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War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terrorism Hardcover – April 8, 2008
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“Indispensable. . . . The best account to date of how the administration debated, decided, organized and executed its military responses to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Much of what makes War and Decision so compelling is that it is, in effect, a revisionist history.” (Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal)
“Extraordinarily frank and persuasive. . . . [O]ur first in-depth look at the inside of the Bush administration’s national security top leadership from one who was there. [Feith] has been criticized harshly and, I think, unfairly.” (Michael Barone, U.S. News & World Report)
“Meticulous. . . . A convincing refutation of unfair allegations about the author [and] a balanced analysis of policy debates about Iraq inside the administration. . . . Will be studied for years by journalists, historians and aspiring political appointees.” (National Review)
“Extraordinary. . . . I was unprepared for the thoroughness of the documentation, the sweeping nature of the narrative and the highly readable prose. It is the first attempt by a serious student of history to lay out the myriad, challenging choices confronting a president. . . . Splendid.” (Frank J. Gaffney Jr., Washington Times)
“If you want to read a serious book about the origins and consequences of the intervention in Iraq in 2003, you owe it to yourself to get hold of a copy of Douglas Feith’s War and Decision.” (Christopher Hitchens, Slate)
“One would have expected, as in the case of all the other Iraq exposés, that [Feith] would use the memoir genre to get even. Instead, he is selfcritical, even admits to occasional hubris, but, more importantly, also chronicles the contortions and reinventions of many post2003/4 critics of the war.” (Victor Davis Hanson, National Review Online)
“As Americans turned on the Iraq war, anti-war forces tried to portray the war as not only a mistake, but the result of a neoconservative coup. . . . In his new memoir, War and Decision, Mr. Feith does an admirable job in dispelling this hokum.” (Eli Lake, New York Sun)
“By far the most balanced, detailed, and lucid account of this story that’s come out yet. . . . Feith makes the first intellectually serious attempt to explain how the government tried to answer that question [of settling post-9/11 defense strategy] in the years after 9/11.” (“The Corner,” National Review Online)
“What’s needed now? More memoirs, more data, more information, more testimony. More serious books, like Doug Feith’s. More ‘this is what I saw’ and ‘this is what is true.’ Feed history.” (Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal)
About the Author
Douglas J. Feith served as U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy from 2001 to 2005. He is the Director of the Center for National Security Strategies at the Hudson Institute and a Belfer Center Adjunct Visiting Scholar at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He lives near Washington, D.C., with his family.
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Top Customer Reviews
The first 178 pages of the book deal with the 9/11 attack, its immediate aftermath, and the Afghan campaign of late 2001. The rest of it is basically all about Iraq. From Feith's standpoint, the removal of the Taliban from power in Afghanistan was an unqualified success, while the invasion of Iraq suffered from a few major mistakes but was evidently (from the standpoint of late 2007, when he wrote the book) salvageable. The major difference between the two was that an interim government led by an Afghan "external" (Hamid Karzai) was set up almost immediately after the removal of the Taliban while the United States legally (or illegally, as the case may be) occupied Iraq for fourteen months following the removal of Saddam Hussein. We see here an echo of what we have seen in other books, namely, the desire by supporters of the Iraq war to argue that the United States was not, or at least had no desire to be, an occupying power in Iraq. In fact, there was an interesting proposal by one of Feith's assistant secretaries to treat Iraq like liberated France, rather than the more obvious analogs of postwar Germany and Japan, as if Iraq had not been an enemy of the United States for more than a decade before the war. To illustrate the two most prominent schools of thought on the question of occupying Iraq, I will reproduce a footnote from page 463:
"When Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, or I used the phrase 'end the occupation,' Bremer (the bete noire of Feith's book, the man he argues was in the wrong place at the wrong time) would reply that many Iraqis would still say they were under occupation so long as large numbers of U.S. troops were in their country. He had a point, but we thought it mattered whether the Iraqi government was run by Americans or Iraqis. There was a difference between occupation as an accusation and occupation as a legal fact."
