The war over Iraq — not to be confused with the conflict actually
taking place there — is back in the headlines. This week's report to
Congress by America's top two emissaries in Baghdad, Gen. David
Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, will provide a backdrop for the
momentous decisions to come concerning whether and how to pursue
victory in Iraq.
Before the politicians and their
constituents make such decisions about where we go from here, they
should be sure to ground themselves in the facts about how we got to
this point. After all, as George Santayana put it, "Those who cannot
learn from history are doomed to repeat it."
has just become considerably easier to understand the history of the
decision to make Iraq a central front in the larger War for the Free
World and to dissect what was and was not done right — and how to
achieve better results in the future. Today marks the publication of an
extraordinary new book on the subject, "War and Decision: Inside the
Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terror," by former Defense
Undersecretary Douglas Feith.
Now, Doug Feith has been a
valued friend and colleague of mine for 25 years. Consequently, I know
him to be scrupulous in his command of the facts, exacting in his
analysis and lucidly articulate in his writing.
Still, I was
unprepared for the thoroughness of the documentation, the sweeping
nature of the narrative and the highly readable prose with which "War
and Decision" depicts the actions precipitated at the highest levels of
the U.S. government by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
edifying are Mr. Feith's exploration of the serious policy differences
between various decisionmakers and the material contribution of those
disagreements to the preparation, execution and aftermath of
overthrowing Saddam Hussein's regime.
In contrast to previous
books and memoirs on the subject published to date, Mr. Feith's is not
aimed at self-promotion or self-vindication. Neither is it an effort to
settle scores with those who have, in some cases viciously, attacked
the author in their own screeds.
Rather, it is the first
attempt by a serious student of history to lay out the myriad,
challenging choices confronting a president who, within eight months of
taking office, witnessed a devastating attack on this country and
resolved to prevent another — possibly far more destructive one. The
considerations, competing recommendations and presidential and
Cabinet-level decisions that shaped the Bush administration approach to
the terrorist threat from state-sponsored networks are documented in an
unvarnished, very accessible way.
Particularly interesting are the many points on which earlier tomes
and conventional wisdom are mistaken. For instance, Mr. Feith
demonstrates that the record simply does not support claims that: "Bush
and his hawkish advisers" were intent on waging war on Iraq from the
get-go; Donald Rumsfeld and his "neocons" failed to prepare for postwar
Iraq and that the State Department had, only to have its plans spurned
by the Pentagon; and Mr. Feith's office tried to manipulate prewar
intelligence about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. Given how
central many of these myths are to criticism of the Iraq war, the
contradictory evidence deserves attention.
Even more critical
to this week's congressional testimony — and what follows on Capitol
Hill, on the hustings and, not least in Iraq — are Mr. Feith's insights
into problems that continue to afflict America's execution of the war.
• On issue after issue, George W. Bush's
decisions on Iraq were undermined by subordinates who opposed the
president's policies. As Feith charitably puts it, Mr. Bush "could ...
justly be faulted for an excessive tolerance of indiscipline, even of
disloyalty from his own officials." This pattern continues with members
of the intelligence community, senior diplomats and even, until
recently, a top military officer routinely flouting presidential
direction — sometimes openly, on other occasions through malicious
leaks to the press.
• There has been an abject failure to
address competently and comprehensively the ideological nature of our
Islamofascist enemies and their enablers. "In the fight against
terrorism, the effort to counter ideological support remains a gaping
deficiency. No one in the administration... is currently developing and
implementing a comprehensive strategy beyond public diplomacy."
Most important, the costs of failures to act — or win in Iraq —
continue to be underestimated. "If and when major new terrorist attacks
occur in the United States, the public will re-examine the Bush
administration strategy for the war on terrorism. The likely criticism
then will not be that the president was too tough on the jihadists, the
Ba'athists and other state supporters of terrorism, but that the
administration might have fought the terrorist network even more
intensely and comprehensively.
"No dereliction of
statesmanship is as unpardonable as a failure to protect the nation's
security. If the head of government underreacts when the country is
threatened, history is not likely to excuse him on the grounds that his
excessive caution enjoyed bipartisan support."
Doug Feith has
made important contributions to our nation's security for three decades
in public life and the private sector. If his splendid "War and
Decision" gets the reading it warrants, others will be more likely to do so as well.