Kenneth Pollack's The Threatening Storm

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
March 5 2003 6:57 PM

Kenneth Pollack's The Threatening Storm

Does the "invade Iraq" book say what you think it does?

Illustration by Charlie Powell

As the United Nations' debate over a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq approaches what will likely be its final week (if it isn't over already), the Bush administration should consider a last-ditch effort to obtain Security Council approval: a Paris airlift that drops thousands of French translations of Kenneth Pollack's The Threatening Storm over the city. In the United States, Pollack's book, subtitled The Case for Invading Iraq, has turned more doves into hawks than Richard Perle, Laurie Mylroie, and George W. Bush combined. The New Yorker editor David Remnick compared Pollack's "comprehensive and convincing case" to Bush's inept "rhetoric of irritation," and the New York Times columnist Bill Keller wrote that Pollack was as important as Tony Blair and Hans Blix in recruiting new members to the "I-Can't-Believe-I'm-a-Hawk Club." In Washington, it's not uncommon to hear fence-straddlers qualify their ambivalence about an Iraq war with the sentiment, "Of course, I haven't read the Pollack book yet."

Six months after The Threatening Storm's publication, however, Pollack's book reads as much like an indictment of the Bush administration's overeagerness to go to war as it does an endorsement of it. A more appropriate subtitle for the book would have been The Case for Rebuilding Afghanistan, Destroying al-Qaida, Setting Israel and Palestine on the Road to Peace, and Then, a Year or Two Down the Road After Some Diplomacy, Invading Iraq. In interviews and op-ed articles, Pollack himself still supports the war, saying that now is better than never. But it's fair to say that his book does not—or at least not Bush's path to it.

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Which may be one reason why so many liberals have been persuaded by it. Pollack's reluctant tone, his respect for doves' sincere and patriotic motives (Pollack says the term "appeasers" is a "vicious slander"), his emphasis on the humanitarian virtues of regime change, and his somewhat dismissive attitude toward the over-optimistic unilateralism of the "far right" all suggest that he was writing with a liberal audience in mind. The Threatening Storm demonstrates that you don't have to be pro-Bush to be pro-war. Think that Bush should focus on al-Qaida before Saddam? So does Pollack. Think that Bush should make a more serious effort to reduce the violence between Israelis and Palestinians before invading Iraq? So does Pollack. Think Bush's linkage of al-Qaida and Saddam is facile and unconvincing? So does Pollack. Fearful that Bush's endorsement of the "pre-emption" doctrine could set a dangerous precedent that other nations might imitate? So is Pollack. Worried that Bush's inattention to the rebuilding of Afghanistan bodes poorly for the reconstruction of Iraq? So is Pollack!

The 36-year-old Pollack—whose government experience includes stints at the CIA and the National Security Council during the Clinton administration, and who now works at the Brookings Institution—has been consistent as to why he believes the United States must invade Iraq: There's no other way to be certain that Saddam will not acquire nuclear weapons. But Pollack is more slippery on exactly when the tanks should start rolling. When his initial Foreign Affairs article urging regime change was published nearly a year ago, Pollack's recommended time frame was "within anywhere from six months to two years." By December, that had been expanded to "at some point in the next few years." A little more than a month ago, he told Joshua Micah Marshall, "I didn't necessarily think it had to be this year." An invasion is necessary, Pollack argues, but it is not urgent. (Having said that, now that Bush has moved hundreds of thousands of troops to the Middle East, Pollack believes the president ought to follow through on his rhetoric.)

Pollack has even stated that an invasion, if not carried out skillfully enough, could be disastrous. In an October Policy Review piece co-authored by Ronald D. Asmus, Pollack wrote that toppling Saddam could "even be counterproductive" if the effort was "pursued in isolation." Pollack and Asmus argued that Saddam's removal should be the United States' third priority in its bid to transform the Middle East, after rebuilding Afghanistan (the "first place to start") and getting the Arab-Israeli conflict "under control." That same month, Pollack told NPR's Fresh Air that he worried that the Bush administration had not laid the proper groundwork for an Iraq invasion, adding that, "if we do it wrong we could create as many problems as we solve." In The Threatening Storm, Pollack cautions the United States against behaving as a "rogue superpower" that does whatever it wants, whenever it wants: "If we behave in this fashion, we will alienate our allies and convince much of the rest of the world to band together against us to try to keep us under control. Rather than increasing our security and prosperity, such a development would drastically undermine it."

Conservatives frequently trot out Pollack's book to impugn the motives and the morals of those who criticize the way Bush has led the nation into war. In a typical example, Frederick W. Kagan wrote in Commentary, "No fair reader of Kenneth Pollack's indispensable book can fail to be convinced of the correctness and justice" of regime change. And it's true that Pollack has done a fair amount of convincing. He's done what President Bush could not: persuaded liberal elites to endorse the forcible removal of Saddam Hussein from power. But The Case for Invading Iraq isn't the case for Bush's invasion.

Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor for blogs at Yahoo News and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He has reviewed video games for Slate, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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