“Learn to think imperially.”

—Joseph Chamberlain

Imagine that, for a few years, you had been investing the money you had saved for your daughter’s college education in one of those moderately conservative plans that provide some increase in the value of the investment without exposing it to major risks.  But then your financial planner—let’s call him Ken P.—came up with a really great idea.

He had heard through the grapevine on Wall Street that a grand company in Texas called Enron was, for all practical purposes, a cash cow.  He recommended taking out the money invested in that dead-end Fidelity fund and putting it all in Enron stocks.  And since you trusted the guy, you ended up following his advice—and are still trying to figure out how to finance your daughter’s junior year at Harvard.

The planner did call you to apologize.  “I’m so, so sorry—really!” he said.  “You have to understand that the conventional wisdom on the Street at the time was that Enron was very big.”  Indeed, major investment banks had forecast a significant rise in the value of Enron, whose bosses were close friends of a powerful political family.  Once more, Ken P. pleaded for your forgiveness and expressed his hope that you would continue to avail yourself of his services.  He wanted you to permit him to invest for you the money you had saved for your retirement in a new financial scheme that would make a lot—a lot—of money!

Would you actually consent to let him do so?  My guess is that—however politely—you’d fire Ken P.  And I would not be surprised if Ken P., given his abysmal track record, found it difficult to attract new clients.  He might even have to leave the field of financial analysis and perhaps—who knows?—relocate to Washington, D.C., where failures and losers end up winning the Presidential Medal of Freedom (George Tenet, Paul Bremer), or serving as a successor to George Marshall and Henry Kissinger at the State Department (Condoleezza Rice), or perhaps even winning reelection as the president of the United States after getting the nation, under false pretenses, into a bloody, chaotic mess in Iraq.

Imagine now a foreign-policy expert who advised you, in 2002, to invade Iraq, on grounds that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and links to Osama bin Laden and the perpetrators of September 11 and that the Iraqi people were certain to welcome you as their liberators.  But now it is 2005, with no WMDs having been discovered, no links found between Saddam and Osama, more than 1,800 American casualties incurred, and the prospect of a quagmire in Mesopotamia looming. What do you say to the “expert”?

Because he is not a hypothetical figure, after all.  He is a flesh-and-blood person, and his full name is Kenneth Pollack.  A former U.S. intelligence officer, he published in September 2002 a book with an ominous-sounding title, The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq.  Dr. Pollack, it should be emphasized, was (and is) a Democrat who worked at the Middle East desk under President Bill Clinton and was (and remains) a well-regarded personage in the U.S. foreign-policy establishment.  (He was not, in other words, a devout Bushie or a neocon ideologue.)  So when he assured readers of his book and op-ed columns, together with the viewers of the talking-head television shows, that Saddam had WMDs and links to Al Qaeda and called on the United States to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein, people around Washington listened.

If ideas do matter in determining policies, Pollack clearly made a difference when it came to the decision to go to war against Iraq.  Bill Keller, the editor of the New York Times, admitted that he had been opposed to the invasion of Iraq before reading The Threatening Storm, which changed his view.  More importantly, leading Democratic legislators on Capitol Hill who had been wavering on the issue may well have decided to give President Bush the green light in part, at least, on the recommendation of former President Clinton’s respected aide.  Indeed, as military analyst Fred Kaplan put it in the Washington Post:

Rarely has a policy wonk made such a splash as Kenneth M. Pollack did two winters ago.  His 2002 best-seller The Threatening Storm convinced hundreds of otherwise liberal opinion leaders—and, in turn, thousands and possibly millions of their readers and viewers—that invading Iraq was a good thing to do.

