Pollack: Iraq May End Up Worse Off Than Under Saddam

A leading proponent of invading Iraq, Kenneth M. Pollack now fears Iraq could end up worse off than it was under Saddam Hussein.

October 13, 2006

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Kenneth M. Pollack, director of research and senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy and a leading expert on the Persian Gulf area, says Iraq is now in a low-level civil war, and it is looking increasingly doubtful that the United States “can break out of this downward trajectory.” He recommends that after the November elections, President Bush send an ultimatum to the Iraqi leadership threatening an end to U.S. support if dramatic changes are not made.

Pollack, who wrote The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq in 2002, says he wrestles every day with whether he should have written that book. He says what would “justify this war would be getting the reconstruction right, would be creating an Iraq that is stable, that is safer, that is more prosperous than it was under Saddam.” But Pollack says the country appears headed in the opposite direction. “I’m afraid the result that we’re headed toward in Iraqis that it’s going to be even worse off than it was under Saddam Hussein,” he says.

The last time we had an interview was in February and you had just completed a major study that said this was a “make or break” year on Iraq. With two and a half months left in the year, can we safely conclude the Iraq policy is broken?

If it’s not broken completely, it’s breaking and breaking fast. I think what we warned of back in February has very unfortunately come to fruition. What we saw this year were the militias consolidate their control, both in the countryside and over the political process in Baghdad. That’s made it exceptionally difficult to break out of the logjam that’s been created there. It’s created all kinds of violence throughout the country. People mostly focus on Baghdad but the situation in Basra is awful. The situation in a whole range of other cities in central Iraq is awful.

That’s not to say there aren’t parts of Iraq that are quiet. But even in those parts, they tend to be quiet because they’re completely dominated by one of these vicious militias or another. And increasingly the prospect that the United States can break out of this downward trajectory is looking very dubious. I think that we really did have, as we warned, a real chance in the spring, especially because we had a new military commander who went over there, Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, who formulated a brilliant plan—a plan that actually could have worked if he had been given the resources and everything else he needed to make it work. Unfortunately, he was not. All we got out of it was this Baghdad security plan, which was not properly conducted or resourced the way that Gen. Chiarelli wanted it to. And now that we’re already into October, the likelihood we can pull Iraq out of this downward spiral is becoming increasingly unlikely.

In a piece you and Daniel Byman (PDF) [of the Brookings Institution] did for the Washington Post in August you said, “We’re in a civil war in Iraq now.” What does that mean?

Dan and I have spent about the last ten months doing work, just digging into six or seven recent civil wars to try to get a sense for what it could mean for Iraq. We started out the article by saying, “We need to get past this ridiculous semantic hurdle. We need to acknowledge Iraq is, by any measure, by any definition, in a state of civil war.” That said, right now it’s in a state of low-level, or maybe it’s now gotten up to a kind of mid-level, civil war. But it’s not yet at the state of all-out civil war. It’s not yet where Bosnia was in 1992-93. It’s not where Lebanon was in the late 1970s and 1980s. It’s not where Afghanistan was in the 1990s or where Somalia was. It’s bad. But it could be much worse. And ultimately the biggest problem is that the trajectory is a bad one. All of the signs point to the civil war getting worse and worse, unless the United States and the Iraqi government are willing to take truly dramatic action to radically reverse their course, to pull out of this nosedive.

The fact is we’ve not seen much of a willingness on the part of the Bush administration to make dramatic change. They have made changes. I don’t want to say they haven’t made any changes, but the changes have mostly been incremental. And unfortunately they’ve mostly come in the form of “too little, too late.” And in Iraq, one of the grave mistakes that we’re making is by simply leaving this to the Iraqis and saying, “The Iraqis have to solve their problems by themselves.” The problem is they can’t. They are now locked up in a political logjam because of a political system that we ushered in, which has basically put these vicious militia leaders in charge of the government.

The militia leaders also must see that civil war is there. Is this a case of each side thinking they can win the civil war?

No, it’s not. It’s by and large a case of each side simply making calculations based on what their best interest is, as opposed to what’s in the best interest of the country. One of the great myths that the people who insist that Iraq isn’t very bad—or isn’t in as bad a shape as it actually is—will say is, “Well, nobody in Iraq wants a civil war.” Dan Byman and I looked at all these different cases [and] what we consistently found was in every one of these cases you could never point to an individual who said, “I want a civil war. Civil war would be good for me.” Typically, what you find is various militia leaders, various sectarian leaders, various leaders of different political or ethnic stripes who make decisions based on what is best for their narrow interests. And the problem is the more people do that, the more it pushes other people to do the same. And you wind up with a civil war not because anyone wants it, but just because that’s the sum total of all of these ultimately very selfish individual decisions. And that’s we’re seeing in Iraq. I don’t think Muqtada al-Sadr [Shiite leader] wants a civil war. But by God, he’s not going to make any concessions, either to the Sunnis or to the other Shiite militias. And that is pushing both the Sunnis and the other Shiite militias to dig in their heels.

Now obviously in the month of October we’re not going to see any major changes in U.S. policy before the congressional election. But after the elections, if President Bush called you and Dan and asked you for your recommendations, what would you say?

