One pillar of unwisdom revisited

Perhaps the most dispiriting element of President Obama’s Vox interview with Matthew Yglesias is Obama’s likening of terrorism to a problem of domestic law enforcement. Obama draws an analogy between terrorism and crime control. We need to keep the lid on and do our best to reduce it. But we’re not in a war where the enemy is recognized or the object is victory. Terrorism is one of those things we have to learn to live with. Where did that come from?

Obama’s Vox interview with Yglesias is posted here. John commented on it here, Paul here.

Obama’s thinking echoes that of former senior CIA officer Paul Pillar in the ill-timed book on terrorism that he published just before 9/11. Indeed, Obama’s Middle East foreign policy generally seems to echo Pillar’s thinking, including its patent hostility to Israel and wishful thinking about Iran.

I wonder if Pillar’s thinking might not represent an unconnected dot in Michael Doran’s tour de force on Obama’s secret Iran strategy. (Doran and Bret Stephens debated Pillar and Aaron David Miller on our Middle East foreign policy last October; a recording of the debate is accessible here. The video is posted at the bottom of this post.) I think it would be worth revisiting Pillar’s thought in the context of Obama’s Vox interview.

Pillar is Paul Mirengoff’s former Dartmouth roommate. Paul has expressed his incredibly high regard for Pillar based on their college days. In 2010 the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine carried ABC reporter Matthew Mosk’s extremely interesting profile of Pillar and his opposition to the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. At several points the article quoted Paul’s comments on Pillar.

In 2005 Pillar retired from the CIA after a long career with the agency. He is director of graduate studies and core faculty member of the Security Studies Program Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University.

In 2012 Pillar published a lengthy Washington Monthly article assuring us that “We can live with a nuclear Iran.” Pillar argues that Iran is a rational actor interested only in survival of the regime. The regime’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, according to Pillar, would be no big problem for the United States. At least that is the gist of Pillar’s argument as I understand it.

Pillar’s article begs (i.e., assumes the answer to) basic questions such as whether the Iranian regime is rationally pursuing objectives with which we cannot live, to borrow Pillar’s formulation. Pillar’s answer is implicitly negative, but it is a crucial question and he doesn’t adduce much evidence to the point. What are the objectives of the Iranian regime? How do such frolics as the genocidal Hezbollah organization and the 1994 bombing of the Jewish Community Center in Argentina fit in?

Reading his article, I wondered what Pillar would have said about Hitler in 1938. I think he would have been with Chamberlain rather than Churchill. Even at this late hour he seems to harbor the thought that Iran’s nuclear program has peaceful purposes.

In his Dartmouth Alumni Magazine article Mosk covered a lot of territory in limited space, including Paul Mirengoff’s relationship with Pillar. Mosk framed the article around Pillar’s opposition to the war against the Taliban. According to Pillar, the costs exceed the benefits.

Pillar’s opposition as a private citizen to the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan mirrors his opposition as a senior officer of the CIA to the war against Saddam Hussein in Iraq. One would need a long memory to have much understanding of some important points that Mosk touched on and, in my view, he missed one notable facet of Pillar’s career in the CIA.

Following his service as an Army officer including a tour in Vietnam, Pillar earned a Princeton Ph.D. in government. He joined the CIA, rising to the level of deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center and National Intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia at the CIA from 2000 until his retirement from the agency in 2005.

Shortly before 9/11 Pillar took a leave from the CIA to write Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy. Gabriel Schoenfeld took a detailed look at the book in the Commentary essay “Could September 11 have been averted?” Schoenfeld’s subsequent exchange with Pillar and others in Commentary’s letters to the editor is accessible online here.

In the book Pillar argued most famously that counterterrorism efforts were properly to be likened, not to a “war,” but rather to “the effort by public-health authorities to control communicable diseases” or the effort to improve “highway safety,” where regulators “can reduce deaths and injuries somewhat” by taking action on a variety of fronts but without any false idea of “defeating” the problem. Although Schoenfeld found the book “both authoritative and exceedingly well-informed,” he observed in the light of September 11 that the book’s conclusions “seemed not just wide of the mark but almost risible.” Mosk simply alluded to observers who thought the book prescient.

Returning to the CIA after writing the book, Pillar became a protagonist in the bureaucratic war against the Bush administration. Focusing on Joe Wilson, I wrote about the CIA efforts to undermine the Bush administration for the Weekly Standard in “Three years of the Condor.” The late Robert Novak exposed Pillar’s opposition to the Bush administration in his September 2004 column “CIA vs. Bush,” reporting that Pillar had carried his campaign against the Bush administration to an off-the-record gathering in California:

Paul R. Pillar, the CIA’s national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia, sat down Tuesday night in a large West Coast city with a select group of private citizens. He was not talking off the cuff. Relying on a multi-paged, single-spaced memorandum, Pillar said he and his colleagues concluded early in the Bush administration that military intervention in Iraq would intensify anti-American hostility throughout Islam. This was not from a CIA retiree but an active senior official. (Pillar, no covert operative, is listed openly in the Federal Staff Directory.)

