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War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terrorism

War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terrorism by Douglas J. Feith. HarperCollins, 2008, 674 pp.

The New Yorker’s George Packer, one of the most insightful observers of the US debacle in Iraq, has called Douglas Feith “the Michael Brown of the Iraq War.” The comparison of Feith to the clueless director of FEMA during Hurricane Katrina is apt, though in fairness to Feith, he was but one of many architects of America’s worst foreign policy blunder since the Truman administration senselessly provoked an unnecessary war with China in Korea 58 years ago.

A devout neoconservative who served as undersecretary of defense for policy from 2001 to 2005 and was charged with planning for a post-Saddam Iraq, Feith has published the first insider account of the Rumsfeld Pentagon’s decision making on Iraq. War and Decision is a massive, detailed, well-written, finger-pointing, score-settling memoir that unwittingly confirms the reckless incompetence of those who propelled the United States unnecessarily into what promises to be the longest war in American history.

Feith remains convinced that the war was launched for “sound reasons,” and that the decision to oust Saddam’s regime “should not be regretted.” He concedes that the Bush administration “made errors,” but blames those errors on the State Department (especially Colin Powell and Richard Armitage), the CIA (especially George Tenet and John McLaughlin), CENTCOM Commander Tommy Franks, and L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer, who directed the early US occupation of Iraq. He acknowledges Rumsfeld’s abrasive personality but praises his boss’s judgment and energy. He denies the well-substantiated charge that he created in his office a new intelligence assessment group for the purpose of challenging the intelligence community’s judgment that no collaborative operational relationship existed between al-Qaeda and Baathist Iraq. In fact, the Pentagon’s acting inspector general subsequently rebuked Feith for the group’s “alternative” intelligence analysis, which was tellingly titled “Iraq and al Qaeda: Making the Case.” Feith also denies, again against the overwhelming evidence, that he pushed hard for a rapid transfer of sovereignty in post-Baathist Iraq to a government composed primarily of exiles led by the political adventurer, con artist, and embezzler Ahmed Chalabi.

Feith fully embraces the argument that the 9/11 attacks made a war with Iraq inevitable, absent Saddam Hussein’s voluntary departure from power. Even in the wake of those attacks, he writes, “We could not define the enemy with precision in any short, clear formulation.” As a staunch friend of the Likud Party, who in 1996 urged then–Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to topple Saddam and attack Syria, Feith remains a true believer in the bogus Iraqi threat: namely, that Saddam’s hostility + weapons of mass destruction + a willingness to transfer them to al-Qaeda = a grave and gathering danger to the United States. For Feith, the post–“Mission Accomplished” discovery that Saddam had no WMD or operational ties to al-Qaeda is irrelevant; in Feith’s view, subsequently discredited by post-invasion intelligence gathering, Saddam had the personnel and facilities to begin production of WMD “within weeks of a decision to go forward,” and once in possession of WMD, Feith believes, Saddam would have been in a position to deter US military action against him. Feith apparently did not remember that Saddam’s possession of truly robust stocks of deliverable WMD in 1991 did nothing to deter the United States from militarily kicking the Iraqi dictator out of Kuwait.

Feith believes the invasion of Iraq was thus a strategic necessity even though, he says, neither he nor anyone he knew believed that Iraq had anything to do with 9/11. Yet, even assuming the Iraq War was necessary, why was it so botched in execution? Feith admits that the Bush administration’s “enterprise” in Iraq “remains grimly incomplete,” and that “every aspect of [its] planning and implementation warrants criticism, including: counterinsurgency strategy; coalition building with allies and others; cooperation with the UN and other international organizations; funding decisions; intelligence collection, analysis, and action; developing Iraqi security forces; economic reconstruction; organization and functioning of the Coalition Provisional Authority; strategic communications; and congressional relations.”

Feith contends that the “chief mistaken decision” of the war “was maintaining an occupation government in Iraq for over a year,” for which he faults Bremer, who, he charges, thwarted President Bush’s (and Feith’s) wish for early establishment of an Iraqi interim political authority. The effect was to delegitimize the US presence in Iraq and invite insurgent violence. Yet, given the looting and the chaos of post-invasion Iraq, including the government’s unexpected administrative disappearance, what alternative was there to establishing an occupation? Empowering a bunch of squabbling Iraqi exiles and their few hundred armed followers? How would they have put an end to the anarchy? Feith believes the second big mistake was “failing to organize an adequate security force after Saddam’s ouster.” Yet Feith took no issue with the size of the US invasion force, regarded by many then and since as woefully inadequate to assure control of post-Saddam Iraq, and he still believes that Bremer’s disastrous decision to disband the regular Iraqi army, which probably made a full-blown insurgency inevitable, was “sound [and] properly reasoned.”

Overshadowing these and other mistakes was what Feith accurately portrays as a Bush administration internally paralyzed on the critical decisions for postwar planning in Iraq, and for this he rightly chides the president. “President Bush crafted a strategy for Iraq, but not a team,” says Feith. War requires cooperation among many government agencies, but such cooperation was not forthcoming in Iraq. “Various senior State and CIA officials—including some at the highest levels—did not support the President’s analyses and policies [but] were unwilling to challenge them openly in interagency discussions or to offer alternatives. I don’t think the problem was that the President discouraged challenges. . . . He could more justly be faulted for an excessive tolerance of indiscipline, even disloyalty, from his own officials.” Feith concludes that “Bush did not receive the benefit of active debate on the fundamentals of his strategy. Nor did he get harmony in its execution. Key national security officials remained reluctant to endorse policies even after the President had resolved on them.” Why did not President Bush impose discipline on the doubters and harmony among the relevant departments?

War and Decision is a must read for anyone interested in understanding the Bush administration’s bizarre journey from the 9/11 attacks to its calamitous misadventure in Iraq. To his credit, Feith is donating all his book royalties to a charitable foundation dedicated to helping veterans and their families. Many of the almost 800,000 (and counting) American military men and women who have served in the Iraq War will certainly need all the help they can get. Is Feith seeking atonement?

Jeffrey Record, PhD

Air War College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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