More faith than fact

The US invasion of Iraq, critics quip, was a 'Feith-based initiative.'

feith book 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
feith book 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terrorism By Douglas J. Feith Harper 656 pages; $27.95 As undersecretary of defense and chief policy strategist for Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon, critics argue, Douglas Feith declared that in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, the US was at war, not only with al-Qaida, but with a worldwide network of extremist groups, including state and non-state sponsors. Placing Iraq at the head of the list of rogue regimes, Feith (and his neo-conservative colleague Paul Wolfowitz) pressed to depose Saddam Hussein before he (again) attacked his neighbors - and Americans - with impunity. In making his case, detractors declare, Feith proved willing to "politicize" CIA assessments of the threat posed by Iraq. In War and Decision, Feith, now a professor of national security policy at Georgetown University, fights back - defiantly. Drawing on thousands of previously undisclosed Defense Department documents and the notes he took at meetings, he takes readers inside "the situation room," where policies were promulgated to disrupt terrorist networks, invade Afghanistan and occupy Iraq. Feith acknowledges that the Bush administration made mistakes, especially in managing the "post-overthrow disorder" in Iraq and protecting America's credibility. But he maintains that it was "unreasonably risky" to allow Saddam to remain in power. And he remains convinced that the hard-liners in the Pentagon had "the right understanding of the enemy" and "the right global strategy" to defeat them. Detailed and well-documented, War and Decision is the most thorough and thought-provoking defense to date of the response of the US government to 9/11. Feith insists that a "doctrine of anticipatory self-defense" is the "inevitable result" of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. And he refutes the commonly held assumption that the administration failed to plan for the postwar reconstruction of Iraq or anticipate the "parade of horribles" that might follow the official end of hostilities. Had it not fallen victim to interagency conflict, he maintains, the Pentagon proposal for an Iraqi interim authority could well have avoided the insurgency that drew strength from the disenfranchisement of Iraqi citizens and the dissolution of the Iraqi army. ALTHOUGH HE left office in 2005, Feith remains a prisoner of a Pentagon perspective. His account is provincial and petty. Feith does not provide the political context for policy formation or pay much attention to Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney. Nor does he revisit or revise any of the recommendations made by the DOD during his tenure. His Donald Rumsfeld is a cross between Solomon and Socrates, who "endorsed intellectual modesty - for himself and others," rarely gave commands and encouraged give-and-take in a "tour de force of reason and education." According to Feith, Rumsfeld sagely suggested limiting the capacity of detention facilities for suspected al-Qaida fighters, to increase pressure to release anyone the US did not absolutely need to hold. As he circles the wagons around the Pentagon, Feith starts shooting at the State Department and the CIA. Colin Powell, George Tenet and their minions, he suggests, were incompetent, misguided or downright disloyal. Their mistakes damaged America's "war on terror." The CIA provided almost no useful intelligence on Afghanistan; wanted to hit al-Qaida but not overthrow the Taliban; and declared that an American arrangement with the Northern Alliance would antagonize Pashtuns in the south. The Agency suppressed relevant information about connections between Saddam and al-Qaida; was wrong on WMD; predicted that Iraqi police would function effectively after Saddam was deposed; and did not anticipate the insurgency. The State Department, according to Feith, advocated containment rather than regime change - and balked on developing new policy options for the president. State's campaign of ideas against jihadist extremists was "anemic." State opposed, delayed or mismanaged the task of bringing exile groups into the political process. Worst of all, Feith fumes, "leading officials" at State and the CIA "chose to air their dissent outside," supplying journalists and Democrats with accounts, "full of inaccuracies," designed to made the administration look unreasonable. They should have "pitched in" or "stepped aside." Relying more on faith than fact, Feith claims the US could have avoided the "parade of horribles" by putting in place a government of exiles in Iraq, as it did in Afghanistan, instead of waiting for elections and a constitution. He denies that the DOD wanted to "anoint" Ahmad Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress, who was despised at State and the CIA. But he protests too much. Downplaying dissension within the ranks of the "externals," he mobilizes the will to believe that a coalition interim authority, headed by the US-educated businessman, "one of America's most capable friends," would have had a good chance, had it exercised power in 2004, of establishing a unified, non-theocratic, perhaps even democratic, Iraq. Feith ends War and Decision where he began - with a full-throated endorsement of "the doctrine of anticipatory self-defense." Given the proliferation of WMD, he claims, exceptions must be made to the traditional concept of sovereignty. The threat doesn't have to be imminent. It didn't really matter to him that Iraq had destroyed its stockpiles. As long as Saddam - or any tyrant - retained the intent, the infrastructure, the support for terrorism and designs on his neighbors, the US was well within its rights to take him out. This doctrine, Feith admits, appears to authorize an attack against any country the president of the US dislikes or suspects. His assurances that Congress, the media and America's allies operate to check and balance the use of military power by the commander-in-chief ring hollow. Would he extend the doctrine, one wonders, to other countries? The debacle in Iraq has not made Americans - or the men, women and children of the Middle East - safer and more secure. It has given jihadists a "just cause" around which they can rally and recruit - and wreaked havoc with America's image around the world. War and Decision, at bottom, is a syllabus of errors, egregious and expensive. The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.