Pillar was back later rehearsing some old themes in a National Interest column (no longer available online, I’m afraid, so this 2013 column will have to do) previewing a longer National Interest article. Pillar’s column reminded me of the dialogue Woody Allen wrote for his voiceover spy parody What’s Up, Tiger Lilly? when one character shows spy hero Phil Moscowitz a printed floor plan and explains: “This is Shepherd Wong’s home.” Moscowitz asks: “He lives in that piece of paper?”

In his column Pillar discussed the famous October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq’s continuing programs for weapons of mass destruction. Among the NIE’s “key judgments” were the following:

We judge that Iraq has continued its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs in defiance of UN resolutions and restrictions. Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons as well as missiles with ranges in excess of UN restrictions; if left unchecked, it probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade. (See INR alternative view at the end of these Key Judgments.)

We judge that we are seeing only a portion of Iraq’s WMD efforts, owing to Baghdad’s vigorous denial and deception efforts. Revelations after the Gulf war starkly demonstrate the extensive efforts undertaken by Iraq to deny information. We lack specific information on many key aspects of Iraq’s WMD programs.

Since inspections ended in 1998, Iraq has maintained its chemical weapons effort, energized its missile program, and invested more heavily in biological weapons; in the view of most agencies, Baghdad is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program.

Pillar argued that the NIE document (“He lives in that piece of paper?”) did not influence the Bush administration’s decision to depose Saddam Hussein:

The tremendous notoriety the estimate on weapons programs achieved has been all out of proportion to any role it played, or should have played, in the decision to launch the war. The administration never requested it (Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee did), its public line about Iraqi weapons programs was well-established before it was written, and as the White House later admitted, the president (and the then national security adviser) did not even read it–nor did most members of Congress. Opposition to the war among many at home and abroad who shared the misperceptions about Iraqi weapons programs demonstrated that those perceptions did not, contrary to the administration’s enormous selling effort, imply that a war was necessary.

Pillar implied that the Bush administration did not rely on the intelligence provided to it by the CIA and other government intelligence agencies regarding Iraq’s WMD program. Yet the implication does not follow from anything he said in the column about the October 2002 NIE itself. On the contrary, the October 2002 NIE is evidence of what Pillar and/or his colleagues were telling the administration regarding the potential threat that Iraq posed to the United States, regardless of what Pillar and others thought was the right course of action to remedy it.

In Legacy of Ashes, a critical history of the CIA, New York Times reporter Tim Weiner writes regarding the Bush administration’s rationale to depose Saddam Hussein: “This was not a selective use of intelligence. It was not ‘cherry-picking.’ It was not fixing the facts to fit the war plans. It was what the intelligence said, the best intelligence the agency had to offer.”

Weiner also reports the assessment of Judge Laurence Silberman (another distinguished Dartmouth alum) and the presidential commission Silberman chaired to review the intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. “They found that the CIA’s reports for the president’s eyes were no different from the rest of its work, including the infamous estimate–except in one regard.” How so? “They were even more misleading, the commission found. They were, ‘if anything, more alarmist and less nuanced.'”

What does Pillar have to say about that? Maybe he says in Intelligence and U.S/ Foreign Policy: Iraq, 9/11 and Misguided Reform, his book covering this ground. (I haven’t read it.) His 2013 National Interest column, linked above, provides a summary.

Pillar’s assessment of the threat of a nuclear Iran has much in common with his assessment of the threat posed by terrorism to the United States before 9/11. Pillar states: “Nuclear weapons matter insofar as there is a credible possibility that they will be used. This credibility is hard to achieve, however, in anything short of circumstances that might involve the destruction of one’s nation.” Pillar presents no evidence, however, that this doctrine is inherent in the possession of nuclear weapons or that Iran subscribes to this doctrine. He simply begs the question.

Pillar holds: “Much diplomatic ground has yet to be explored in searching for a formula that would permit Iran to have a peaceful nuclear program with enough inspections and other safeguards to assuage Western concerns about diversion of nuclear material to military use.” Pillar leaves the proposition that Iran seeks “a peaceful nuclear program” unexplored, but the Obama administration seems to be following his train of thought.

Is there no credible possibility that the Iranian regime would decline to follow the nuclear doctrine to which Pillar subscribes, or that it would use nuclear weapons to achieve its stated goal of wiping Israel off the map? The former president of Iran famously noted, for example: “Israel is much smaller than Iran in land mass, and therefore far more vulnerable to nuclear attack.” The former president of Iran routinely called for death to Israel. The current Supreme Leader of Iran likens Israel to a cancerous tumor that must be removed.

Elsewhere Pillar helpfully explains: “What is billed as an Iran problem is thus mainly an Israel problem” and acknowledges “the awful anti-Israeli rhetoric of Iranian leaders[.]”

Ah, it’s rhetoric! Begging the question seems to be Pillar’s favorite style of argument.

Given the length of Pillar’s Washington Monthly article, Iranian statements along these lines either as to Israel or the United States are conspicuous by their absence. Yet Pillar’s article is worthy of attention, not only because of the authority with which Pillar speaks, but also because of the possibility that he may reflect the thinking of the Obama administration.

NOTE: This post is adapted from comments on Pillar that I have previously posted here. Below is the video of the October 2014 debate on our Middle East foreign policy between Bret Stepens/Michael Doran and Paul Pillar/Aaron David Miller.