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The perils of expertise: Kenneth Pollack and the Iraq war

Steven Lukes
22 June 2003

In the intense debates during the period leading up to the war in Iraq, a number of attitudes were apparent. Some people, whether they were for or against war, were quite clear about where they stood; others were confused; yet others, such as Timothy Garton Ash, sat on the fence. There was a fourth group, of those who were inclined to a clear-cut view, yet tried hard to find the strongest case against it.

I was a member of this last group. I never doubted that Saddam’s regime was a murderous dictatorship that had turned Iraq into a disaster area, but the prospects of a US-led invasion did not, to say the least, look hopeful, nor did the new US doctrine of pre-emptive wars seem to promise a safer world. So I made a point of reading Kenneth Pollack’s book The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq.

Pollack is an expert with excellent academic credentials. He was formerly the National Security Council’s director for Gulf Affairs and a CIA analyst under the Clinton administration. That latter fact, I have to admit, made me wonder whether this would be a serious, impartial work, but several persons whom I respect had spoken highly of it. It was said to be very influential in current US administration circles and Pollack was appearing frequently on the US media defending the case for invasion.

His case was straightforward and the book seemed well-argued and historically well-informed, with many scholarly footnotes. A balanced account of Iraq’s past relations with the US and its condition under Saddam Hussein is followed by a careful analysis of the options for dealing with the threat he was taken to pose, both regionally and more widely. That threat Pollack saw as lying in his determination to acquire nuclear weapons.

Saddam, he wrote, was ‘developing weapons of mass destruction’ but, he stressed, his ‘pursuit of nuclear weapons is the real reason for invading.’ Containment had eroded beyond recall. Deterrence was dangerous and would fail because of Saddam’s record of ‘aggression, violence, miscalculations, and purposeful underestimation of the consequences of his actions.’ Covert action was too difficult and the ‘Afghan approach’ of local ground forces plus American bombing was too risky. Half-measures would ‘no longer work’; invading Iraq was ‘a necessary task’ to be undertaken only after a full explanation of the case to the American people and the building of a broad international coalition.

Pollack described Saddam Hussein, accurately, as ‘a mass murderer, a repeat aggressor, and a serial miscalculator.’ His case was that, given all the evidence, there was little reason to believe that he could be deterred once he acquired nuclear weapons. The choice, Pollack wrote, was clear: either to fight Saddam and remove him from power before he acquired nuclear weapons, or else fight him later once he acquired them – when the costs even of victory could be devastating.

Expert or parrot?

For a short time I found this case rather compelling. But, once the inspectors went into Iraq it immediately became clear that the nuclear threat was not serious and all the attention was focused on Hans Blix and on chemical and biological weapons. Now even the existence of these is seriously in doubt. So where does Pollack stand now?

Recently interviewed by Steve Inskeep on National Public Radio in the US, he was asked this question. Here is the relevant section of the interview:

“Steve Inskeep: U.S. officials did suggest that Iraqi military units were ready to use chemical or biological weapons, that chemical weapons had been distributed to front-line troops and that sort of thing. That does seem to have turned out not to be true at last.

Kenneth Pollack: Right, that’s absolutely the case. And, you know, here’s one where, you know, I think that, you know, my expectation was off-base.

Steve Inskeep: On another point, which is the most crucial point to you, about nuclear weapons. You told us last November when you came on this program that you believed there was a consensus among American, British, French, German and Israeli intelligence that Saddam Hussein had everything he needed to develop nuclear weapons. I suppose some people would question now whether all of the components for a nuclear program could really be hidden that well, whether they could have disappeared.

Kenneth Pollack: Yeah, I mean, you’re now getting beyond my area of expertise, Steven. I try very hard not to talk about things I don’t know. I mean, the point that I made on your show was a true point. That was the consensus of opinion among the intelligence community. It was hearing things like that that brought me to the conclusion that, you know, ‘Boy, if this is the case, we’ve got to do something about this guy.’ I think, you know, that is exactly the kind of thing that we’re going to need to go back and look hard at the evidence that we were getting and those various intelligence services who were making those claims, I think, are going to need to go back and re-examine the methods they used. As I said, that was not me making that claim; that was me parroting the claims of so-called experts.”

Serving truth, or a political agenda?

So there we have it. What about all the measured prose, historical background, analysis of options and scholarly footnotes? Sorry, folks, I was wrong, ‘off-base’. Don’t blame me – who said I was an expert anyway?

Perhaps Kenneth Pollack’s contribution to war propaganda and his nonchalant retractions can teach us something. Making independent judgments in politics is difficult. To what extent are scholarship and argument just rhetorical instruments at the service of ideologically-driven agendas and how are we to figure this out? Of course we should question our assumptions and not put our trust in self-proclaimed authorities. But sometimes, perhaps often, academic-looking arguments are just intellectual fodder fed to the sophisticated.

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