Mohsen Abdelmoumen: In your book Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy, you have criticized the reform of US intelligence services. Can you tell us why?
Dr. Paul R. Pillar: Following the 9/11 terrorist attack, there was a huge public appetite for « doing something » that would assure Americans that a horrible event like that would not happen again. Such assurance seems to require the notion of an identifiable, fixable problem that, once fixed, will mean Americans will now be safe. And when we don’t have better ideas for a fix, the usual Washington response is to reorganize. Such was the popular and political mood in the years right after 9/11. The 9/11 Commission responded to that mood with a reorganization scheme, involving moving around boxes on the intelligence community’s organization chart, that supposedly would improve counterterrorism. The main result was instead just to move boxes on the organization chart. All of this rests on misunderstanding or misrepresentation both of the sources of terrorism and the capabilities of intelligence.
As an intelligence specialist, do you consider that there has been a strategic failure of intelligence management in the United States, especially after 9/11?
Management issues have rarely been the main cause of intelligence failures. Such issues do little to explain either successes or failures of intelligence. It is inevitable to have some such failures no matter how the relevant part of the bureaucracy is organized. That inevitability stems from the nature of the intelligence target and the intelligence task, not from anything having to do with intelligence management.
What is the view of the CIA veteran that you are about the evolution of these services and do not you think that the appointment of Gina Haspel at the head of the CIA is a political error on the part of the administration Trump?
It appears that Ms. Haspel will win confirmation in the Senate. If so, the White House probably will conclude that it did not make any political error at all. As director, Ms. Haspel is unlikely to have a high public profile, and the controversy surrounding her nomination probably will fade quickly. The most unfortunate thing about her confirmation process is how the issue of past interrogation techniques overwhelmed attention to just about everything else. There will be no more torture over the next several years, whether Ms. Haspel becomes director or not, so that’s not what was at stake. The really important issues regarding the conduct of the CIA director during the next couple of years will instead involve the problem of how to run an intelligence service under a president who shows no respect for the truth.
In your view, should not the CIA become an intelligence service like any other and cease to be a state in the state?
The CIA is not a state within a state, or anything close to one. Even in the one area where that agency departs from its focus on the core mission of collection and analyzing intelligence–the area known as covert action–it operates, by law, solely under the direction and supervision of the political authorities and specifically the president.
Your book Why America Misunderstands the world: National Experience and roots of Misperception explains that Americans are struggling to understand the world. Do not you think that all the wars that the US has provoked are only the consequences of this misunderstanding of the world?
They certainly are not provoked only by that, but the misunderstandings are important contributors. Just to cite one example, World War II was such a formative experience that Americans tend to think all wars in which they engage will follow a similar model in having a clear division between good guys and bad guys, and in having a clear ending that involves total victory for the U.S. side. But as we have discovered to our chagrin, many wars in which the United States has become engaged do not have those characteristics.
In your opinion, does the American people have any interest in all the wars their leaders are waging around the world?
American public opinion can operate in different ways at different levels when it comes to foreign wars. Americans like to think of themselves as peace-loving people who will resort to war only for very strong reasons. They also tire of war after conflicts that are long and not terribly successful, such as the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. But they can quickly become agitated and militant about particular adversaries, especially if there are politicians stirring the pot. We have seen some of these conflicting tendencies with Donald Trump and how he plays to the crowd. He won many votes in 2016 by portraying himself as less likely than his opponent to become mired in Middle East wars. But today he is stoking hatred against Iran and stirring up the public in a way that would support a war against Iran.
What is your analysis of the rapprochement between Trump and Kim Jong-un?
We should wish those leaders well and hope that they find some formula that eases tensions on the Korean peninsula. I am pessimistic about any breakthroughs being achieved. The Trump administration has set expectations so high regarding denuclearization that it is hard to see how the Kim regime could meet those expectations. North Korea is not about to give up its nuclear deterrent short of sweeping changes in its political and security environment that probably go well beyond anything that the Trump people are planning or even thinking about.
In your article The Bolton-Pompeo Package, you have criticized John Bolton, the National Security Advisor. Do not you think John Bolton is a very dangerous character?
He is dangerous in terms of his substantive views, in that he has never met a war he didn’t like. He still thinks even the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a good idea, despite the immense costs and instability it engendered. He also is a danger in terms of process–especially important given his current job–in that he tries to brush away or bully away the truth when it does not fit with his preferences.
