Nothing to add to the debate over the debate

The new book by the re-educated Scott McClellan doesn’t matter much in the scheme of things, but it continues to cause minor mischief. On Friday night, I heard part of an exchange regarding the book between Mark Shields and David Brooks on the News Hour. Shields, of course, was in full ”Bush-lied” mode, never mind the overwhelming consensus of intelligence agencies both here and abroad that Iraq possessed WMD. The more interesting comment came from Brooks, who argued that McClellan and/or his book illustrate that the Bush administration was plagued by yes-men and, therefore, a troubling lack of debate. David Frum has made a similar point.

It’s certainly possible that there has been insufficient debate within the Bush administration. However, Scott McClellan hardly illustrates the point. Few presidents, if any, typically look to their press secretary for dissent on substantive matters. McClellan’s book would not appear to be very good evidence either. There’s no reason to believe that McClellan was in the loop when the administration developed the policies and positions it was his job to explain to the press.

It happens that there is evidence on the extent to which certain key Bush administration decisions were debated. With respect to Iraq policy, such evidence is contained in Douglas Feith’s new book, War and Decision, which the MSM (having no genuine interest in understanding how decisions actually were made) has essentially ignored. Feith’s book demonstrates that a vigorous debate took place within the administration regarding the plan for governing Iraq after the invasion, as well as over important aspects of the pre-invasion planning. That there was little debate about the underlying decision to invade is, again, a reflection of the post-9/11 consensus that Iraq posed a danger. Since many liberal Senate Democrats expressed this view, it would have been surprising if many in the Bush administration didn’t share it.

Feith describes a fierce debate between the State Department and the Defense Department over whether substantial control over governing post-invasion Iraq should be turned over to the Iraqis. There was also considerable disagreement over whether, in the run-up to the invasion, Iraqi “externals” should meet to establish the principles of a new constitution and whether the U.S. should train a fighting force of externals to participate in the liberation of their country. Feith shows that these debates were refereed by Stephen Hadley at the White House and ultimately resolved by the president. That sounds like a good decision-making process and hardly one that thwarted debate. Unfortunately, according to Feith, Paul Bremer effectively overruled the president’s decision on how post-invasion Iraq should be governed, but that’s another story.

Evidence also exists with respect to debate over key legal decisions pertaining to the war on terrorism. I’ve suggested that this debate may have been insufficient in certain respects. The record appears to be mixed, however. For example, pressed for advice by those wanting to interrogate high-value captive terrorists, a small group within the administration quickly developed a position that, in my view, was over-reaching in certain respects. But this policy was revisited and ultimately revised. Some of the push-back from the Justice Department has been well-chronicled. Recall, for example, Alberto Gonzales’ hospital visit to John Ashcroft.

This is but one of several important areas in which administration policy has changed course. The foreign policy of the second Bush term as formulated by Secretary of State Rice seems decidedly less hard-edged in many respects than the foreign policy of the first term. The administration also changed course in Iraq. To be sure, the change didn’t occur as soon as it should have. But the fact that the administration has changed course, coupled with evidence of vigorous debate on some vital matters, tends to undercut claims that meaningful debate is lacking in this administration.

These observations certainly are not meant to provide a definitive view of this matter. Assessing the adequacy of overall debate in this administration would require a detailed analysis of the administration’s deliberations on a wide range of subjects. This is work for historians. My point is that Scott McClellan and his “recovered memories” have little to contribute.

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