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War and Decision: A word from Douglas Feith

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Douglas Feith served as the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy from July 2001 until August 2005. His government service extends back to work at the NSC and the Pentagon during the Reagan administration. His work at the Pentagon during the Reagan administration earned him the Defense Department’s Distinguished Public Service medal, the department’s highest civilian award.

Mr. Feith has now written War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terrorism. This memoir is an important book, providing the first account of decision making from inside the Pentagon during the war and countering many of the myths promulgated about the events covered.

The Washington Post has run two hatchet jobs on the book. Thomas Ricks and Karen DeYoung looked through the book for newsworthy items they were able to find in the few hours they had to glance through a leaked copy of the not-fully-edited typescript and interview Feith and Paul Bremer. A cynic might accuse them of “cherry-picking” the book to suit an agenda. The Ricks/DeYoung article elicited a brief response from the book’s publisher.

Dana Milbank attended the CSIS discussion of the book last Thursday. It’s clear from his article that Milbank hasn’t cracked the book open. That will have to do for readers of the Post, which has advised Mr. Feith that no review of the book is forthcoming in their pages because Ricks and DeYoung have already written about it.

We invited Mr. Feith to preview the book in his own words for our readers. He has graciously responded:

I’ve been doing many interviews about my book in recent days – and I’ve heard from many journalists and others that the book surprises them. It tells a story that contradicts key parts of almost all the major books about the Iraq war.

For example, it refutes the notion that President Bush came into office determined to go to war no matter what – that the administration refused or failed to consider the arguments against war. In fact, as my book reveals, the most serious analysis of the downsides and risks of war was produced in the Pentagon by Rumsfeld and his top advisers – not by Colin Powell, Rich Armitage, George Tenet or other officials who are reputed to have been the voices of caution.

My book contradicts the common allegation that Pentagon civilians did not plan for post-Saddam Iraq. It explains what is wrong with the charge that the State Department had a plan that Defense officials discarded. It explains what is wrong with the charge that Rumsfeld and his advisers were dupes of the Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi – and what is wrong with the assertion that we intended to “anoint Chalabi” as the leader of Iraq.

My book quotes extensively from previously classified documents – from numerous memos that were exchanged among Rumsfeld, Powell, Rice, Tenet, General Myers, VP Cheney and the President. It recounts numerous meetings – and it does so, not on the basis of after-the-fact interviews in which officials remember (or pretend to remember) years after the fact what occurred in those meetings, but on the basis of the notes I took while attending the meetings. In writing the book, I made the radical decision that words would be put in quotation marks only if they were actually spoken by the characters in my history at the very time and place described.

Among the main topics covered in the book are:

· The development of the strategy for the war on terrorism in the hours and days after 9/11 – a strategy that broke with US counter-terrorism policies of the previous decades – a strategy that aimed not simply to punish the perpetrators of 9/11, but (much more ambitiously) to prevent follow-on 9/11-scale attacks.

· For all the errors the administration has made and the terrible problems we have encountered in recent years, especially in Iraq, it is a notable achievement that we are six and half years past 9/11 and the United States has not been hit again as we were hit then. This owes something, I believe, to our strategy.

Another major topic covered in the book is the rationale for the Iraq war. I explain what the President and his top officials were concerned about – why Iraq was a problem made more urgent and more worrisome by 9/11 even though we did not believe that Saddam was responsible for the 9/11 attack itself.

The book reviews the issue of politicization of intelligence – and the accusations of manipulation of intelligence. It explains the actual controversy between my office and the CIA over the intelligence on the Iraq-al Qaida relationship. The actual controversy was not a clash in which Defense officials argued that there was an intimate Iraq-al Qaida relationship while CIA officials argued for a more sober assessment. Rather it was an argument about methodology and professionalism. It was about the criticism by Defense officials of the CIA’s politicization of its own intelligence.

And perhaps most newsworthy, the book explains for the first time anywhere the key postwar plan developed by the administration – the plan for political transition in post-Saddam Iraq. It was a plan developed in the Defense Department – and it aimed to prevent a prolonged US occupation of Iraq. It was a plan to put Iraqis in charge of their own government promptly after Saddam’s overthrow. It was a plan that built on our experience in Afghanistan, where the US overthrew the Taliban regime but did not establish a US occupation government. As I say in the book, it was a plan “which my office drafted, Powell and Armitage tried to delay, President Bush approved, Jay Garner began to implement, and L. Paul Bremer buried.”

Much of the latter part of the book deals with how this plan was undone and the harmful consequences that resulted.

While the book recounts controversies and debates, it does so in a way that I think is far more fascinating than the snide and shallow self-justification that is typical in memoirs of former officials. I refer in the book to the “I was surrounded by idiots school of memoir-writing.” I don’t like that school. I find it boring and bad history. While I was in the administration, I had many disagreements with other officials, but I generally thought that their arguments had important merits. When I disagreed, it was usually because I thought that an alternative strategy or policy had even more merit.

Throughout, I have tried to be critical of all the work I discuss in the book – that of other agencies, that of the Defense Department and that of my own office and myself. Washington Post reporters apparently assume that former officials’ memoirs are inevitably finger-pointing, blame-laying books. Some have asserted this about my book, but they did so without actually having read it. If they eventually do read it, they will find that they were wrong.

I’ve been pleased that writers who did read the book have written favorably about it – for example: Bret Stephens in the Wall Street Journal, Lawrence Di Rita at NRO, and Frank Gaffney in the Washington Times.

I tried to make my book a useful, accurate account – as accurate as one man’s account can be. I care about accuracy. That is why I relied so heavily on the contemporaneous written record. That is why I provided footnotes and endnotes so extensively. The book is 530 pages long, with around 140 pages of notes and reproduced documents. And I want readers to pay attention to the notes – to read them. I’d be happy if they challenge me on my use and interpretation of the documents. I have created a website – War and Decision – where anyone can go and easily pull up the unclassified documents and articles and other material that I cite.

I was very pleased the other day when Professor Dan Byman joked at a talk I gave at Georgetown University that my website will strike fear in the hearts of professors across America. The idea of someone making it easy for people to check one’s footnotes – a terrifying idea, he said, but he complimented it as the essence of scholarship.

I want to invite all of you to read my book and visit War and Decision to plunge into the actual record of the fateful decision of the Bush administration at the dawn of the war on terrorism.

It should be noted that in addition to the book’s contribution to history, the book is responsible for another contribution. Mr. Feith is donating all the proceeds from the book to charities that help veterans and their families.

UPDATE: Our friend Hugh Hewitt comments here.

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