In your article The terrorism Label, you mentioned Israel’s tradition of terrorist attacks abroad while it is Iran, Cuba, Hamas, etc. that are on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. In your opinion, why can no one say that Israel is a sponsor of terrorism?
The extraordinary and well-known role of Israel in American politics explains this inconsistency, as well as many other double standards in which Israeli policies are not held to account in the same way the policies of other states would be.
Do not you think that the Trump Administration’s decision to transfer the US embassy to Jerusalem is a risky adventure that will further destabilize the Middle East?
Nothing good can come from that move, even it would be hard to distinguish some of the effects from the effects of everything else that contributes to instability in the Middle East. Trump’s decision kills whatever slim remaining hope there otherwise would have been that the United States could operate as a credible mediator in seeking resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
I mentioned the American-Saudi relations with Bruce Riedel, former CIA and president Obama’s security adviser. The heir to the Saudi throne, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, confessed that Saudi Arabia had spread Wahhabism, which is the matrix of terrorism. How do you explain that the United States is the ally of the main genitor of terrorism?
Although U.S.-Saudi cooperation is longstanding and dates back to Franklin Roosevelt and Ibn Saud during World War II, the current relationship is best explained in terms of the Trump administration’s rigid division of the world into friends and foes and how increasingly narrow the circle of friends has become. In the Middle East, the administration’s approach seems to be defined almost totally in terms of hostility to Iran. Saudi Arabia gets the favorable treatment seen now, despite the issue of its export of extremism, because it is a local rival of Iran.
Do you not think that the exit of the Iranian nuclear agreement is a strategic error of the Trump administration?
This is one of the biggest strategic errors Trump has made so far. The agreement was a major advance on behalf of nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. It has successfully done exactly what it was intended to do, which is to close all possible pathways to an Iranian nuclear weapon. If Trump’s move leads, despite the current efforts of the other parties to the agreement, to death of the accord, then that means Iran would be free to ramp up its nuclear activities and we would be back where we were before negotiations began. Even if a version of the agreement without the U.S. survives, Trump’s move has other damaging effects. It has caused severe damage to relations between the United States and Europe, to the point of escalating to economic warfare. It has discredited pragmatists and strengthened hardliners in Iran. It has destroyed U.S. credibility with Iran and killed any prospect for a follow-on agreement, on nuclear matters or anything else, with Tehran. It has increased tensions and the risk of a new war in the Middle East.
Interview realized by Mohsen Abdelmoumen
Who is Paul R. Pillar?
Dr. Paul R. Pillar was a nonresident senior fellow in the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution, and is a nonresident senior fellow of the Center for Security Studies in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a contributing editor at The National Interest.
He retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community, in which his last position was national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia. Earlier he served in a variety of analytical and managerial positions, including as chief of analytic units at the CIA covering portions of the Near East, the Persian Gulf, and South Asia. Dr. Pillar also served in the National Intelligence Council as one of the original members of its Analytic Group. He has been executive assistant to the CIA’s Deputy Director for Intelligence and Executive Assistant to Director of Central Intelligence William Webster. He has also headed the Assessments and Information Group of the DCI Counterterrorist Center, and from 1997 to 1999 was deputy chief of the center. He was a federal executive fellow at the Brookings Institution from 1999 to 2000. Dr. Pillar was a visiting professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University from 2005 to 2012.
Dr. Pillar received an A.B. summa cum laude from Dartmouth College, a B.Phil. from Oxford University, and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Princeton University. He is a retired officer in the U.S. Army Reserve and served on active duty in 1971-1973, including a tour of duty in Vietnam. He is the author of « Negotiating Peace: War Termination as a Bargaining Process » (Princeton University Press, 1983); « Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy » (Brookings Institution Press, 2001; second edition 2003); and « Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy: Iraq, 9/11, and Misguided Reform » (Columbia University Press, 2011).
He writes a blog at nationalinterest.org.
Dr. Pillar’s writing chiefly addresses Middle Eastern and South Asia affairs, U.S. foreign and security policy and the policy-making process, counterterrorism, and intelligence. He is a frequent guest in broadcast discussions on programs such as the PBS NewsHour, The Diane Rehm Show, and To The Point. He also has given testimony as an expert witness in congressional hearings, including those of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Armed Services Committee. He currently is working on a book on the historical, cultural, and political roots of American perceptions of the world abroad.
Published in American Herald Tribune, May 27, 2018: https://ahtribune.com/us/israelgate/2278-paul-r-pillar.html
In French in Palestine Solidarité: http://www.palestine-solidarite.org/analyses.mohsen_abdelmoumen.280518.htm