Debunking the received wisdom about Iraq war policy-making

Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal has reviewed Douglas Feith’s indispensable book War and Decision. His review is such a strong summary of the book that I assumed it was too long to post on Power Line. But when I looked at the review again, I realized Stephens got it done in 12 paragraphs. Accordingly, here is the full review:

In October 2002, a memorandum outlining the worst-case scenarios for postwar Iraq was circulated among the top members of the Bush administration. Among its 30 or so warnings were the following:

• “US could fail to find WMD on the ground.”
• “Post-Saddam stabilization and reconstruction efforts by the United States could take not two to four years, but eight to ten years.”
• “The United States could become so absorbed in its Iraq effort that we pay inadequate attention to other serious problems — including other proliferation and terrorism problems.”
• “Syria and Iran could help our enemies in Iraq. . . . Iraq could experience ethnic strife among Kurds, Sunnis, and Shia.”
The provenance of this remarkable memo? If you guessed the State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency or anyone else who today might claim to have been unhappy with the administration’s drift toward war, you guessed wrong. Rather, the memo was the handiwork of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who drafted it with the assistance of his key military and civilian advisers. One of them, former Undersecretary for Policy Douglas J. Feith, has now given us “War and Decision,” the best account to date of how the administration debated, decided, organized and executed its military responses to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Much of what makes “War and Decision” so compelling is that it is, in effect, a revisionist history, never mind that Mr. Feith was at or near the center of the decade’s most important foreign-policy decisions. So far, most of the books written on the subject — from Bob Woodward’s “State of Denial” to Tom Ricks’s “Fiasco” — have painted a picture of an incompetent and paranoid administration fixated on all the wrong enemies for all the wrong reasons. These books, in turn, have sometimes relied heavily on a series of self-serving leaks, distortions and outright fabrications, many of them emanating from the administration’s internal opponents, particularly at the State Department and the CIA.

Mr. Feith’s book does not lack for criticism of how the administration handled itself or even, at times, of how he handled himself. But as the memo cited above illustrates, most of the received wisdom about the dynamics of the first Bush term — pitting “warmongering neocons” and democracy fantasists such as Mr. Feith against more sober-minded realists such as then-Secretary of State Colin Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage — is bunk, and demonstrably so.

Consider the notion that Mr. Rumsfeld was the author of the administration’s policies on terrorist detainees. On the contrary, writes Mr. Feith, the secretary warned against turning the U.S. military into “the world’s jailer,” deliberately limited the holding capacity of prison facilities at Guantanamo, defended the application of the Geneva Convention for Taliban detainees and argued that the U.S. “should not be holding anyone we did not absolutely need to hold.”

Or take the idea that administration neocons dismissed the work of the “Future of Iraq” project and the advice it allegedly offered for rebuilding Iraq. In fact, the head of that project, exiled Iraqi scholar Kanan Makiya, was himself something of a neocon favorite, and the project consisted mainly of conceptual discussions of everything from democratization to judicial reform — everything, that is, except a meaningful blueprint for what to do on the proverbial Day After. By contrast, Mr. Feith and his staff did devise a plan for transitioning to a new Iraqi-led government, but the plan was swiftly set aside by U.S. proconsul L. Paul Bremer.

Equally bogus is the idea that the neocons pushed the case for war as part of a utopian scheme to “impose democracy.” In fact, a White House memo from October 2002 shows that democracy ranked last on an eight-point list of U.S. goals for Iraq, and even there the modest objective was to “[encourage] the building of democratic institutions.” By contrast, the primary goals were, first, an Iraq that “does not threaten its neighbors” and, second, one that “renounces support for, and sponsorship of, international terrorism.” The WMD issue ranked fourth.

Finally, there is the myth that administration officials such as Vice President Dick Cheney and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz cherry-picked and “politicized” intelligence to build their case for war — a myth that persists despite two bipartisan commissions concluding that nothing of the sort happened.

What is true is that intelligence was often politicized internally, mainly by CIA bureaucrats with their own policy axes to grind. One such policy ax, widely shared at the State Department, was that exiled Iraqi leaders (known as “externals”) had no credibility with the “internals” — Iraqis on the inside. This notion, which seems to have been motivated mainly by an institutional loathing of exiled Iraqi leader Ahmed Chalabi, was finally debunked when Iraqis elected a government that consisted mainly of so-called externals, including Mr. Chalabi.

Before then, however, the mostly phony external/internal dichotomy persuaded the State Department to drag its heels on organizing Saddam’s external opponents into a coherent political force that could quickly assume responsibility for Iraq once it was liberated. It also persuaded Mr. Armitage that a U.S. occupation lasting several years would be necessary to cultivate suitable “internal” leaders with the right democratic credentials. Mr. Feith, by contrast, thinks that “maintaining an occupation government for over a year” was the administration’s “chief mistake” in Iraq — an odd remark if you believe Mr. Feith and his ilk were hell-bent on imposing American-style democracy on the recalcitrant natives.

“War and Decision” offers many more such examples where perceptions of the administration’s conduct collide with the reality of it. Much to Mr. Feith’s credit, however, his book is no apologia, even for those he obviously admires. Of Mr. Rumsfeld, he notes that “his style of leadership did not always serve his own purposes: He bruised people and made personal enemies.” As for President Bush, Mr. Feith argues — rightly, in my view — that his problem was not that he “discouraged challenges” but rather that he showed “an excessive tolerance of indiscipline, even of disloyalty, from his own officials.”

Would the U.S. have been better off never undertaking to remove Saddam from power? Certainly not, though one is left with the impression that the forces of bureaucratic inertia and ideological resistance within the U.S. government posed nearly as great an obstacle to the administration’s planning as Saddam himself. More important, Mr. Feith understands that “policy making often involves choosing to accept one set of likely problems over another.” That’s not an insight that will sway public opinion about the war, but it is indispensable to understanding both the choices already made and those that lie ahead, for this administration as well as the next.


Books to read from Power Line