Feith's argument that the US occupation of Iraq after the formal handover of power to the interim government on June 28, 2004 is a mere "accusation" is hairsplitting at best and ignores the fact that in all politics (international as well as local), perception is reality. Both the insurgents and ordinary Iraqis believed (and accordingly acted as though) Iraq was still occupied by the United States and in fact the individual provinces of Iraq were not handed over to its military and police until the early Obama administration. Shortly thereafter the Maliki government celebrated the PRACTICAL end of the occupation when the last US troops left Iraq in 2011. And now, about a brigade of Special Forces and support troops have gone back. Feith has this to say about the future of Iraq (he was writing at the height of the "surge":)
"Our enemies in the Middle East -- al Qaida and the other jihadists in particular -- have the desire and ability to attack us globally. They are exhilarated by success, seeing it as a reward and encouragement from God. If they drive us out of Iraq, we can expect them to exploit success by launching further attacks against an America in retreat. Americans should not suppose that our enemies in Iraq will leave us alone if we flee from them. If al Qaida should acquire a comfortable base in Iraq, a future president might conclude he has to send American troops once again to remove the regime."
The Islamic State which has taken over most of the Sunni Arab part of Iraq along with a comparable chunk of Syria is a direct descendant in terms of personnel and ideology of what was on Feith's watch called al-Qaida in Iraq. It was never their goal to take over Baghdad and other mostly Shiite parts of Iraq. So the group formerly known as al-Qaida does have a base in a large chunk of Iraq and our troops were duly sent back, much as Feith predicted they would be. Of course, the only alternative (to Feith's way of thinking) would have been never ending what the Iraqis saw as an occupation of their country, as we actually did in accordance with the deal signed by President Bush in 2008. By the nature of American politics and culture the American occupation of Iraq could not last forever. By the nature of Iraqi sectarian politics, the Iraq War can. It is a chilling thought, but it is the only thing I can leave the reader with.
He starts with some insider "war stories" of how he became aware of the 9/11 attacks while at a meeting in Moscow, and of the informal deliberations with other officials on the way home by military cargo plane. The sense of being under attack and not knowing when and where the next attack would occur is palpable, as is the feeling of being responsible for action. While interesting, these accounts are probably not much different from what other conscientious officials would relate.
An early decision was to recognize that this attack, and the several others preceding it (p 503), were not isolated criminal activities but part of a loosely coordinated world wide jihadist movement informally and covertly supported in part by governments. Simply finding, arresting, and prosecuting those responsible would not suffice. Rather, preventing future attacks was seen as the prime objective. The reason for this was not only to prevent additional loss, but to avoid the severe changes to American society that would result from the inevitable national response to future, possibly more damaging, attacks. We would have to disrupt terrorist operations generally, and pressure terrorism's state supporters to recalculate their options.
The value of Feith's book is in its description of how the different individuals and institutions of our government worked with and against each other to achieve this general objective. I will concentrate on these aspects, rather than the top level history itself.
Several themes run through the story. One is the inability of the Bush administration to either explain clearly its policies or to respond adequately to distorted press accounts. An early example was the Policy Counter Terrorism Evaluation Group, which was two Pentagon officials tasked with extracting strategic insights from intelligence reports prepared by the CIA and others, which is exactly what a policy office is supposed to do. This effort morphed in the press into a "secret" cell trying either to create its own intelligence or manipulate that of others to support an unwise policy. (p 116-119)
Another failure of communication was the ability of critics to invent an unrealistic standard of success and then declare the administration's efforts disappointing for not having met that standard. An early example (p 125) was characterizing the slow progress in the first month in Afghanistan as a "quagmire" akin to Vietnam.
A far more serious example is the continuing claim that our inability to create a modern liberal democracy in Iraq represents a failure. Such an outcome has never been essential US policy. Rather, our aim has been to create a government that is not a threat to us or our allies. This in fact is being done.
The "free Iraq from tyranny" objective arose when our forces were unable to locate the stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that the CIA expected to find. (Feith makes several comments about the CIA implying that they knew more than they did.)
