Pollack: The Jury’s Still Out on Whether Iraq Had Unconventional Weapons

May 2, 2003

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.

Kenneth M. Pollack, the former CIA and National Security Council expert on Iraq who was a leading advocate of forcing Iraq to disarm, says that even though no weapons of mass destruction have been found, “it is very premature to suggest that Saddam either did or did not have the weapons.”

Pollack, whose 2002 book, The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq, forcefully laid out an argument for toppling Saddam Hussein before he had a chance to develop nuclear weapons, faults the Bush administration for rushing into the war. Because Saddam was far from building nuclear weapons, he says, “The United States could have waited a few years if it had wanted to do so.”

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Iraq

Currently the director of research at The Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Pollack was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on May 2, 2003.

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Did Saddam Hussein actually have unconventional weapons, and is there any evidence he was developing them?

We really don’t know yet. I still think it is very premature to suggest that Saddam either did or did not have the weapons. Now it’s not just that the fat lady hasn’t sung yet, it’s that in some senses the orchestra is just starting to tune up. We are only at the very beginning of what will have to be a very extensive weapons search throughout Iraq.

But that said, my own feelings about the war, my own reasons for going in, stem from the fact that this was an expansive, aggressive regime by nature, unlike many of the other nasty dictatorships of the region. This was one which for 34 years had made very clear that it wanted to dominate— if not control— the Middle East [and] its oil reserves, and believed that the only way to do so was by use of force.

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My real concern with Iraq in terms of weapons of mass destruction was principally the potential for Iraq to acquire nuclear weapons. I always felt that Saddam’s possession of biological and chemical weapons was a problem, potentially a big problem if there were a crisis for other reasons, but did not constitute in and of itself a major threat to the vital interests of the United States of America.

Before the invasion, there was a lot of talk about Iraq possessing tons of materials for chemical weapons and biological weapons. Was that an exaggeration by the intelligence community or by the administration itself?

I don’t think it was an exaggeration by anyone. The tons were based on what Iraqis imported during the 1980s and in some cases the 1990s. And it was all stuff that was documented by the U.N. inspectors. So the question was, where the hell was this stuff? And I think the answer is, we still don’t know.

So we need some well-placed Iraqis to give us information?

Right. You have a couple of Iraqis now saying that Saddam destroyed tons of this stuff just before the attack. That’s possible. It doesn’t make sense to me, but of course this has always been the problem with Saddam; because it doesn’t make sense to us, doesn’t mean that he didn’t do it.

Were you surprised that Saddam didn’t use any weapons of mass destruction against the U.S. troops?

I was. If you had asked me two months ago whether I thought that we could get to Saddam International Airport without him using chemical weapons, I would have said no.

In The Threatening Storm, you make the point that Saddam was not close to making a nuclear weapon. Was the war rushed?

What we knew about Saddam’s thinking was that he wanted nuclear weapons because he believed that once he had nuclear weapons, he would be able to re-embark on his program of expansion and dominance in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf region. I always felt that the threat from Iraq was not an imminent one— this was an area where I parted company from the Bush administration, because I didn’t believe that Saddam had nuclear weapons, and I believed that he was still years away from acquiring nuclear weapons.

I felt that the United States did have time. I recognized that U.S. intelligence about Iraq was hardly perfect, and that in the past the United States and the international community had underestimated Iraq’s progress toward a nuclear weapon. So I didn’t think that the United States could take forever, but I certainly did think that the United States could have waited a few years if it had wanted to do so.

Why was the administration seemingly intent on war at this time— was it for politics, that it wanted to avoid a war during next year’s election season?

I honestly don’t know. That is one of the great questions out there. My guess is that different members of the Bush administration wanted to go to war sooner rather than later for different reasons. I’m sure that for some it was domestic politics, I think for others it was because they truly did believe that Saddam Hussein was intimately connected to terrorists and might give weapons of mass destruction to terrorists. I think for others it was because they had grander geopolitical visions and they always felt that Iraq was the first step and therefore it needed to be taken soon.

Was it also because of 9/11?

Certainly September 11 changed the public mood [and] made an invasion of Iraq possible in a way that had never been the case in the past. You could suggest that some people decided to hijack the 9/11 issue to deal with Saddam Hussein for reasons that they may have recognized had little to do with terrorism. But I [also] think that it is the case that there were a number of important Bush administration officials, perhaps including the president, who really do believe that Iraq was tied to the war on terrorism.

