Chastened liberal hawk fears clash with Iran

Dealing with a nuclear state is preferable to another Middle East war, says Kenneth Pollack

Topics: Iran,

Chastened liberal hawk fears clash with Iran Kenneth Pollack: one Mideast war was enough (Credit: The Daily Show)

Kenneth Pollack has been among the most influential Middle East experts in Washington over the last generation. He directed Persian Gulf affairs at the National Security Council and the CIA. His 2002 book “The Threatening Storm” was profoundly influential in convincing some Democratic Party intellectuals and lawmakers that invading Iraq was a national security imperative.

All of which makes his views on Iran both surprising and significant. Pollack’s 2004 book “The Persian Puzzle“ contended that containing a nuclear Iran was possible, if not desirable. Nearly eight years later, he has just written an important piece for the New Republic warning that the Obama administration’s  policies are unwittingly leading us to war with Iran.

Pollack was one of the authors of America’s “dual-track” policy with Iran, whereby efforts at serious talks are coupled with sanctions. He is now convinced that policy is failing. “The problem is that Iran sees it very differently from the way we see it,” Pollack said in an interview. “They put our efforts in terms of human rights and reaching out to the opposition, as well as the sanctions, in the same scheme as what the Israelis are doing, which includes assassinations, acts of sabotage, cyberattacks; and what the Saudis are doing, which is aid to basically every group fighting the Iranian proxies all over the Middle East; and what the British are doing, which is gathering information.”

Cumulatively, he says, these efforts are convincing Iran not that it should relinquish its nuclear efforts but that it is under attack: “To the Iranians, this looks like a concerted Western covert war against them.” The current hard-line regime in Iran takes this as the threat of war, and is prepared to fight a war rather than back down, Pollack says. His TNR article points out the ways in which U.S. policies toward Iran, intended as an alternative to war, are leading us directly to that result.

“I do not think we should go to war with Iran, and it is very clear to me that the president doesn’t want to go to war with Iran, and my concern is that the way we are doing things makes it increasingly likely that we will go to war,” he says. Pollack doesn’t want to see Iran with nuclear weapons. He concedes that containing Iran will be difficult. The nuclear standoff between the Soviet Union and the Americans in the Cold War was far more dangerous than people remember, says Pollack, and he shudders at those standoffs with Iran. But “if you give me a choice between war and containing a nuclear Iran, I will choose containment every time,” he says.

At the same time, he thinks diplomacy with Iran is probably a lost cause, but should still be attempted.

“I don’t think this regime has any interest in serious negotiations, because my reading of [Supreme Leader] Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard leadership, who are the ones running the Iranian government, is that they see engagement with the United States as subversive. They see it as what will bring about the end of their regime.” That is why when they do show up to talk, they send people to do nothing but read talking points, he says.

You Might Also Like

Still, even a tiny chance that negotiations will pay off is worth taking, because it is the best solution of all. At the very least, it’s important to show the world and the Iranian people that America doesn’t want a war with Iran, he says. “This is one of the great victories of the Obama administration — they convinced the Chinese and the Russians they we are not the problem, that Iran is the problem. They are right in saying that they have gotten unprecedented international support for the coalition.” The administration had the right policy, Pollack says, “but they need to ask themselves whether that policy can still work.”

Pollack’s perspective is informed by his experience with Iraq. He was instrumental at the CIA and NSC in implementing sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s, sanctions that he rightly calls “the most draconian sanctions ever in history, probably.” Those sanctions ultimately failed, in preventing war, in being a humane policy, and in persuading the court of international opinion.

“Everyone assumed that Saddam Hussein would have to do what the international community wanted, because he wouldn’t dare to starve his people to death. But guess what? He decided to starve his people to death.” About Iran today, he says, “Everyone thinks now sanctions are so great, we’re putting so much pressure on the Iranians, but I don’t think it’s going to be enough pressure to get the Iranians to cave, and in one or two years we’re going to hear that the Central Bank sanctions are too harsh, and they need to be lifted. That’s what happened in Iraq.”

