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Unending Misperception

Former CIA analyst Paul Pillar ’69 examines Americans’ longstanding “uncorrected ignorance” regarding their nation’s role in the world.
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“I have to keep reminding myself that I am retired,” Paul Pillar says one Tuesday morning in June, speaking by phone from his house in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. He’s a 20-minute drive from the CIA, where he worked for 28 years and rose to become the top Middle East and South Asia analyst. These days he hits “the semi-retirement circuit” to give talks and writes two or three columns a week for the website The National Interest, a home for realist foreign policy thinkers. His latest, a contrarian broadside published in the aftermath of the Orlando, Florida, nightclub shooting, took to task those who jumped to conclusions about terrorists’ motivations before waiting for the facts to be known.

At the CIA, of course, Pillar had access to facts the public did not. Yet he doesn’t miss classified information, which he claims is overrated. Most of what’s worth knowing, he says, is in the public domain. “And I certainly don’t miss the constraints of having to speak and write with the specter of being extra careful of not spilling any beans,” he adds. 

No one would mistake his new book, Why America Misunderstands the World: National Experience and Roots of Misperception, for the pablum of a gagged bureaucrat. It is an unsparing look at the false and ruinous assumptions U.S. policymakers make about foreign countries. Ordinary Americans don’t escape Pillar’s ire either. In his telling, they are “myopic” and “prone to mental laziness.” As he admits in the conclusion, “This book could not have been written by anyone who aspires to public office.”

Drawing on history, political science and psychology, Pillar argues that a number of factors have conspired to distort Americans’ perceptions of all things foreign. For one thing, the United States lives in a relatively empty neighborhood, with oceans to the left and right and weaker countries above and below. Geographic isolation meant that the country came of age without much interaction with foreign countries—a far more sheltered upbringing than that of, say, Germany. 

As a result, Americans tend to look inward. Less than 8 percent of U.S. undergraduates study a foreign language. In one poll, high school graduates aged 18 to 24 were more than twice as likely to identify Mark Zuckerberg as the founder of Facebook than name the prime minister of the United Kingdom. In a survey of that same age group taken in 2006, six out of 10 respondents could not find Iraq on a map, even as some 140,000 U.S. troops were fighting there.

Pillar identifies another cause of the United States’ tendency to misperceive: its very success as a nation. Since its initial revolution, the country has experienced remarkably little domestic upheaval. With the notable exception of the Civil War, it has avoided the types of crises—coups, counter-revolutions and so on—that have convulsed other powers. With a track record like this, no wonder a 2010 Gallup poll found that 80 percent of Americans agree that the United States is “the greatest country in the world.” Americans are exceptional in their exceptionalism.

A classic symptom of narcissism is the inability to empathize, and according to Pillar, Washington policymakers have proved particularly inept at putting themselves in the shoes of those on the receiving end of American power. He draws a straight line, for instance, between Americans’ faith in their society’s success as a melting pot for immigrants and the Bush administration’s belief that toppling Saddam Hussein wouldn’t uncap bloody sectarian rivalries.

Pillar doesn’t hide his contempt for the officials responsible for America’s misadventure in Iraq. While in government, he witnessed firsthand how they distorted the intelligence community’s findings about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program and ignored its warnings about postwar chaos. Pillar oversaw the preparation of twin reports on the domestic and regional consequences of a post-Saddam Iraq that were circulated two months before the invasion. The documents, which the White House and the Pentagon ignored, envisioned Sunni-Shiite strife, Iranian meddling and terrorism—all of which have come to pass.

As a realist and skeptic of military intervention, Pillar has far more sympathy for the Obama administration, which wound down the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and largely stayed out of Syria. But still, the president lingered in Afghanistan, launched a regime change in Libya and has overseen a bombing campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Pillar points to political pressures to explain the president’s martial streak. “If U.S. foreign policy had been totally up to Barack Obama’s own private decision-making,” he says, “we would have seen an even less interventionist policy.”

One gets the sense that Pillar would prefer a third Obama term over either a Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump administration. He worries that if the more hawkish Clinton is elected, the United States will get drawn further into the Syria crisis. Trump, at first glance, appears to share many of Pillar’s positions. In April Pillar attended the major foreign policy speech the candidate gave in Washington, D.C., at the think tank that publishes The National Interest. Trump claimed he was “totally against” the Iraq war, said that U.S. allies “are not paying their fair share” for defense and railed against the “failed intervention” in Libya. Pillar was not impressed. “There is so much inconsistency, and one sentence fragment is followed by another one that goes in a different direction,” he says. Other audience members clapped. Pillar held his applause.            

Stuart A. Reid is an editor at Foreign Affairs.                             

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