Q&A: Paul Pillar

Paul Pillar, former senior US intelligence officer, on the national issues we’ve neglected in favor of Iraq.


Mother Jones: Looking back on the Bush years, with a particular focus on intelligence and national security, what will be the hardest thing to fix—and what the easiest?

Paul Pillar: The Iraq War—all of these ramifications and implications—has to be centerpiece of my answer to this question.

Because however you think about it, and whatever one’s views looking backward about the decision, it is a big, huge task being bestowed on the next president that will continue to soak up a disproportionate amount of time, resources, attention, US foreign policy, and everything else.

Obviously, even strictly from just a resources point of view, this is something our grandchildren will be paying for: war done on a credit card. That is what we have here. And our children and grandchildren will be paying for it.

Even if the most dire estimates, such as those of Joseph Stiglitz, about how many trillions of dollars it will cost, even if the final cost falls short of that, the cost is immense. And it’s a cost for the most part that will be incurred for years and years and years, including everything from the care of disabled veterans to the strictly economic side of things with regard to waging war on a credit card.

MJ: Bush says history will decide whether his decision to go to war in Iraq will be vindicated. Is there anything to that?

PP: It is not patently unreasonable to say “Wait a minute. Let’s wait a few more years to see what the second-order effects and third-order effects of the war will be.” In my judgment, five years is reasonable to get a sense of direction of the secondary and tertiary effects in the region. What we have seen is not a democratic domino effect. What we have seen if anything is more a revulsion at the events in Iraq.

MJ: Is Hamas’ electoral win in the Palestinian territories, Hezbollah’s political ascendance in Lebanon—are these not a type of democratization in the Middle East, although not ones the Bush administration anticipated or desired?

PP: They are not connected to a democratic wave. You know the Condi Rice phrase about these being the birth pangs of a new Middle East? Well, if this is the new Middle East, I would rather not have a part of it.

Now, getting back to your themes, what’s reparable: Everything is reparable over time. But certainly for the duration of the first term of whoever is next president, the sorts of things mentioned will be a heavy load and distraction.

MJ: What about the cost of the Iraq War in terms of an American public that has become enormously mistrustful of the president and the administration and the reasons they would cite for going to war, the total lack of confidence that the US intelligence the president would cite is honest or real? As well as a country so divided that it doesn’t see the basic facts the same way? And is that mistrust possibly a healthy thing?

PP: The distrust is very understandable. This extraordinary initiative was embarked on in the most secretive and cabalistic sort of way. Yes, there are major grounds for suspicion. One offsetting reason for alleviating that concern—perhaps this is overly optimistic—is that Iraq is such a preoccupation and that everyone else—the press and American public—is now so much more on guard. It will be much more difficult to pull off other mischief by decision makers.

Just as one’s partisan affiliations color perceptions on reality, they color this one as well.

In the sense of what I said before: People are on their guard based on the Iraq experience. To a large extent, that is a healthy reaction. People are asking some tougher questions about Iran, for example, that were not asked about Iraq. We are collectively aware of how much part of the nation was swept up in mood, which the administration successfully exploited to move on Iraq.

The downside to that skepticism is that distrust can extend even to matters where it would be good for our government to be able to persuade its public of certain things based on intelligence. If we had another Cuban missile crisis, there would be a lot of skepticism that may work in ways that cause American policymakers to be less able to do what policymakers were able to do in 1962.

MJ: You are able to maintain such distance and dispassion. I’ve talked to so many people who feel the administration and the White House really battered the intelligence community in an extremely politicized way.

PP: NPR’s Terry Gross asked me the same thing. “Why aren’t you angry?” Because I feel it is the military service that paid the biggest price, and that is still the way I feel.

One grounds for optimism is that if we all understand this better, it might be possible for the nation and policymaking process to profit from this experience in some way.

Let me mention one more thing: all of the opportunity costs in the form of policy attention being so narrowly focused on Iraq and neglecting other things—as well as for other ideological reasons—a lot of other problems, including the Arab-Israeli conflict, have been left to fester. And the next administration will have to spend a lot of time and effort catching up and getting the United States back to where it was in terms of engagement and credibility to where it was a few years ago. A few years ago, the Arab-Israeli conflict was high on that list of US foreign policy priorities. There are countless other things that have been neglected. On the environment and energy policy, we have really been treading water.