When the political venom and hyperbole fade, those interested in understanding the decisions and debates behind the critical first years of the war to remove Saddam Hussein from power will have to put Douglas Feith's book on their must-read list. He was, of course, the much maligned and caricatured deputy under secretary for defense under Donald Rumsfeld, and as such central to the Pentagon's efforts and the interagency debates that shaped the war.
Mischaracterizations of Feith's intelligence and book have been echoed by shallow pundits like Dana Milbank who clearly have no first-hand knowledge of the war-making process. In fact, Feith has decades of government foreign policy experience and is a thoughtful and reliable guide to the many debates that took place inside the administration. His own views on these matters are expressed clearly, as are the facts and judgments that led him to take those positions. Unlike so many books that have emerged about the war, Feith lays out the different positions in those debates and respects his readers enough to allow them to sort through the evidence and arrive at their own judgments. One wishes, in vain, that other writers had demonstrated the same even-handedness in providing context and counter-arguments.
So many of the other books to emerge about the Iraq War to date focus on the difficulties that American forces faced because of the brutal insurgency that took hold after Saddam was disposed. The tenor of those books is reflected in their titles: Fiasco, Imperial Life in the Emerald City, and The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End. The none too subtle subtext of books like these is that the decisions made by the Bush Administration were both wrong and thus obviously avoidable. The explanations for these "facts" in the view of critics is that they are the obvious result of ignorance, arrogance, incompetence, and an increasingly irrational investment in rigid neoconservative ideology at the expense of selecting sound options which to the critics, writing in retrospect, were obvious.
The establishment of these caricatures as conventional wisdom was aided by several years of high American causalities, inter- and also intra-group violence in Iraq, a lethal insurgency aided by Iran and a steady stream of jihadists from other countries, the lack of an effective counter-insurgency doctrine, and the failure of the Bush Administration until 2006 to find the right mix of troops, doctrine, and high-level leadership. Critics of the president—some motivated by sincere policy differences, many more wearing their Bush hatred on their sleeves—were aided by genuine mistakes of the administration in executing the war, though these were not necessarily the ones the critics have focused upon. The president's counter-narrative was severely damaged, with the result that the realities of the many important debates that took place within the administration and a real appreciation of the missed opportunities regarding the Iraq War will only become clear in historical hindsight—if then.
What is provocative about Feith's thesis is not that the "administration made serious errors," but rather the nature of those errors. At the heart of Feith's analysis are two: the failure to allow Iraqis some measure of power after Saddam was removed in order to forestall the view that the United States was an occupying power, and Bush's decision after no stockpiles of WMDs were found to reframe the justification of the war by focusing on the future benefits of Iraqi democracy rather than Saddam's dangerousness.
He has a great deal to say about his boss Donald Rumsfeld, describing the arguments Rumsfeld put forward to President Bush and others at the principles meetings, and the memos that supported them. Not all of Feith's description is laudatory, but Rumsfeld emerges as a serious dedicated public servant who asked tough and necessary questions of his own Defense Department as well as other agencies.
If a counter-narrative of the Iraq War emerges with any clarity and force, it will depend in substantial part on the kind of evidence that Feith copiously documents and allows us to assess for ourselves. But Feith's book is self-centric. He writes of primarily about his own experiences with the war's planning and implementation. They were considerable, but he was only one player, though a central one, in a vast panorama of forces, personalities, and events. Yet Feith's work is serious; this is not another example of that well-known Washington genre of settling scores.
Understandably for someone who has been at the sharp end of so much leaked misinformation, Feith wants to set the record straight. His wish is our gain. He lays out in convincing detail the many times that news accounts and commentaries mangled, distorted, mischaracterized, misrepresented, and misunderstood the events they reported.
Some of this had to do with the difficulties of covering a complex, fluid war situation that took time, even for the administration running the war, to comprehend. A larger part of the problem, however, had to do with reporters' post-Vietnam/Watergate stance toward authority, compounded by a dislike of and opposition to the Bush Administration and its policies, and a lemming psychology that embraced the incompetence/arrogance narrative.
From the very earliest cries of quagmire three days into the invasion (R.W. Apple writing in the New York Times) to the failure to report, much less analyze, the critical nature of the debates on establishing an Interim Iraqi Authority and its implications for how the U.S. forces would be viewed by Iraqis, to the breathless "revelations" of the Senate Intelligence Committee—which on actual reading generally substantiated all of the pre-war claims made by the administration about Saddam's regime—the reporting of the war was often egregiously wrong. While many reporters and commentators (often these lines blurred) prided themselves on their tough, "writing truth about power" stances, they utterly failed, with a few exceptions (like John Burns of the New York Times), in their role of public education.
Their failure was aided and exacerbated by the avid reporting of anonymous leaks that were often wrong, unrepresentative of the large debates they purported to reflect, meant to carry on debates that had already been settled, advance the anonymous source's own policy position in ongoing debates, or settle various scores with persons they disagreed with or disliked. A number of reporters and commentators did not have the honesty or integrity to alert their readers that these elements applied to almost every leak they reported.
