Douglas Feith’s “War and Decision:” One Of The Most Important Books Of The Last Decade

by John Hawkins | February 4, 2009 12:48 pm

Douglas Feith was the Undersecretary of Defense under Donald Rumsfeld and he was heavily involved in invasion planning for Iraq and Afghanistan. His book, War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terrorism[1], has just come out in paperback and it is a MUST READ for anyone who wants to know what really went on behind-the-scenes in the run-up to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Although it’s difficult to give you a sense of all the incredible background information that Feith released in the book, there are key bits of info that merit particular attention.

Feith was in the Defense Department and that certainly colored his views to a certain extent. However, I suspect that there is much more than a few grains of truth in his assessment of other individuals and departments in the Bush Administration.

* CENTCOM in general, and Tommy Franks in particular, were portrayed as being reluctant to take advice from civilians in the Defense Department. Franks was also dinged for giving the short-shrift to his responsibility for maintaining order after Saddam was overthrown.

* Paul Bremer was allowed to become poorly supervised and his reluctance to share power with Iraqis ultimately caused a host of problems that helped lead to the difficulties we have only recently overcome because of the surge.

* The CIA comes across as frighteningly, almost unbelievably incompetent and petty, even though they often didn’t inform the people relying on their advice of how little they really had to base their opinions on.

* The worst criticism, however, was reserved for the State Department in general and Colin Powell, in particular. In Feith’s view, Powell was an arrogant, passive aggressive, disloyal bureaucrat who never said that he opposed going to war, but dragged his feet at every opportunity and fought policy battles through leaks to the press.

Long story short, as you can infer from those descriptions, the Bush Administration was severely hampered by the lack of teamwork. The different departments often worked at cross-purposes with each other and even, at times, with the President.

The picture Feith paints, particularly on Iraq, is the CIA constantly giving everyone bad information while the State Department dragged its feet and leaked to the press. Meanwhile, the media was constantly publishing inaccurate stories that the Bush Administration had trouble refuting because they were unable to communicate effectively. In other words, it wasn’t exactly a smooth running operation.

There were also some oft-asked questions that Feith definitively answered.

For example, why did the Bush Administration, among many, many others believe that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction?

As Feith explains, Saddam may not have had stockpiles, but he did have dual use equipment, scientists capable of building the weapons, and the intention to rebuild his program.

Moreover, as Feith notes,

“In private conversations that were intercepted by U.S. intelligence, Iraqi officials spoke as if Saddam continued to possess WMD. Even Iraqi generals believed he did. In the fall of 2002, the Iraqi military conducted exercises in chemical protective gear – but not because they thought the U.S.-led coalition was going to use chemical weapons. Every serious intelligence agency in the world – including those of our European allies, Russia, and others – believed that Iraq had WMD. UN officials believed it. And, of course, the CIA believed it.” -P.329

Since that was the case, why didn’t Saddam simply cooperate with inspections, prove that he didn’t have WMDs, and try to forestall war? Setting aside the fact that Saddam fully intended to build WMD stockpiles again when the heat was off, he believed — and this is a lesson Obama should keep in mind — that the US was a paper tiger that had no intention of really invading.

“Saddam, it seems, didn’t want to store WMD that UN inspectors might find if they should ever return to Iraq. Yet he was intent on appearing to have such weapons in order to frighten Iran and the Iraqi Kurds and Shia, the enemies he had attacked with WMD in the past, and whom he considered the primary threats to his rule. As for the risk that pretending to possess WMD might provoke the United States, Saddam discounted it because he considered the United States a paper tiger. Though Americans, in his assessment, might bluster about regime change, they would prove unwilling to take the heavy casualties he thought would be inevitable in an invasion of Iraq (and especially in a march to Baghdad).” – P.331

So, after we took Iraq, why did the reconstruction turn out to be so costly in blood and treasure? Feith explains it like so,

1) Although they expected a certain amount of disorder, rioting, and looting, they simply, believe it or not, did not anticipate a large scale Baathist/Al-Qaeda resistance movement. Nobody, including the CIA, foresaw the organized, ongoing terrorist attacks coming.

2) The CIA had concluded that the Iraqi police were well liked by the populace and were likely to stay on the job after an invasion. They were very wrong on both counts.

3) The US had hoped the Iraqi army, or at least large parts of it, would defect over to us, hold together, and be of use after the invasion. Instead, the Iraqi units almost entirely disintegrated which meant that the whole military had to be rebuilt from scratch.

4) Tommy Franks was the primary person in charge of maintaining order after the invasion and he really didn’t do a very good job of planning the whole thing.

5) The CIA, State Department, & Paul Bremer were all strongly opposed to giving the Iraqis any say in their own government right off the bat. That created conspiracies, ratcheted up dislike of the US amongst the populace, and generally helped convince a lot of Iraqis that we were an occupier, not a liberator. That fed discontent against American forces that turned to violence.

Feith also noted something important about the sectarian violence that many people have gotten wrong.

“In the grim year 2007, commentators wrote as if Iraq had been doomed to sectarian violence – as if Iraqi mutual slaughter between Sunnis and Shiites occurred inevitably and immediately when Saddam was ousted. But such attacks did not become a major phenomenon until February 2006, when the gold-domed mosque in Samarra, an important Shiite shrine, was destroyed.” – P.450

Although the terrorist attacks began almost immediately in early 2003, the sectarian violence that significantly ratcheted up the violence and bloodshed didn’t begin until early 2006.

Feith also said something that civil libertarians and people who believe that we should treat terrorism as a mere law enforcement measure should think very long and hard about,

“If another 9/11 happened, especially an attack using nuclear or biological weapons, who could doubt that our society would respond by further increasing the powers of the government and inevitably constricting civil liberties? As has happened often in the past, security measures that once seemed outrageous could quickly become routine. And there was a possible ratchet effect worth worrying about: Burdensome security measures aren’t always rolled back even after the threat diminishes.

These issues were a major part of my conversations with Hadley, Libby, and my Pentagon and other government colleagues in the days immediately after 9/11. We all recognized the need for a maximum effort to prevent the kinds of further attacks that could transform – perhaps permanently – U.S. society in this way. It was clear that if our strategy were solely or even primarily defensive, it would require wholesale changes in our society – a substantial clamping down, not just at our borders but throughout the country.” -P.70

There’s a lot of wisdom in Feith’s book and I would strongly recommend it to anyone who, no matter how they feel about the war in Iraq and the war on terror, wants to get a stronger understanding of the thinking that went into the key decisions behind the war.

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

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