Hot on the paper trail to the Iraq war

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

War and Decision By Douglas J. Feith HarperCollins 674 pp. $27.95

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

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.”

“War and Decision” provides Feith’s point of view on such controversies as his support for Iraqi exiles, including the controversial Ahmad Chalabi, and his push to get the CIA to consider evidence of possible prewar dealings between Al Qaeda and Hussein. (Long story short: He got in trouble for that last one.)

It also devotes much time to debunking what Feith claims are current misconceptions about the US and Iraq. First among them, he says, is the reason the administration went to war. It was not to uproot Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction or to spread democracy in the Middle East, but to counter a general national security threat to the US. The point after Sept. 11, 2001, was to head off the next terrorist attack, writes Feith, and that meant suppressing a range of dangerous actors, including states such as Iraq, thought to be sponsors of Palestinian and other terror groups.

“We took bin Laden seriously, but we believed that the purposes of U.S. military action after 9/11 went beyond striking at the perpetrators,” writes Feith.

How’s that working out, then? True, there hasn’t been another attack on the US homeland, and Hussein demonstrably was an evil guy. But the “perpetrators,” meaning Al Qaeda, are still with us. If anything, Iraq has provided them a motivational and recruiting tool. Even if you accept the strategy, shouldn’t there have been a sequence here? Was not the thought of quickly ending all possible terror threats a touch ... hubristic?

Or more than a touch, depending on your point of view.

Feith does say the US made major mistakes in handling Iraq – such as failing to organize an adequate security force in the wake of Hussein’s ouster. Perhaps they should have sent more US troops, he writes. That’s a move opposed at the time by his then-boss, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

But the biggest misstep, Feith claims, was taking too long (14 months) to hand the keys to the country over to the Iraqi interim authority. During that period resentment of the US occupation grew, as did the Baathist insurgency.

“The occupation was a barrier to cooperation. In fact, it encouraged active opposition,” Feith writes.

Well, maybe. But given the decrepitude of the country’s infrastructure, the resistance of the old Sunni elite to accepting minority status, the influx of jihadists, and the meddling of Iran, would a quicker trip home for Coalition Provisional Authority chief Paul Bremer really have made Iraq today a more peaceful place?

Peter Grier is a staff writer based in the Monitor’s Washington bureau.

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