I think that we’ve got a basic choice to make and we can move in one of two different directions. One is, we actually do what the president is saying and actually make the full commitment to rebuilding Iraq. The problem here is that both sides are right and both sides are wrong in terms of just the narrow, rhetorical political debate. And I think actually the American public recognizes it. That’s why you see so little public confidence either in the president’s approach to Iraq or the Democrats’ approach to Iraq. The president is right to say, “Iraq is too important to allow it to slide into civil war.” Iraq is not Vietnam. We could suffer some very severe repercussions if Iraq slides into civil war and it would be very bad for the national interests, for a variety of reasons, if that happened.

If that’s the case, then we’re going to have to make some of these dramatic changes. We’re going to have to commit ourselves to actually using American troops along with Iraqi troops to create areas of security. Now this is what the Baghdad security plan was about. This is what Gen. Chiarelli’s plan was about. And then marry that effort up with a full-scale political and economic effort to rebuild Iraq’s political and economic systems in those secured areas from the ground up. We just haven’t done those things. And those will require major commitments of resources and some very significant political changes.

Is Chiarelli still in Iraq?

God, I hope he stays, but he’s due to end his tour there in December. It’s a shame because he’s a guy who, when he was a division commander in north Baghdad, back in 2004-2005, he did an absolutely brilliant job with his division. They were there for a year and they did just a fantastic job and of course the moment that they left and a new division took over, things went right back to hell. He’s somebody who knows how to make this work. He has done it in the field in Iraq and he took over in Baghdad and said, “I’m going to try to make it work everywhere in the country.” When we’ve had generals who understood how to do this and implemented it, it’s worked beautifully.

This sectarian killing, this low-level civil war, doesn’t seem to have any way of ending. You said earlier there’s a political logjam at the top. This government seems to be completely paralyzed, is that right?

Yes, exactly. The problem that you have, the easiest way to explain it is this: The government right now is dominated by militia leaders. They’re the power brokers. People like Muqtada al-Sadr, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, a whole long list of other people. These aren’t necessarily the guys in the offices. But these are the guys behind the scenes who pull all the strings. Everyone who knows them says that [Prime Minister] Nouri al-Maliki has his heart in the right place, he’s a smart guy, he’s a good guy, he wants to do the right thing, and he knows what the right thing is.

But the problem is that ultimately he is completely dependent on Muqtada al-Sadr and Hakim and a variety of other groups out there who, quite frankly, have no interest in doing the right thing. Think of it this way: The way that the militias have gained power in Iraq is because they have provided security and basic services to the people in a way the central government can’t. That’s where they got their power from. They come in and they say to the people, “No one else can protect you. The Americans won’t. The government won’t. We’ll protect you.” And by the way, they use the Hezbollah model, and the Hamas model: “You need a job? You need some money to tide you over? You need medical services? We’ll get it for you.” And they lock in the support of the people by doing so.

What we need to do to break this political logjam and actually deal with the internecine violence is we need to get to the point where the central government is able to deliver that basic security and those basic services.

Should the United States make any threats about pulling out?

There’s a lot of stuff that needs to happen. I think we ought to go to the Iraqis and say: “Look, the American people are starting to tire of this war. And the ability of the U.S. government to sustain our commitment is getting difficult. We can sustain that, but it is going to require adopting this very new plan, one that the American people will look at and say, “Yes, this is something different, this looks like it can work, let’s give it a chance. If you’re willing, Iraqis, to sign up for this plan and to put it into effect and to stick with it, we will stay with you. If you are not willing to do that, it’s very hard to see how the United States of America is going to stay committed to you over the long term.”

I think that’s how you get an Iraqi buy-in to do what we all now know is necessary. Many of these Iraqi leaders know what needs to be done and they need the United States to give them the political cover to do it. Maliki can’t because he is beholden to these militias. The one thing that might change is if Maliki could go to the militias and say, “Hey, the Americans are going to leave us if we don’t do these things. So we at least need to do some of them.” And you know what? That’s the kind of start that we need. But absent that kind of ultimatum from the United States, I don’t think that we’re going to break that political logjam.

One last question, just to satisfy my curiosity, do you ever regret writing, The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq, in 2002?

You know it’s something I wrestle with just about every day. I literally was wrong, along with a great many other people, about the weapons-of-mass-destruction threat. I was definitely wrong about it. But there’s a lot of stuff in that book that I think was right, and I think was right on the money. I go back and read the chapters where I talk about the importance of reconstruction, about how horrible everything could be if we did reconstruction wrong. I have a line in there: “We will create as many problems as we solve if we don’t fully commit ourselves to doing this properly.” And I laid out exactly what needed to happen, all the things that we didn’t do.

So I actually think there’s a lot of stuff in the book that’s smart, that was exactly on the money. But you know I wrestle every day with this question of whether or not the war was the right thing to do. For me, the bottom line, and I’ve said this time and time again, is that given the fact that the weapons-of-mass-destruction threat was not as dangerous as our intelligence community and the other intelligence communities believed it was and that I relied on to make my argument, the only thing that’s out there to justify this war would be getting the reconstruction right, would be creating an Iraq that is stable, that is safer, that is more prosperous than it was under Saddam. If we can do that, then I can look back on it and say, “We may have gone to war for the wrong reasons, but the result turned out to be good.” Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the result that we’re headed towards. I’m afraid that the result that we’re headed towards in Iraq is that it’s going to be even worse off than it was under Saddam Hussein and we are now starting to see polls where increasing numbers of Iraqis are saying, “The war wasn’t worth it, because the situation today is worse than it was under Saddam.”

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