One pillar of unwisdom

Paul Mirengoff’s old Dartmouth roommate Paul Pillar takes to the pages of the Washington Post for a column condemning the Bush administration for the war in Iraq (an old theme of his) and warning of the consequences of using force against Iran’s nuclear program (working a new variation of his old theme). Pillar worked as a CIA analyst for 30 years, finishing his career as the national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia. In his last years at the CIA Pillar appears to have been one of the key CIA bureaucrats opposing and undermining Bush administration foreign policy. See, for example, this Wall Street Journal editorial.
In his Washington Post column today Pillar again refers to the “the administration’s manipulation of intelligence on weapons programs and terrorist relationships” with which it supported the case for deposing Saddam Hussein. Having himself done so much to make this assertion conventional wisdom, Pillar feels no need to argue it. The column reflects the point of view he expressed in his Foreign Affairs article last spring. Pillar’s Foreign Affairs article was deconstructed in a Wall Street Journal column by Guillermo Christensen and in Daily Standard columns by Steve Hayes and by Tom Joscelyn.
Rather than rehearsing his old argument about Iraq, Pillar merely invokes it. Instead Pillar uses it to raise questions about the accuracy of our knowledge of Iran’s nuclear program. He also depicts the difficulty of military action to retard Iran’s nuclear program, constructs a worst-case scenarious regarding the consequences of military action and pushes for diplomatic alternatives to the use of military force against Iran.
Pillar does not consider the consequences of Iranian possession of nuclear weapons, dismissing the consideration with the statement that there is “no more reason than there was with Iraq to consider the worst case of only one side of the policy equation.” Yet Pillar himself considers only one side of the policy equation, concluding with a plea that the “next military folly in the Middle East” be preceded by analysis and debate that is not “so severely and tendentiously truncated as before Iraq.” Pillar appears to be engaged in a little “tendentious truncation” of his own. After watching Pillar make similar arguments to those he makes in his column today on CNN last February, Paul Mirengoff wrote here:

Paul stated that, as we move towards a possible confrontation with Iran, we need to learn the lessons of Iraq, and recognize the limits of our information regarding the state of Iran’s nuclear program. This is true, of course. However, I would make two additional points. First, Iran is a much more open society than Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The Israeli intelligence community, for example, which never claimed to have much first-hand knowledge about Iraq, is said to have good sources on the ground in Iran. Second, imperfections in our intelligence cannot be a dispositive argument against military action, particularly if that action involves something less than a major commitment of ground forces. In dealing with Iran, we should take pains not to “over-compensate” again for past intelligence failures.

I would add that Pillar fails to take into account the limitations of our knowledge in building his case for military inaction on the “announced estimate…that Iran is still several years from acquiring a nuclear weapon.” Pillar simply assumes the accuracy of “the announced estimate.” Pillar also omits consideration of the consequences of a nuclear Iran. Were he to include them in his argument, I think he would minimize them in such a way as to discredit himself as an analyst. See Jack Risko’s “Who is Paul Pillar?” Pillar appears to me to be speaking from first-hand knowledge about the sinister uses to which “tendentious truncation” of an argument over policy can be put.
UPDATE: Michael Rubin adds: “The NIE which Pillar cites bases its estimate on indigenous production of weapons-grade uranium or plutonium. If, however, Tehran gets such material from another source, all bets are off and the 5-10 year estimate becomes much less.”
JOHN adds: This is really too much. Given his position at the CIA, Pillar must have borne substantial responsibility for the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq of October 2002, which assured decisionmakers in the Executive Branch with a “high level of confidence” that Iraq possessed chemical weapons, possessed biological weapons, and was seeking nuclear weapons. Having presided over what is generally regarded as the worst intelligence fiasco of modern history, one might have expected Pillar to maintain a discreet silence on such matters, or, at a minimum, to exhibit a little humility.
No such luck. Instead, Pillar has the temerity to accuse the Bush administration of “manipulation of intelligence on weapons programs and terrorist relationships.” No, Paul, that wasn’t the problem: the problem was that the administration believed you and your colleagues at the CIA.
In fact, Pillar has previously admitted as much. As Paul noted in the post that Scott linked to above, Pillar:

agreed that American and world intelligence strongly supported the view that Iraq had WMD, and that the CIA itself reached the wrong conclusion on this issue. And he agreed with the Robb-Silberman commission (which he praised) and the Senate Intelligence panel that the administration did not push the CIA to reach specific conclusions or change its findings.

So his current accusation of “manipulation of intelligence on weapons programs” is disgraceful.
Note, too, that one theme of Pillar’s column in the Post today is that it really wouldn’t have made much difference (except, perhaps, politically) if the CIA’s advice about Iraq’s WMDs had turned out to be right rather than wrong. Pillar, however, never mentions that he himself was largely responsible for the CIA’s misjudgments on Iraq. Thus, his suggestion that the CIA’s errors didn’t make much difference is highly self-exculpatory.
And, finally, there is irony in Pillar’s reliance on a National Intelligence Estimate for his assurance that Iran remains years away from developing a nuclear weapon. It was the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, in which Pillar himself must have been deeply involved, that got the issue of Iraq’s WMD programs so horribly wrong. So why is Pillar now so confident that the NIE on Iran is reliable?
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