So yes, Feith is at pains to set the record straight, and information is his tool. He doesn't characterize, he reports, and the result is often devastating. Consider the respective pictures that emerge of Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld, for all the criticism heaped upon him, emerges as not only a big picture thinker after 9/11, but also one who quickly recalibrated his thinking to take in the enormity of the national security implications of the attacks. In the days immediately following the attacks, he warned against prematurely striking back rather than developing a sequential number of military and other strategic moves to reduce future risks. He anticipated the war would be a "marathon, not sprint." He argued that the legitimacy of American efforts should not be judged by how many counties supported us, that the coalitions being fashioned would not be fixed but flexible and changing, that counties might support some but not all of our efforts, and that splitting off al-Qaeda from Muslims more generally was essential. These were far-thinking insights, and although they seem commonsensical now, keep in mind that they were written within days of the attacks and are still not accepted by many administration critics.
Rumsfeld's ideas framed many of the 9/11 debates. Many were modified and some were discarded as the administration developed and implemented an overall plan. But the memos that Feith quotes extensively from show a smart and highly experienced national security thinker applying his considerable judgment to a novel set of circumstances. It was Rumsfeld that wrote a memo that outlined in specific detail the possible advantages and pitfalls of invading Iraq. Why his warnings, which proved to be prescient, weren't built into the developing war plans is an important question, but one that Feith does not address.
Powell, on the other hand, emerges from Feith's descriptions of the debates as someone rooted in the practical here and now, dealing with circumstances as they are (rather than how you want to shape them to become); in short, the consummate "realist." He eschewed debating "abstractions" like Rumsfeld's strategic framing of the multiple issues involved in responding to the attacks, and was more at home conducting the various negotiations that needed to take place. Feith writes that "from Powell on down, State Department officials generally choose not to challenge strategic or conceptual arguments from Defense, and especially not in writing."
One consequence of this difference was that while Powell and Rumsfeld clearly came to differ on important aspects of the Iraq War in particular and the war on terror in general, these arguments were not fully engaged at the principles meetings or of the deputy meetings. This was regrettable because it deprived our leaders of robust debate. Instead, differences were fought out at the bureaucratic level, much to the detriment of critical decisions like whether to give the Iraqis real power and a visible presence in the post-Saddam government.
It is ironic, given the picture of Powell that emerges in Feith's description of the interagency debates that took place over the course of the war, that he was given so much credit for applying the Pottery Barn metaphor to Iraq. "If you break it, you own it" is widely seen as prescient wisdom. The president had been warned, critics chorused. Of course, it was not the administration that "broke" Iraq, but Saddam's thirty years of brutal rule.
More telling, and sobering, is Feith's observation that Rumsfeld added many new programs and decision centers to deal with what he saw as the new circumstances of the post- 9/11 world. The State Department remained relatively unchanged institutionally. Rumsfeld, not Powell, championed the "public diplomacy" aspect of the war, and that important mission, a natural domain of the State Department, still languishes.
Less obvious, but no less critical, was the dismal record of CIA analyses concerning the war. No, Feith does not criticize errors regarding pre-war assessments of Saddam's WMD programs. They were understandable given the dearth of "assets" at the highest level of the regime that could have corrected our understanding—and those of the intelligence services of every single American ally.
Nor does Feith criticize the CIA for being proven wrong in several of its positions and recommendations, for example in choosing alliances and targets in Afghanistan. The CIA was against supporting the so-called "Northern Alliance" which, with U.S. aid, became the vehicle of the Taliban's downfall. Like the decision to move quickly into Iraq with fewer forces to increase the advantages of surprise rather than await the build-up of larger forces, these were debates on which knowledgeable people could and did disagree.
The CIA also overemphasized the split between "internals" (those who stayed in Iraq) and "externals" (those who left and opposed the regime from abroad) and favored the former at the expense of the latter, arguing that the latter could not gain political legitimacy (which they did). They predicted that both the army and the police would remain intact after the invasion and thus be available for providing security. And they erroneously insisted that the secular Baathists would not join forces with the jihadist religious extremists (an assumption that also framed their view of Saddam's tactical support of the aims of al-Qaeda).
But the CIA's more troubling and unnecessary errors concerned continuing to debate in public what had already been decided in interagency meetings, crossing the line between presenting analysis and suggesting policy, and reacting defensively to the view that the bases of their analyses should be open to strong challenge and debate.
Feith also reports the CIA's truly egregious and avoidable errors. It insisted that the Iraqi police force—a brutal, corrupt, and widely despised institution among Iraqis of all tribal persuasions—would be an important stabilizing force in Iraq post-invasion. Nor did it report just how damaged Iraq's economic and physical infrastructure had become during Saddam's rule, and thus what would be involved in restoring it. Avoiding these errors did not require the CIA to have informants in Saddam's inner circle. We needed only "person in the street" level information to know just how hated the police were and to see the hand-to-mouth existence of the Iraqis.
