This evening we’re really happy to bring you the first of two installments of our interview with Ken Pollack, author of The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq. Pollack is currently a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and he served as a high-level government official in various capacities over the course of the 1990s, dealing with Iraq specifically and the Middle East generally.
A few points of preface. There are a number of very important issues that we didn’t get into in this interview — many of them the big questions, like whether or not this whole thing is a good idea or not. That question is touched upon implicitly and indirectly, of course. But these issues are covered at great length in Pollack’s book. You can get a copy here from Amazon (which I strongly recommend), read my review of it in The Washington Monthly, or read Pollack’s earlier article in Foreign Affairs, upon which much of the book is based.
The questions we get into in this interview are the very specific ones we face right now. For better or worse, now is the crunch time. Now’s when the really important decisions are going to be made. Those are the ones I was interested in discussing.
So without more chattering from me, here’s Part One of the interview (both sections together will later be added to the TPM Document Collection) …
BEGINNING OF PART I
TPM: In your book, you were pretty down on the idea of going down the inspectors route again. But having done it, how much is there an argument that even if this is a bad process, that we signed on to it? I saw your Times column but this is one of the questions I’m most curious about.
POLLACK: Yes, I think that’s right. I think it was a mistake to have gone this route. But now that we’ve gone down it we’ve got to find a way to deal with it. That said, that doesn’t necessarily mean we have to allow the inspections to play out forever. That would not be a logical conclusion. Just because you’ve signed up for it doesn’t mean you’ve signed up for it forever. In point of fact, I think that the Blix Report has given the administration the best out that we can [have]. When I wrote the OpEd, when Martin [Indyk] and I wrote it, we were expecting that Blix would be much softer on the Iraqis and a lot of what we were saying was about how the administration ought to handle the aftermath of what we expected to be a pretty bad Blix Report. In point of fact the Blix Report was kind of stunning. It was an incredible indictment of Saddam Hussein. He said flat out: they are not cooperating. They are giving us cooperation only on process. They are not giving us any cooperation on substance. And there is no indication that any of this is going to change, which is a tremendous advantage for the administration in terms of getting out of that trap.
TPM: So in a sense the Blix Report — with less fireworks — is sort of the equivalent of when the inspectors go up to some building and Iraqi guards won’t let them in, which is what people have been looking for, that moment when the Iraqis clearly make a breach and we can say, ‘Okay, you’re not cooperating. And that’s it.’
POLLACK: Absolutely. That’s exactly right. Blix handed the administration the smoking gun that they were unlikely to get in terms — as you just laid it out — of the Iraqis actually blocking an inspection or we find a Scud or something along those lines. In many ways it’s even better than that in the sense that I think even [if we found] a Scud the people who oppose war would have just latched on to that and said ‘See, the inspections are working.’ In point of fact we’re already seeing that. They did catch this Iraqi scientist with 3000 pages of documents on how to enrich uranium. That should have been a smoking gun. But instead the reaction from the rest of the world was, ‘Good, this is the inspections working.’
TPM: In the president’s speech last night, when he first made the turn toward talking about Iraq, he had what I thought was a very good point: that if you go back two or three years the UN is on record saying they had X and Y. The Iraqis now say they don’t have it. And they have no records of having destroyed it. So by definition, they’re not complying. Just on that basis.
Now I went back and looked at the transcript and the actual language – and I take it this is the UN language – is something like ‘materials requisite to make’ such and such amounts of anthrax, whatever. Can you clarify that particular point? If that means they have a lot of petri dishes that’s meaningless. If it means they have something basically as good as having that much anthrax it means a lot more. Can you clarify that point? Because I’ve had a lot of readers ask me that.
POLLACK: I’m not a technical expert so I don’t want to push too far. The way that I’ve had technical experts explain it to me is these are substances you would basically only use, would only import, if you wanted to make these different chemical substances. For example, the precursors to VX, they’re very specialized chemicals. They only have certain uses. The fact that they bought so much of these specific chemicals, and the fact we know they were producing VX, it’s pretty easy to put these two things together. And again these are prohibited chemicals. They’re not supposed to have them without the UN being able to monitor what they’re doing with these specific chemicals, because they’re dual use. So even if they’d gotten permission to import them, the UN would have to be watching what they’re doing.
The fact is they have imported these chemicals. We know that they’ve imported the chemicals. But they haven’t explained what’s happened to them. And so you’ve got people who’ve imported all the ingredients for VX. We know they have been making VX, that they were lying about not having VX, [that they] were [then] forced to admit that they did make VX. And they won’t account for it. This is exactly right. It goes back to another piece that Martin and I wrote in the Los Angeles Times, a while back, where we were saying this is exactly what the administration should do. They need to concentrate on these gaps, on the fact that the UN has previously identified these as key gaps and the Iraqis simply refused to explain the gaps. People are constantly saying … they use this silly courtroom analogy of innocent till proven guilty. And of course it is silly because this is not an analogous situation. This isn’t a courtroom. There’s no court of law here.
But you can actually turn that around and say ‘Look, if this were Columbo or Perry Mason they would have an incredibly damning case to make. Imagine Saddam Hussein on the witness stand. And you put it to him exactly the way the president did last night. ‘Saddam Hussein, you have admitted that you manufactured VX. We also have receipts that show that you purchased the following chemicals which have very limited uses, one of which is making VX. Where are those chemicals?’
