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Has the Libya Mission Hurt America? Q&A With CIA Veteran Paul Pillar

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Paul Pillar
Paul Pillar
Chip Somodevilla/Getty

We stopped Qaddafi in his tracks, safeguarding the insurgents in Eastern Libya from bloody retribution. The immediate effect the decision to intervene militarily in Libya is now clear. But what's been the cost to American security and to our broader strategic objectives?

To hash out these thorny questions, Rolling Stone turned to Paul Pillar, a 28-year veteran of the CIA and former National Intelligence Officer for the Middle East, now at Georgetown University's Center for Peace and Security Studies.

Rolling Stone: Libya used to be a success story in the War on Terror. American diplomacy convinced Qaddafi to abandon his WMD programs, renounce terrorism, and reengage with the West. Today, we're bombing the regime and seeking to oust the dictator. How does that about-face impact our ability to change the behavior of regimes like North Korea and Iran?

Paul Pillar: It’s been very damaging. With regard to both nucelar weapons and terrorism, we have basically bankrupted our diplomacy by doing this. After having reached deals with Qaddafi, we're taking advantage of the first opportunity to overthrow his regime. The lesson is quite clear. The North Korean foreign ministry has said explicitly that Qaddafi made a big mistake by making a deal with the West and that we in North Korea are not going to make that mistake. The Iranians are no doubt drawing the same conclusion.

RS: Is war with these regimes more likely today because of what we've done in Libya?

PP: It makes negotiated agreements less likely; by default, other denoument for these particular conflicts become more likely.

RS: What about the humanitarian imperative here? Weren't we obliged to intervene?

PP: The question is: What is the effect on the sum total of human suffering — whether it’s terrorist attacks or additional warfare or civilian casualties? It’s not just: We’re saving these lives in Benghazi right now by doing this. It’s: What other effects on human life — jeopardizing human life — come into play?

RS: Pentagon chief Robert Gates said intervening in Libya was not strongly in our national interest. Is the opposite true? Has targeting Qaddafi actually made America less safe?

PP: All bets are off, and all gloves are off, as far as Qaddafi's concerned now. Even if he’s in charge of just a rump of a Libyan state in the west, we can assume that he’ll search for ways to try to strike back. We’re vulnerable to a replay of what he’s done in the past. Remember that the PanAm 103 bombing was primarily a strike back for our airstrikes against him in 1986. We are opening ourselves up to that kind of response.

RS: Qaddafi never fully dismantled his WMD program. He still has stockpiles of mustard agent, for example. Is that a big concern? 

PP: He doesn’t need World War I-era chemicals. There are lots of other ways to kill people without getting into exotic or unusual materials. And he's still has the resources to find ways do it: an attack against civilian aviation or just a conventional bombing on the ground.

RS: What did you make of Obama's speech justifying intervention?

PP: The line I winced hardest [at] was when Obama said that our military intervention is designed just to protect civilians. That’s blatantly, clearly not true. We went well beyond that — and in a way that gives the Libyan government propaganda material. We’ve been deservedly charged with being dishonest about this.

RS: What's the best case scenario going forward, both in Libya and in the region more broadly?

PP: The best hope right now for Libya is not those people in their pickups in the east suddenly becoming an effective army. That’s not going to happen anytime soon. But if there are enough more senior-level defections closer to the security core of the regime, maybe it will crumble from within. These most recent defections give us some hope in that regard.

The part that’s dicier is whether the people we’re helping in Libya are going to have much of a chance of setting up something remotely resembling a democracy, and also to what extent our use of force and the inevitable collateral damage and civilian casualties excites anti-American extremism. How this all nets out with regards to terrorism is very difficult to calculate.


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