The Facts of the Matter

Revisiting the run-up to the Iraq War is not just settling scores. Paul Pillar reflects on mistakes made and what they say about current U.S. policy and policymaking.

As Paul R. Pillar, U.S. national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005 and author of "The Right Stuff", told a crowd at an event hosted by The National Interest and Georgetown's Center for Peace and Security Studies on September 19, revisiting the lead-up to the Iraq War is not merely a raking over of old coals. This isn't a case of 20/20 hindsight-we knew that war in Iraq would be a disaster. Two U.S. intelligence reports foresaw a post-invasion Iraq in turmoil: A deeply divided country that would prove difficult to democratize, have few economic options despite oil wealth, need major humanitarian assistance and boost terrorism. There are important lessons to be learned from the interaction of policy and intelligence in the months prior to U.S. entry into Iraq.

What was remarkable about the decision to go to war in Iraq, and what separates it from comparable major foreign-policy choices such as American involvement in Vietnam, was the dearth of discussion about the ramifications and regional consequences that would accompany such an invasion. "Nowhere . . . was there any one meeting, any one policy paper or any one discussion . . . about whether it was a good idea to go to war in Iraq" Pillar said, continuing, "Not only was it a bad [policy] process, there wasn't a process at all." In contrast, Secretary of Defense McNamara "peppered" the intelligence community with requests for information about Vietnam. As Pillar outlines in his article, the Bush Administration never requested assessments on Iraq leading up to the war. The most talked-about report, the Iraqi weapons estimate, was requested by Senate Intelligence Committee Democrats. Two additional reports, "Principle Challenges in Post-Saddam Iraq" and "Regional Consequences of Regime Change in Iraq", were initiated and overseen by Pillar himself. Both concluded, said Pillar, that "the war was not a good idea." And the details of the reports have proven surprisingly accurate, given that, as Pillar quipped, the CIA doesn't make it a policy to actively "recruit seers and fortune tellers."

In retrospect, Pillar wishes that he had called for the reports earlier. A good time to begin, he stated, would have been immediately following President Bush's Axis of Evil speech. Even with an earlier release date, though, their impact on policy would likely not have been markedly greater. In the current administration, Pillar believes that the relationship between policymakers and the intelligence community has been poisoned beyond repair. The intelligence community can only wait this one out and hope that they can start off on a better foot with the new administration.

But these documents, like all input that did not support the Bush Administration's Iraq policy line or sales pitch, were summarily rejected or blatantly ignored. The course of U.S. policy had been set before the repercussions of an invasion were ever assessed.

As Pillar noted, there are three main lessons to be learned from the mistakes made in the lead-up to the Iraq War. First, because of deeply rooted political, ethnic and historical factors in Iraq, even well-executed actions would inevitably have failed and should have never taken place. It can be argued, then, that policies supporting a more rapid extraction than is currently planned are preferable. Second, there is a fundamental problem with the "pathology" of U.S. foreign-policy decision-making. Reproachfully, there was no debate in the executive branch about going to war, and the nation neglected to force debate about war's consequences. Third, the fact this information was kept out of public discourse for over four years provides a warning about the "politicization" of the "evaluation of the intelligence community's performance." Of course, they were standing in stark opposition to the administration's predetermined course of action.

Pillar suggested that to avoid a repeat performance of the follies of Iraq, partisanship and politicization should be removed from intelligence-gathering and the decision-making process. The creation of a non-partisan congressional watchdog, as Pillar said, charged with monitoring use of intelligence, could help fight the partisanship problem.

Referencing General Petraeus's recent hearings, Pillar noted that oftentimes, members of the intelligence community or the military find themselves trying to strike a balance between their own integrity and a policy with which they do not agree-The intelligence community is responsible for responding to policymakers, not making policy. In fact, to make sure they stay within their bounds, members of the intelligence community must disguise self-initiated analysis (that originating within the community) as requested work. Even now, when reading the carefully chosen language of recent intelligence reports, Pillar feels the pain of his colleagues.

When asked about current U.S. foreign policy, Pillar's warnings were ominous. With regards to Iran, for example, Pillar said, there are "too many disturbing signs" reminiscent of the lack of a policy process leading up to entry into Iraq. In Pillar's estimation, taking military action against Iran would be "utter folly", an "unmitigated disaster." If military action was taken, terrorism against the United States would inevitably increase, fueled by U.S. actions that would kill even more Muslims. Unrest within Iran would spill into neighboring countries and would make democracy-building in Iraq even more difficult. The nuclear threat Iran poses would not be eliminated, and the government there would have more support for its ideologies and weapons-development efforts.