And today?  Don’t worry.  Kenneth Pollack has not fallen on his sword, nor is he pounding the pavement.  He is the director of research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, which is funded by Israeli-American billionaire Haim Saban.  From 1995 to 1996, Pollack served as director for Near East and South Asian affairs at the National Security Council, and from 1999 to 2001, he served as director for Gulf affairs at the NSC, where he was the principal working-level official responsible for the implementation of U.S. policy toward Iran.  Before his stint with the Clinton administration, he spent seven years in the CIA as a “Persian Gulf military analyst.”  Saban, Pollack’s current sugar daddy, is also a major pal of the Clintons, which means that he has given them a lot of money and is expected to help finance Hillary’s presidential race.  (Who knows: Kenneth Pollack, national security advisor to President Clinton II?)  Pollack, moreover, is married to Andrea Koppel, CNN State Department correspondent, who happens to be the daughter of ABC’s Nightline star (and former State Department correspondent) Ted Koppel.  In a town where officials, lawmakers, and pundits operate under the “shadow of the future,” the Iraq disaster should not be an obstacle on Pollack’s road to fame and fortune.  No one in government, Congress, or the media wants to antagonize “Ken.”  After all, Pollack has publicly regretted his role in taking the United States to war in Iraq.  During a postinvasion television appearance, he said that he was “apologizing” for his mistakes and that he was, well, “sorry.”  “Of course, I feel guilty about it.  I feel awful . . . I’m sorry; I’m sorry!” he told the New York Times Magazine in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way.  You know, he explained, the conventional wisdom among most “intelligence experts” at the time was that Saddam actually possessed all the dangerous things he was said to have had.  Well, pre-war intelligence was severely hampered by a lack of physical access to, and direct knowledge of, Iraq on the part of analysts like himself.  And didn’t MI6 and the Mossad issue reports in 2002 that made exactly the same claims that he had made?  Today, Pollack is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, writing op-ed columns for the New York Times, making TV appearances, and testifying on Capitol Hill as another storm threatens in the Middle East, presaged by rising tensions between the United States and another Persian Gulf country.  Naturally, after Pollack’s stunning success in forecasting developments in the Persian Gulf, inquiring minds want to know what his present take on the region might be.  And so, in response to calls of “Encore! Encore!” from his fans, Kenneth Pollack has just published another best-seller: The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America.

Here, Pollack provides us with recommendations on how to deal with Iraq—sorry, Iran—now that the specter of the clerics in Tehran (whose nuclear ambitions and resources seem quite real) looms before Americans.  We have a debate raging in Washington over what is to be done vis-à-vis another country that is acquiring WMDs, and, once again, Pollack is a central player in the “policy discourse.”  This time, he does not call for invading that country.  While “Iran is on the wrong path and marching down it quickly,” Pollack argues that invasion would be a serious mistake.  Unfortunately, its sane conclusion does not prevent The Persian Puzzle from being, like The Threatening Storm, another long and boring book about an important and exciting subject written by a minor-league policy intellectual devoid of credibility.

When it comes to Iran, our “expert” appears to have a very basic knowledge of that country, its culture, and its language—he has never visited Iran nor read an Iranian newspaper or book.  (Pollack does not speak or read Persian.)  The author admits, further, that his understanding of Iran has been acquired by viewing that country “through the eyes of America’s intelligence and defense communities.”  (As someone who has gathered much of what he knows about Iran from “open sources,” including major non-Persian-language media, I have to conclude, after reading Pollack’s book, that American spooks and intelligence analysts spend most of their day in reading the New York Times and watching CNN.)  In the aftermath of September 11 and the many other failures of the U.S. “intelligence community,” a certain level of skepticism seems in order when evaluating prognostications made by current and former Iraq hands who never bothered actually to experience the country at firsthand.  Pollack, reflecting the views of his colleagues in government and the American foreign-policy establishment, reiterates that the “clock is ticking” toward regime change in Iran, while predicting over and again the imminent demise of the Islamic regime in Tehran and the (supposedly) inevitable “integration” of Iran into the “global economy” and the “international community.”  We are now in a position to test that brave prediction.

I finished reading Pollack’s book just as Iran’s recent presidential campaign was gaining momentum.  Not surprisingly, the American media—especially the foreign-affairs experts in Washington who acquire much of their knowledge about the Middle East from “sources” in government, including those in the “intelligence community”—were predicting that the “moderate” candidates were poised to win the presidential race.  Indeed, the spin offered by the New York Times was that the election in Iran, like much of Iranian politics as a whole, amounts to a power struggle between freedom-loving people who want to advance social and economic policies more in line with those of the liberal West and repressive clerics who promise a pure Islamic government.  Not that any American pundit expected that any of the reformist candidates, led by Mostafa Moin, a former education minister, would win the race.  Rather, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the 71-year-old cleric and former aide to Ayatollah Khomeini, a famously corrupt figure with a lot of blood on his hands, was the favorite of the American press.  (Time’s international edition even carried Rafsanjani on its cover a week before the election on June 17.)  So when the Islamic ideologue and former mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, ended up challenging Rafsanjani in the runoff (most experts had expected that Rafsanjani would have to beat Moin) on June 24 and defeated him by more than seven million votes, it was a . . . Big Surprise! for the New York Times and the many “sources” in the intelligence community and elsewhere.

The majority of voting Iranians, seeming to fit the profile of a Red State voter in the United States—loyal to the nation, faith, family, and traditional values—had elected a president who was not highly educated or very sophisticated, just your down-to-earth Average Ahmed who regards the Prophet Muhammad as his favorite political philosopher.  In Iran, where one fifth of the population is unemployed and the majority of Iranians are less concerned with the rights of the Babes of Tehran than with eking out a living, people expected (wrongly, I believe) that the new president would deliver new jobs.