There was and is no doubt that Saddam Hussein had been working on various WMDs, that there had been stockpiles of such weapons, that he intended to develop this capability when, not if, the international sanctions were removed, and that he had had supportive if not directive relations with various terrorist groups. These were the actual reasons we invaded and replaced his government. President Bush, however, effectively changed the rationale for the war starting in late 2003 and formalized in a speech in 2004 in which he gave little attention to the actual reasons for going to war, and instead emphasized the goal of creating democracy in Iraq. This in Feith's view was a major error against which he argued forcefully at the time, but was unable to prevail. (p 490-493).
The reason Feith gives for considering this shift of objective a mistake is the difficulty of fully achieving it. I see another problem with this rationale in that we not only can't remove every tyrannical dictator but should not unless he is a real threat to our security. He offers no good reasons for the change. He suggests that the White House fell prey to the lure of revealing "secret" intelligence reports as a supporting argument, when in reality the reasons were there for all to see, and then was embarrassed when the expected stockpiles did not materialize.
Another major theme is the battle over how to use the Iraqi exiles in the invasion and subsequent government of that country. The Pentagon Policy Office, and Secretary Rumsfeld, concluded that a quick devolvement of power to Iraqis, including integrating them as available into the invasion force, would yield positive results in attenuating the inevitable resistance of Saddam's followers. This was the policy in Afghanistan, where it seemed to work, and was adopted by the President and National Security Council as the official policy for the Iraq operation.
Unfortunately the policy was not followed. From the beginning, the State Department and the CIA distrusted the Iraqi exiles in general and Ahmed Chalabi in particular. They went out of their way to exclude them from pre-war planning and post war governing. The US formally occupied Iraq for over fourteen months after major combat operations concluded. We never did this in Afghanistan. In the end, with the Iraqi political process at least starting to work, the "externals", as the exiles and Kurds were called, have risen to the positions of prominence that they should have been allowed to take from the beginning. If we had followed this course from the first, there is a good chance that most of the turbulence in Iraq following the invasion could have been averted.
The reasons for making this mistake are not clear, though Feith provides lots of detail of how it happened. He doesn't say so directly, but I sense that the failure to follow the adopted policy was largely a failure of the President to monitor the activities of his top level appointees.
One interesting observation on the top people is how Condoleezza Rice, during most of this time the National Security Advisor, often tried to bring harmony to the members of the leadership group by crafting policy positions that were a compromise between conflicting views, but the result of which was to provide unclear directions to those carrying out the policies.
We often hear complaints that policy people, either in the Pentagon or White House, distorted intelligence information to further their policy aims, usually unstated ones. Feith, of course, refutes this. What he warns of instead is the danger of non-policy people, in intelligence or otherwise, who obstruct or ignore decided policy with which they personally or institutionally disagree. The problem with this is that it dilutes and obscures responsibility. It also allows individuals to change effective policy on their own without rigorously making their arguments up the chain of command to where the policy makers would have to consider them.
A major issue NOT covered in the book, at least as far as I can recall, is the matter of congressional authorization of the Iraq war. Feith covers the development of presidential speeches on the subject, but I would have liked to know of the conversations with congress members. Were they focused on just the classified WMD stockpile "secrets", or more broadly on open-source geopolitical information about the Iraq threat? I would assume that this sort of political exchange would be just what the Pentagon policy office is for.
If this lack of inclusion is not just a literary or reporting oversight, but reflects an actual non-existence, then I would fault President Bush for not doing more along these lines. I am sure that the president worked to convince members of congress of the necessity of the war at a high level of abstraction, or perhaps at a low level of anecdote; but if he did not enlist the aid of his military policy professionals, that would be an indication of a failure to appreciate either the constitutional or political role of congress.
More generally, I am uncomfortable with the increasing use over the past 50 years of ambiguous congressional resolutions to authorize military force without declaring war.
I come away from Feith's book with the belief that our invasion of Iraq was necessary and fairly well executed, though serious mistakes were made in managing the post war activities and in doing the political work necessary to allow the American public to understand what we were doing.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
This book is about 60% rationalization of the decision to invade Iraq.Read more