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Hot on the paper trail to the Iraq war

Douglas Feith's Pentagon memos trace the origin of the current US predicament.

By / May 15, 2008



War and Decision? This book might better have been called “War and Paperwork.”

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That’s not meant as a criticism so much as a heads-up for the general reader. Douglas Feith’s inside account of his years in President Bush’s Pentagon is light on anecdotes about dramatic table-pounding (though it does have Gen. Tommy Franks hissing “Doug, I don’t have time for this [expletive deleted].”). But it’s replete with descriptions of meetings and quotations from memos and summaries of policies submitted for presidential approval.

So is it boring? Not for anyone who wants to understand the origins of the current US predicament in Iraq. Feith, as undersecretary of Defense for policy, played an important role in the development of post-9/11 US national security policy. In this book, he says that his goal is to counter the now-common narrative of a reckless administration that twisted intelligence and was bent from the start on war with Saddam Hussein.

It’s a serious intent, and deserves to be taken seriously. Whether his arguments will change the mind of anyone who does not already agree with him is another question entirely.

To set the stage, let’s look at the people and institutions for whom Feith has harsh words. Primary among these is former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Secretary Powell was not antiwar so much as inscrutable, in Feith’s telling. He agreed that Saddam Hussein was dangerous but downplayed the urgency of the threat. At best, he supported the administration’s Iraq policy halfheartedly, without outlining an alternative solution.

“Powell put himself in a position where, if the war went well, he could say he supported it, and, if not, he could point to his warnings as proof that he was a prescient dove,” writes Feith.

The State Department in general does not fare particularly well in this book. Diplomats are reluctant to look to the president as their “touchstone,” complains Feith. In the run-up to the Iraq war the item over which State officials became most irate dealt not with policy but the distribution of top jobs in the planned Iraqi reconstruction administration.

CIA director George Tenet comes off better, but only just. Feith disputes Tenet’s assertion in his own memoir that he was a dissenter on the war, for instance, and accuses him of making up a purported Douglas Feith quote. And the CIA itself? Prone to leaks, overimpressed with the geopolitical value of stability, and capable of ignoring intelligence that contradicts preconceived conclusions.

Langley’s work is often difficult and dangerous, Feith writes, but “the list of important items the CIA got wrong is a long one.”

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