Walter Rodgers

Iraq war: a baffling defense of Bush policy from a former Pentagon insider

In an interview about the Iraq war, former Pentagon official Douglas Feith suggests Washington was fooled by Saddam Hussein's bluff about weapons he wanted foes to believe he had.

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In April 2003, I was embedded with the US Army’s 7th Cavalry in the western suburbs of Baghdad, sleeping on top of a Humvee. Seven years later I still wonder why we were there. So, I suspect, do many Americans.

What responsibility – what options – do generals have when they believe civilian leaders, the president, the vice president, and the secretary of Defense, are bent on a “wrongheaded” war?

I recently put that question to former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, who served from 2001 to 2005 and was a major architect of the war in Iraq.

“If it’s a debate over what’s the smart and right thing to do,” he said, “the president is the elected representative of the American people. Somebody has to make policy for the country, and the country decides by democratic means [that] it’s going to be the president.”

His implication seemed clear. Americans elected George W. Bush, and the public must live with the consequences of its former president’s decision. As I write this, the Associated Press is reporting that Iraqi gunman dressed as US and Iraqi Army soldiers raided Sunni Arab homes south of Baghdad and executed 24 people, including five women, then brutalized the bodies beyond recognition.

The catalog of what has gone wrong during the US occupation is thicker than the Manhattan phone book.

Despite some encouraging signs, such as parliamentary political jockeying as Baghdad lurches toward civilian government, Mr. Feith was only modestly hopeful about Iraq’s progress.

“All the things which have been gigantic problems in recent years remain,” he said. “The fact that the political system is evolving is good and hopeful. But it’s not inevitable. You can still have a breakdown and a lot of violence.” A friend with the US Agency for International Development privately told me that when the Americans leave Iraq there will be an “enormous score-settling between majority Shiites and minority Sunnis.”

Opponents of the war have vilified Feith, although he sees himself as “a man more sinned against than sinning.” His book “War and Decision” seems the definitive Bush administration defense of the war to date.

In our interview, Feith portrayed a Bush administration at war with itself, with Secretary of State Colin Powell and the Central Intelligence Agency undercutting the Pentagon’s civilian leadership and President Bush’s policy. Unanswered is why Bush tolerated this.

Other recent books about Iraq, such as “The Fourth Star,” by Greg Jaffe and David Cloud, suggest even greater internal disarray and conflicting goals. The authors say that “President Bush wanted to transform Iraq into a model democracy for the Middle East.” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, meanwhile, wanted to get out of Iraq as soon as possible. And the generals wanted to turn the war over to a future Iraqi Army just as quickly.

The original casus belli, Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, has become the stuff of revisionist history. Feith blames the error largely on bad intelligence from the CIA, which allegedly led the president to believe that Mr. Hussein had stockpiled chemical and biological weapons and that he had a nuclear weapons program.

Feith suggests Washington was fooled because of Hussein’s bluff about weapons he no longer had. The Iraqi leader feared more uprisings by Kurds and Shiites, and Feith now speculates that Hussein deliberately wanted potential insurrectionists in his own country to believe he had WMDs to use if they revolted again.

My own difficulty with that explanation is that it leaves the impression that Bush blundered into an unnecessary war because of a bluff.

Perhaps most curious is Feith’s contention that the Bush administration never did anything to promote the idea that Hussein or Iraq was linked to the 9/11 terrorism in order to manipulate public opinion. “I don’t believe anybody ever said Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11,” he said.

“Why then polls showing more than 60 percent of the American public believed Iraq was implicated?” I asked. “Who led us down that road?”

“I know I never believed it,” Feith said.

Former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke has accused Mr. Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, of taking advantage of the 9/11 tragedy to promote their agenda of deposing Hussein.

What emerges today is an unflattering picture of Bush’s war presidency. He got WMDs wrong. He ran an embarrassingly “weak shop,” ignoring destructive bureaucratic infighting in Washington. Most astonishing, Bush’s critical judgments were so badly flawed he allowed himself to be persuaded that leaving a petty Arab tyrant like Hus sein in power actually threatened the mighty United States of America, which defeated Nazi Germany and Japan and won the cold war against the Soviet Union.

It is simply mind-boggling.

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.

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