He grants that the failures of the Iraq War have “partly” shaped his thinking, but bristles at the suggestion that they play any larger role in his views on Iran.

“I know everyone loves to talk about Ken Pollack, the liberal hawk,” he says. “My argument in the book — you probably didn’t read my book because nobody bothered to read my book — was that Saddam was a unique character, and I think all the stuff we’ve learned about in the postwar has made that case that he was a unique, and a uniquely dangerous character. And while I don’t like the Iranian regime, and I think they are very problematic and troublesome in many ways, they aren’t Saddam Hussein. They don’t fall into the same category.”

In “The Threatening Storm,” Pollack argued that a large-scale war needed to be fought with Iraq. He seems now to believe not that the war was a mistaken idea but that it was improperly executed. By slipping into war with Iran without proper forethought and planning, the U.S. is repeating its mistakes.

“Wars are always opening Pandora’s Box and you just never know what you’re going to get,” he says. “And unless you’re prepared to fight a war all the way fully, you can get a bad outcome. And that’s what happened to us in Iraq. The Bush administration wanted to fight a war half-assed. And you can’t fight a war half-assed. You try and fight a war half-assed, it’s going to be a disaster.”

Jordan Michael Smith writes about U.S. foreign policy for Salon. He has written for the New York Times, Boston Globe and Washington Post.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 13
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Young Daya has yet to become entirely jaded, but she has the character's trademark skeptical pout down pat. And with a piece-of-work mother like Aleida -- who oscillates between jealousy and scorn for her creatively gifted daughter, chucking out the artwork she brings home from summer camp -- who can blame her?

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    With her marriage to prison penpal Vince Muccio, Lorna finally got to wear the white veil she has fantasized about since childhood (even if it was made of toilet paper).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Cindy's embrace of Judaism makes sense when we see her childhood, lived under the fist of a terrifying father who preached a fire-and-brimstone version of Christianity. As she put it: "I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell."

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Joey Caputo has always tried to be a good guy, whether it's offering to fight a disabled wrestler at a high school wrestling event or giving up his musical ambitions to raise another man's child. But trying to be a nice guy never exactly worked out for him -- which might explain why he decides to take the selfish route in the Season 3 finale.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    In one of the season's more moving flashbacks, we see a young Boo -- who rejected the traditional trappings of femininity from a young age -- clashing with her mother over what to wear. Later, she makes the decision not to visit her mother on her deathbed if it means pretending to be something she's not. As she puts it, "I refuse to be invisible, Daddy. Not for you, not for Mom, not for anybody.”

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    We still don't know what landed Brooke Soso in the slammer, but a late-season flashback suggests that some seriously overbearing parenting may have been the impetus for her downward spiral.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    We already know a little about Poussey's relationship with her military father, but this season we saw a softer side of the spunky fan-favorite, who still pines for the loving mom that she lost too young.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Pennsatucky had something of a redemption arc this season, and glimpses of her childhood only serve to increase viewer sympathy for the character, whose mother forced her to chug Mountain Dew outside the Social Security Administration office and stripped her of her sexual agency before she was even old enough to comprehend it.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    This season, we got an intense look at the teenage life of one of Litchfield's most isolated and underexplored inmates. Rebuffed and scorned by her suitor at an arranged marriage, the young Chinese immigrant stored up a grudge, and ultimately exacted a merciless revenge.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    It's difficult to sympathize with the racist, misogynist CO Sam Healy, but the snippets we get of his childhood -- raised by a mentally ill mother, vomited on by a homeless man he mistakes for Jesus when he runs to the church for help -- certainly help us understand him better.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    This season, we learned a lot about one of Litchfield's biggest enigmas, as we saw the roots of Norma's silence (a childhood stutter) and the reason for her incarceration (killing the oppressive cult leader she followed for decades).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    While Nicki's mother certainly isn't entirely to blame for her daughter's struggles with addiction, an early childhood flashback -- of an adorable young Nicki being rebuffed on Mother's Day -- certainly helps us understand the roots of Nicki's scarred psyche.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>