I never shared that belief, which was another reason why I felt that while a war against Saddam might, in the abstract, be better the sooner you could do it, I also felt that, because the threat was more a longer-term one rather than an imminent one, you could afford to wait if there were other political, military, and economic necessities for doing so.

There were many people like you who, back in February and March, advocated more time— for the U.N. weapons inspectors to do their work and for the United States to attract more countries to the anti-Saddam coalition. If the United States had waited, could it have gotten France, Germany, Russia, and other countries on board?

Possibly. I was certainly willing to wait longer to build that coalition. I thought the coalition was very important. And there were other reasons that I would have been willing to wait. I wanted us to take steps on the Arab-Israeli peace process before we went into Iraq. I wanted us to have made more progress in eliminating al-Qaeda before we went into Iraq.

I never thought that giving the inspectors more time was going to work. I always thought that was absolutely nonsensical, that Saddam was never going to give the inspectors the full cooperation that was necessary. [But] we could have assembled a better, bigger coalition by taking more time, if we had thought about the entire war in terms of a two- or three-year time horizon, rather than the one-year time horizon that the Bush administration worked on. In the fall of 2002, it started to beat the drum for a war. And administration officials seemed pretty determined to go to war in 2003. So the tactical issue of whether you could have taken two or three more months this year and gotten the French on board, I honestly don’t believe is terribly salient.

[But] if in the spring of 2002, the administration decided it wanted to go to war with Iraq in 2004, or in 2005, it could have started down the road to war in a very different fashion, in terms of talking about the threat, in terms of building the coalition over a much longer period of time, in terms of handling the United Nations and the inspections process very, very differently. That would have allowed the administration, by the time it got to 2004 or 2005, to build a much bigger, stronger coalition for war.

What would you have done on the inspections? The administration got unanimous Security Council approval for sending the inspectors back to Iraq, but almost as soon as the inspectors got there, the administration began dumping on them.

The inspections were a gigantic myth. The myth that everyone bought into was that the inspections would do one of two things. Either they would find Saddam’s weapons, and therefore rally the international community around a war, or they would disarm Iraq. My expectation was that the inspections would never do either, because Saddam was always likely to play them exactly the way that he did: providing inspectors with just enough cooperation to convince most people that war was unnecessary, but not enough cooperation to allow inspectors to mount a full-scale inspection.

There’s a bigger problem with inspections, which is that for containment to have worked in Iraq, it would have had to have worked not just for six months or a year, but for the lifetime of this regime, which would have been 10, 20, or 30 years, assuming that Saddam was succeeded by one of his two sons.

What would you have done if you were plotting the strategy back in the fall, would you have sought a Security Council resolution?

Assuming that we were going to war in 2003, or under my longer term scenario?

Either way.

For 2003, I think Resolution 1441 was fine; I thought it was actually a very good resolution. But I would not have handled it necessarily the way that the administration did. I would have done one of two things. Either, I would have had the troops all in place and ready to go, and then when the December Iraqi [weapons] declaration came in, which was an absolute farce, I would have then used that as the casus belli to launch the war, because in fact that was the clearest instance of outright Iraqi noncompliance that we got and were ever likely to get.

You would have gone to war in January or so?

Exactly. The alternative would have been that, after the first [Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans] Blix report in January of this year, I might then have given the Iraqis an ultimatum. This is something I recommended at the time. It could have been a fairly lengthy ultimatum, and this of course was the problem later on. When the administration finally did start to talk about the possibility of an ultimatum, it wanted to give the Iraqis a week, and the rest of the world was saying, “No. Give them six weeks, give them four weeks, give them eight weeks.”

The problem was, by the time we started that in early March, we were far too committed to this whole process and time was running out. The administration wanted to get it over with, so it didn’t want to give that amount of time. If you had done it in January, you could have given six or eight weeks as an ultimatum, and I think that, too, would have been much better in terms of getting the United Nations on board.

But again, I would have handled things very, very differently. I would have started with a much longer time horizon. I would have made the case about why there is a threat much stronger, much louder, for a much longer period of time. And I also would have focused the United Nations on all of the failures of containment, rather than just the inspections. I think that one of the biggest tactical mistakes that the Bush administration made was that when the president gave his speech at the U.N. on September 12, 2002, he laid out eight areas where containment was failing with Iraq. The next day [Secretary of State] Colin Powell announced that it was all about inspections, and that destroyed what was a much stronger position.

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