Having read Pollack’s book, I assume that his explanation would most likely be that the election of Ahmadinejad was a reflection of the predominant traits of the Iranian national character as he describes them—xenophobia, emotionalism, an exaggerated sense of “self-importance,” and a failure by the Iranians to realize that bringing down the ignorant clerics and “join[ing] the rest of the world” is in their national interest.  Pollack and those who share the CIA mind-set have been expecting and predicting just such a bouleversement since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which, as you recall, had caught them all by another of those surprises, as described by David Harris in The Crisis: The President, the Prophet, and the Shah—1979 and the Coming of Militant Islam, another unremarkable study of the U.S.-Iran relationship by another unexceptional writer who does not even pretend to be an “Iran expert.”

Those who apply the sort of perspective Pollack and Harris bring to their analyses of global affairs are doomed, almost inevitably, to surprise and disappointment.  From Pollack’s historical viewpoint, Americans commonly pursue foreign policy with “good intentions”—an understanding that Harris qualifies simply by noting that, while most Americans are indeed well intentioned, they fail at times to measure up to their own high-minded ambitions.

Pollack argues that, while the United States has done some silly and stupid things in the Middle East and often botched her relationship with Tehran, for the most part, she approached Iran as a friend and benefactor during most of the post-World War II era.  Washington wanted to see the emergence of an “independent, stable, and prosperous Iran,” and, to the extent that it intervened in Tehran’s political affairs, its main goals were to ensure that the Iranians did not fall under the control of the Soviet Union and communism; to contain the pressures from supposedly cynical British imperialists; and to push for the necessary “political, economic, and social reform.”  On the other hand, the Iranians’ attitude toward the United States has been marked at times by rising expectations regarding the way in which the United States might help them and, at others, by a sense of betrayal by America, as well as a deep paranoia reflecting what Pollack sees as Iranian national traits.

Even Pollack, however, appears to empathize with Iranian suspicions that American policies toward their country have been motivated less by “good intentions” and more by self-interest, as he recounts the dynamic set in 1953 when the Americans cooperated in the overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected president, Mohammad Mossadegh, and his replacement by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.  Here, Pollack attempts a “balanced” approach, blaming both sides for the ensuing tensions—as though the fact that Mossadegh was “a true eccentric,” who rejected the generous offers on oil profits that might have kept him in power, justified the decision by the Americans and the British to launch a coup in Iran.  He blames President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles not for deposing Mossadegh but for helping to ignite the Iranians’ traditional xenophobia and nationalist passion.  While Pollack notes that the Mossadegh affair turned out to haunt the American-Iranian relationship for a very long time, while agreeing with the proposition that American intervention in Iran was perhaps carried out in “very unpopular ways,” he is, nevertheless, appalled by the ingratitude of the Iranian people for the assistance and “good intentions” offered by the United States.  Though the view that the United States, for her role in the overthrow of Mossadegh, was culpable in the establishment of the despotism that followed contains a “kernel of truth,” Pollack contends that Mossadegh should be blamed for having pursued “undemocratic actions” and that, in any case, the Iranians would have  deposed Mossadegh themselves, without help from the Americans.

This analysis contradicts the more credible and well-documented research provided by Stephen Kizner in All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror.  One does not have to credit the notion that Mossadegh was an “Iranian Gandhi” (though a mentally unstable character who sympathized with left-wing causes, he was, in essence, an Iranian nationalist) to conclude that Pollack is clearly understating the role played by the Americans and the CIA in destabilizing Iran and bringing down Mossadegh.  Pollack’s narrative is troubling less for its historical inaccuracies than for the sense of legitimacy it seems to provide for what has been called the Bush Protocol to the Monroe Doctrine.  Indeed, such neoconservative chickenhawks as Michael Ledeen and Raul Grecht (another former CIA analyst) from the American Enterprise Institute are employing precisely this rationale in calling for a U.S.-led campaign to remove the current regime from power in Tehran and replace it with a pro-American one.  Pollack shares the neocons’ conviction that the clerics have lost the support of Iranians who want Iran to join the “community of nations”—an argument that can now be challenged in the aftermath of the presidential elections.  But, as Pollack explains, the kind of cost-effective “regime change” strategy applied by Eisenhower and Dulles—spending one million dollars in CIA funds to round up and bribe street thugs to demonstrate against Mossadegh—is not a possibility today.  The conservative religious figures are more deeply entrenched in power in Tehran, while the reform movement has lost it momentum.  The notion that the Iranians are going to arise en masse against the clerics is another neoconservative fantasy—one, however, that is not shared by Pollack.

