousand devoted troops, both their own and al-Qaeda. The rest, the vast majority, 30-to-35,000 were simply tribal levies and warlord units that had no particular commitment to the Taliban, and who when we started bombing, faded away into the landscape and went home, the way that theyíve always done.

What we found in Iraq in 1991 and ever since then is that the Iraqi armed forces are vastly more powerful than any of the opposition groups, and that even by reducing the Iraqi armed forces greatly, they still have the military capability to easily crush any of the opposition forces. So, for example, in 1991 we unleashed probably the most powerful preliminary air campaign in history on the Iraqis. We followed it up with one of the most decisive ground campaigns in history -- of the 20th century. At the end of it, the Iraqi armed forces were disorganized, demoralized and badly disrupted, and yet the tattered remnants of the Iraqi army -- the Republican Guard that survived the Gulf War -- were still more than adequate to crush the two largest simultaneous revolts in Iraqi history, and to do it in just a couple of weeks.

Q: Won't an Iraq campaign distract and/or detract from the war against terrorism, especially against al-Qaeda?

A: There is certainly the risk of that. It is certainly something that the United States needs to be very sensitive to. Itís certainly the case that the United States is an extremely powerful country, and we can undertake multiple missions simultaneously. However, it is also true that a major war can be a distraction, and the U.S. government will have to have thought through all the processes necessary to make sure that that single-minded focus doesnít happen this time.

A second problem that is out there is the possibility of losing allied support, which the U.S. will have to guard against. Given the fact that there is a lot of dissension in the world over an operation against Iraq, thereís the potential for the United States to have allied governments renege on their commitments to fight the war against terrorism, because theyíre unhappy with U.S. operations against Iraq. I think thatís one of the reasons why the United States needs to build an international coalition, and needs to take on board the qualms of our adversaries to make sure that when we do move against Iraq we donít lose allied support against al-Qaeda.

Q: Wouldn't an invasion of Iraq require a similar number of ground forces (700,000) and allies providing us with basing/staging rights as we needed in 1990-91?

A: No, probably not. An invasion will have to be massive and overwhelming, but what we learned in Desert Storm was that we probably didnít need the size force we had then. We had 700,000 troops, and we didnít need all 700,000 to defeat the Iraqis then.

Today the Iraqi armed forces are even weaker than they were during the Gulf War, so thereís no real expectation that we would need anything like a commensurate-sized force to do the job this time. That said, we are still going to need a very sizeable force, both to make sure that we win, and that we win quickly and decisively, and with a minimum of casualties, both American combat troops and Iraqi civilians. And also because at the end of the day, we need to be in a position where we can maintain security in the country. If we go in with a very small force, we are likely to find that at the end of the day, the whole country erupts in civil war and chaos, because we donít have enough people to, basically, replace the control of the government.

Q: Is that what weíre running into in Afghanistan right now?

A: Absolutely. I think this is one of the mistakes weíve made in Afghanistan. We didnít put enough force in, and as a result, you know, Hamid Karzai is nothing but the mayor of Kabul. And in the countryside, itís run by the warlords, who fight each other, and use the humanitarian relief as they see fit. And we canít afford to allow that to happen in Iraq.

Q: Wouldn't massed forces on Saddam's border be likely targets for his CBW-tipped Scuds and long-range artillery shells?

A: First off, itís very difficult for Saddam to use Scuds to hit tactical targets. SCUDS are just too inaccurate to do so.

Long-range artillery is certainly a possibility, but the United States has outstanding capabilities to deal with Iraqi artillery. During the Gulf War, our troops suffered -- barely suffered at all from Iraqi artillery. Their artillery isnít very good, and our ability to suppress their artillery is excellent.

Obviously, our troops will want to err on the side of caution, but those kinds of threats are definitely the kind of thing that the United States can deal with -- especially if we bring a massive, overwhelming force to bear.

Q: What do you view as essential elements in establishing a post-Saddam Iraq?

A: We have to be committed to building a stable, prosperous Iraq. When we finally leave Iraq, everyone in the world needs to look at it and say, "That is a success story. You have a government that is responsive to the needs of its people and that seeks to enrich them, rather than to fleece them" -- which has been the history of Iraqi governments in the 20th century.

Iraq doesnít necessarily have to be a democracy identical to our own -- although, I actually suspect that our Ė- that, literally, the American model of democracy may well be the best one for Iraq, for its own reasons. We need to help Iraq to build an Arab democracy, and we canít define for them what that looks like. They have to define it for themselves, but we certainly need to be there, along with the U.N., and hopefully, with an international coalition, to help them to build that Iraqi Arab democracy.

We also have to help them to build a free market economy. And again, we canít necessarily define it for them, but we have to be there, ready to help, both in terms of advice and resources.

We also need to put in place a system that protects all of Iraqís ethnic and religious groups. We canít call them minorities, because one of the most oppressed groups is the Shíia, who are the majority.

And all of Iraqís ethnic and religious groups need to enjoy protection under the law. There has to be rule of law, and the legal system has to guarantee the rights of individuals and groups -- which is actually one of the reasons why I suspect that our system may be the best one for them, because it does provide for such checks on the power of the state.

And what all of this adds up to is a willingness to commit sizeable resources, and to do it over the long term. And it wonít break the bank. It wonít necessarily amount to another Marshall plan for Iraq, because Iraq does have tremendous resources, both in terms of its oil wealth and a secular, well-educated population -- by Middle Eastern standards.

But we have to recognize that this is not going to be a quick or easy process, and we have to be ready to help them for the 10, or 15, or possibly even 20 years that it will take to do this. And my expectation is that the costs and the requirements on us will diminish over time, but nonetheless, weíve got to see this as a long-term process.

 

 

 

 


 

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