It is unlikely that any amount of accurate information will drive a stake through the heart of critics' central meme that Bush "manipulated" the country into embarking upon an unnecessary war based on "false pretenses." No amount of authoritative reports from independent commissions both in the United States and abroad will change the minds of those impervious to facts for the simple reason that they are not interested in them. Theirs is the hyper-partisan political goal of discrediting the war, the administration, and the use of force in almost any circumstances, necessary though it might be.
In this, they have been more successful than they had any factual right to be. As Feith makes clear, the 9/11 attacks brought the risks of catastrophic terrorism into plain view for the administration. The war was not premised on WMDs, oil, or democracy. Rather, it was premised on the administration's view that Saddam was dangerous, reckless, and that the United States could not count on successfully deterring him. It was, the administration thought, simply too great of a national security risk to leave him in power. Ironically, as Feith remorselessly documents, this was the view pre-9/11 of almost every major Democrat, most of whom voted to authorize Bush's power to remove Saddam.
That is why one of the major errors that Feith focuses on was changing the war's rationale after no active WMD program or weapons stockpiles were found from Saddam's dangerousness to the attractions of a democratic Iraq. Feith documents this change by carefully analyzing Bush's speeches before and after the WMD flaw in intelligence estimates became clear, and the evidence validates his conclusion.
This was a critical error for many reasons. The new formula, as Feith notes, "failed to connect the Iraqi War directly to American interests." Americans might have been willing to make enormous sacrifices for serious national security concerns, but using war as an instrument for democracy-building was not among them. The list of potential candidates was too long, the prospects too daunting and uncertain, and most importantly, it ran against the grain of American national identity. Americans might, in Woodrow Wilson's words, wish "to make the world safe for democracy," but not if that required invading every country that didn't hold free and fair elections.
That switch was damaging in other ways as well. In switching to a democracy rationale the president threw into question his original, very powerful, easy to understand, and correct framing of the dangers. It opened him up to the charge that he was rationale shopping, which in turn undercut the original premise for going to war. Feith goes so far as to argue that "Yielding to the temptation to spice up the government's case with intelligence data was a disastrous move." The problem here was not as critics have repeatedly charged—regardless of overwhelming evidence to the contrary—that the administration manipulated intelligence. Rather, it was a mistake according to Feith, "because one did not need secret information to understand or explain the threat from Saddam." The history and the evidence of Saddam's dangerous psychology and behavior were all in plain sight.
Though he provides no explanation of why this shift occurred or the reasoning behind it, clearly the ultimate responsibility for this shift must lie with Bush. It is to Feith's credit as a scholar that he is able to critique the president he worked for, uncover an important factor in the war's unfolding, and go beyond the usual catalogue of errors assigned by critics.
For Feith, the second of the two signal errors of the Bush Administration was the failure to establish an Iraqi governing authority that had some real power. This is a complex tale, but one that future historians of the war will have to address. Feith's view is that the decision to make the United States an occupying power had many severe costs and encouraged an insurgency that could then draw on Iraqi nationalism. Rumsfeld had worried that a failure of the Iraqis to successfully step up to the plate might adversely affect their legitimacy. Feith's solution was to give them some power in non-critical areas and make them partners in those that were.
According to Feith, the granting of any power to the Iraqi Interim Authority was strongly opposed by the State Department, particularly by Colin Powell and his deputy Richard Armitage. It was supported by that supposed instrument of American empire, the Pentagon. President Bush decided in favor of giving the Iraqis power and against the idea of a long occupation, but Paul Bremmer, who held the view that the Iraqis were incapable of governing, apparently undid that decision. How the president's decision was delayed and thus effectively modified remains somewhat murky, but Feith argues that the resulting damage was clear enough. Here was a prime illustration of how policy differences were fought out at the implementation stage rather than at the decision stage, to the detriment American war aims and national interest.
Feith's book makes sober reading. There is a poignancy in coming to better understand how the reasonable and essentially correct strategic decision in the wake of 9/11 to remove a murderous tyrant with a demonstrated history of risk-taking and poor judgment turned into political debacle it became. Some of what happened was, of course, unavoidable.
Every war involves tens of thousands judgments and decisions, not all of which prove correct. Every war has its snafus and blunders, and every war involves clashes of views regarding the best course of action. In all these matters, Iraq is no different.
It is to Bush's credit that he refused to accept defeat and its consequences in Iraq and sought out and finally found the elements of a possible success. In some sense, the president's historical legacy is a hostage to the courage and wisdom of his successor. Yet, in the world of fact, rather than perception, Bush deserves enormous credit for recognizing the dangers that faced the United States after 9/11, formulating a doctrine to respond to them, and implementing the national security architecture on which we now depend on for our security and way of life.
As Feith's book makes clear, these are no small accomplishments. The issues that the Bush Administration grappled with were truly momentous. We are indebted to Feith for bringing those debates into clearer view in an intelligent, thoughtful, and straightforward way. His book will obviously not be the last word on these debates, but it will be required reading for any fair-minded assessment of this difficult war.