Kenneth Pollack, finally, is opposed to the policy of replaying the invasion of Iraq in terms of Iran, arguing that “the threat of Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons” does not justify “what would be an extremely costly and risky invasion,” owing to the country’s considerable size and inhospitable terrain and to the certain hostility offered by the Iranians toward their occupiers.  So, if the United States lacks the necessary diplomatic and military power to achieve “regime change” in Iran, perhaps the United States should attempt to engage Tehran.  An anticommunist Republican administration led by President Richard Nixon initiated the famous opening to China at a time when that country was ruled by an anti-American dictator in the midst of the Cultural Revolution.  Why shouldn’t the nationalist Republican administration headed by George W. Bush move in a similar direction with respect to the anti-American clerics in Tehran?

The opening of China, after all, was based on cold consideration of Realpolitik: The United States and China shared a common interest in containing an aggressive Soviet Union in Afghanistan and elsewhere.  Today, the United States and Iran together have achieved the common goals of ousting from power the Taliban in Afghanistan and getting rid of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.  The United States could benefit from an Iran engaged in helping to stabilize those two countries—Iraq, especially, where the Iranians’ coreligionist Shiites are now in power.  Iran would clearly like to see a friendly and stable Iraq emerging on her borders, while ensuring that the American military presence there and in Afghanistan would not be directed against her.  That the conservatives are now in full control in Tehran makes it more likely still that the government would be able to deliver a deal with the Americans.  A more “moderate” leadership in Iran would have been attacked by the conservatives for trying to mend diplomatic ties with the “Great Satan.”  Should President Bush then go to Iran?

In one of his more incisive observations, Pollack criticizes Bush for failing to take advantage of the serious opportunity for breakthrough with Iran that existed between September 11 and the Iraq war.  Pollack notes that both countries concurred in seeing the Taliban as a threat and cooperated to oust it from Afghanistan; and, for the first time, U.S. and Iranian officials met face-to-face at conferences in Geneva.  The Americans were low-key in their approach, however, and, in early 2002—just as things “were starting to really get interesting,” as an inside source put it to Pollack—Bush delivered his State of the Union address branding Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as the “Axis of Evil.”  The Geneva talks ended, and Iran’s nuclear program accelerated.  Since then, influenced by neoconservative ideologues such as David Frum, the Bush administration continually accuses Iran of trying to destabilize Iraq and backing the insurgents there.  In fact, close diplomatic, economic, and military ties have been forged between Baghdad and Tehran, while the two Shiite-ruled governments are as interested as the Americans are in beating the Sunni-led insurgency (whose members include many jihadists from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, those two great “allies” of the United States).

Moreover, Pollack the Realpolitik strategist is forced to concede that Iran’s attempt to acquire nuclear military capability is neither “irrational” nor an outgrowth of the religious fanaticism or xenophobia of the ayatollahs in Tehran.  It was the pro-American shah who started the Iranian nuclear program that is backed by the majority of Iranians today, including the Westernized secular-minded reformers.  And why should it not be?  From the perspective of an Iranian nationalist, acquiring nuclear military capacity makes a lot of sense, especially if you take into consideration that two of Iran’s unfriendly neighbors, Israel and Pakistan, enjoy it; and another (Saddam’s Iraq) almost had it at one time; and yet another neighbor of sorts, the United States, which controls Iraq, could use her nuclear might to force a “regime change” in Tehran.  Pollack the ideologue, however, assuming America’s “good intentions” and her benign hegemonism, insists that the United States “must address Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.”

Pollack fails to provide an outline of any clear strategy to ensure that Iran remains without a nuclear capacity.  He admits that most of the available policy choices, including diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions, cannot work.  He seems to back what he sees as a carrot-and-stick approach, by which the United States and the European Union offer Iran rewards if she backs away from her nuclear-arms program and penalties if she refuses to do so, which she probably will.  And after that?  Pollack, believing that a preemptive military strike on Iran’s nuclear weapons could not work, concludes that the United States would have no choice but to learn to live with a nuclear-armed Iran and employ the policy of containment to deal with what amounts to a “threat” mainly so long as Washington continues to pursue a hegemonic policy in the Middle East, either through the neoconservative version of empire or Pollack’s preferred “Empire Lite.”  In the absence of such a policy, the nuclear might of Israel, the Jewish Republic, should be able to deter the Islamic Republic with her nuclear arsenal.  The system of Mutual Assured Destruction seems to be working quite effectively in the relationship between Hindus and Muslims in the Indian subcontinent.  Why don’t we try the same in the Middle East? 


[The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America, by Kenneth M. Pollack (New York: Random House) 576 pp., $26.95]