The UN resolutions required that [he] account for those chemicals and for twelve years Saddam has just been looking us in the eye and saying ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. I refuse to answer the question.’ Imagine what that would look like if this were Law and Order and if this were Jack McCoy asking that question again and again. And after each presentation of the evidence and question to Saddam, ‘What have you done with those materials.’ And the Iraqi response is ‘We’re not answering that question.’ That’s a pretty damning indictment.
TPM: Now here’s my other question – or one of my other questions [laughter]. One of the things that stood out to me about your book was that we have this catch-all phrase ‘weapons of mass destruction’, but in strategic terms and – just putting it more crudely — in body-count terms, there’s really a substantial difference between nuclear weapons on the one hand and most every chemical weapon and all but a very few – maybe smallpox would put it into a different category – biological weapons. Everything in the president’s speech yesterday where they had really compelling facts on their side was all about chemical and biological. The stuff about nuclear struck me as much more hypothetical and even in some cases hyperbolic – in the sense of time frames and stuff like that. Is what I’ve said basically accurate? In terms of what we know now? Not what intentions are, but the best we know about what they have now, what their capabilities are now?
POLLACK: In some ways. To some extent it’s that the gaps are biggest and the information that we do have about things the Iraqis are cheating on is greatest on the chemical and biological front. It’s easiest to make the arguments there. We do have a lot of evidence, or a lot of information, about both the missile and the nuclear programs. The problem is that it’s much harder to operationalize. It’s been much harder to use in terms of what the UN has found, what they’ve been able to do with the Iraqis. As a result, the administration seems to be – and this is probably the smart thing to do – they’re using the chemical and biological issues as surrogates. They are the places where the evidence is strongest, where we are most able to trip the Iraqis up, to expose their cheating.
The problem is that we haven’t got the goods to quite the same extent on the missile and nuclear programs. We’ve got enough to indicate that they are cheating as much on those programs as they are on the chemical and biological. It’s just that it’s harder to make that kind of a case, to really demonstrate that the Iraqis are cheating with the nuclear and the missile fronts.
TPM: Now my understanding is that back in the early 1990s the one area where we had some confidence that we had dismantled a lot of their operation was on the nuclear front. And from reading and talking to various people I have at least been given the impression that a nuclear program – whether it’s based on uranium or plutonium – is just intrinsically more difficult to conceal and therefore more readily inspectable. Is that your perception or is that not really the case?
POLLACK: Yes and no. I will say flat out [that] I was under the same impression: that we had a very good grip on their nuclear program and there really wasn’t much of a nuclear program well into the 1990s. I was constantly being assured that by the IAEA and by the intelligence community. And then all of a sudden we had a slew of defectors come out in the mid- and late 1990s and what they told us was that everything that we had thought was wrong. You know Khidhir Hamza is the only one who’s gone public. So he’s the only one I can really talk about. But in 1994 we really thought the IAEA had eradicated their nuclear program. And the IAEA really thought that they’d eradicated their nuclear program. And they were telling us they’d eradicated their nuclear program. And Khidhir Hamza comes out and says ‘No, the nuclear program in 1994 was bigger than it had ever been before.’
In point of fact the Iraqis had found all kinds of ways to hide what they were doing. It introduced inefficiencies in what they were doing. For example, they talk about these short track cascades. Normally the cascade is enormous. The way we do it it’s three football fields long. That’s the most efficient way to do it. The Iraqis figured out ways to do short cascades, which didn’t require as much energy, which weren’t as big and therefore were much more easily concealed. They were more inefficient. They didn’t produce the enriched uranium nearly as well. But nevertheless they were able to do it.
TPM: So when you look at this you have no great confidence that they may not be as well along on the nuclear front as we know from very solid evidence that they are on chemical and biological stuff?
POLLACK: I’d put it slightly differently, Josh. I don’t think they’re as far along. Obviously, on the chemical front they’ve got everything they need. There is not a single chemical weapon they would want to procure beyond what they’ve got. On the biological front there are still some things out there. We don’t think that they have smallpox. We don’t think that they have plague. There are a few other agents out there which they’d like to be getting. So I don’t think it’s quite the case that they’re as far along. It’s just that I believe that they’re working just as hard on the nuclear and ballistic missile side as they are on the chemical and biological side. It’s just been my experience that every time the IAEA says ‘We’ve got this thing under control. We know exactly what they have’ we find out later that they absolutely didn’t. Again, one of the things that has been most important to me is talking to the inspectors., the inspectors who were responsible for this program during the 1990s. Every one of which I’ve spoken to believes that the Iraqis somewhere have a clandestine centrifuge program. And that’s very meaningful to me because the experts, the guys who are in there doing it themselves, they also believe that the Iraqis are still pursuing this. It’s just that we can’t find what they’ve got. On the chemical and biological side it’s not that we can find what they’ve got. It’s just that we’ve got some evidence on the discrepancies. We do have this document that the inspectors briefly held in their hands which showed that the Iraqis had expended far fewer chemical munitions during the Iran-Iraq war than they had claimed to us, a disparity of over 6500 weapons. And so you can look at that and say, where are those 6500 weapons? And that’s exactly what Hans Blix did on Monday.
END OF PART I
Stay tuned for Part Two of TPM’s interview with Ken Pollack …
- Contributions allow us to hire more journalists
- Contributions allow us to provide free memberships to those who cannot afford them
- Contributions support independent, non-corporate journalism