War and Decision (2009), by Douglas Feith


This is a distressing, tedious, but necessary book about the Bush Administration’s “global war on terror.”

A seminal mistake was made. Feith, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, was part of it. He spends about a third of the interminable narrative arguing repeatedly in ever-less-transporting, ever-more-familiar, variations on the theme that it was probably not a mistake. In between the times he seeks over and over  to rule out a mistake, he spends considerable intervals–far too many, in my view–doing two things: first, blaming State (namely, Powell and Armitage), the C.I.A. (namely, Tenet and McLaughlin), Bremer, Rice and members of the media and punditry (e.g., Seymour Hersch); and second, drawing selectively flattering and unflattering caricatures of the Bush Administration leaders, notably Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Tenet, Rice, Powell, Armitage and Franks. Finally, he doesn’t do something I’d imagined he might do: draw a portrait of President Bush, the Decider. The omission leaves you where you might well have been before reading this book: Did Bush have much grasp? He was a two-term President and many say that he was underestimated as a politician. Yet Feith, making sure that in his keeping of the Minutes of the Mistake (or “Mistake”) his camera frequently pans the attendees around the decisive conference room tables, seldom lets the lens linger on President Bush.

Bush aside for the moment, the Mistake, denied determinedly in this book, can be summarized as: “anticipatory self-defense.”

To elaborate: After 9/11 (possibly before, as some suspect), Bush and his Principals decided that al Qaida was not to be singled out. Iraq was the place. The enemy can’t be only al Qaida because there is a global network of terrorists and their supporting states and these in sum comprise the enemy. This network–and NOT al Qaida by itself–as a strategic concept is fundamental here. It cannot be stressed enough as a pivotal element of Feith’s Apologia and its key assumptions.

Along with the network, the assumption of imminence-of-threat from that network is crucial to focus on in getting at the Bush Administration’s self-avowed strategic policy outlook. And, appropriately, the chief threat is that in some places in that network, terrorists, most probably through their state sponsors, will obtain WMD to use against us. Imminently. The network, explains Feith, has been our latest, truest enemy since the end of the Cold War and hence for years before 9/11. 9/11? 9/11 brought clarity about this global network. After 9/11, we knew that all available resources–military, economic, political–must be used to undertake a massive self-defensive offensive attack on the entire network. Keep all the members of the network off-balance, running for cover. Since the list of states sponsoring the terrorists in this global network is long, there comes the time for singling out Iraq–really, Saddam and his government and military–to make it a special and deterring example: Iraq invaded and transformed as a drama bringing sobriety to the rest of our enemies.

Apropos: Feith has been at great pains to correct what he thinks is a false, usually maliciously so, narrative about the official Bush Administration Why of the Iraq War as the Example to be heeded by the network and its state sponsors. Feith argues that because of a legal and moral imperative of self-defense, and because of many reasons advanced which had to do with Saddam’s history of defiant behavior and his capacity for having WMD (note, “capacity” as opposed to existent/nonexistent stockpiles), it was seen as crucial to remove him and perform regime-change. Saith Feith: There has been substantial adversarial confusion and false myth-making about the Why, thanks in no small part to President Bush’s Failure of Explanation. From the beginning it did not really matter, says Feith, whether or not there were stockpiles of WMD found in Iraq. Spreading democracy by the sword was never a strategic goal in the Iraq war (though everyone hoped for a more representative government in post-Saddam Iraq). A coalition of the willing was fine but not essential. That second U.N. resolution, succeeding 1441, the one France especially didn’t like, was finally of no matter. And so on.

Anticipatory self-defense. That’s it.

The trouble, in large part and aside from a despicable lack of “teamwork” among Defense, and the betrayers at State, C.I.A. and elsewhere, was Bush himself: though he had superb speechwriters, he didn’t stick to his guns (literally) in State of the Union and TV speeches post invasion. He never adequately explained the true, underlying policy, anticipatory self-defense, but, rather, as time went on and things got worse in Iraq, changed his explanation of the Why to the promotion of a democratic Iraq (again, originally in the strategic planning for Iraq, reports Feith, simply a “nice to have”). This enabled the Many and Nasty Critics.

Yes, this is a long, long book. But look in vain for a cogent defense of the Why in question. Why would anyone imagine that there might be a fruitful connection between Making an Example of Iraq and “anticipatory self-defense” in its fulsome idea in Feith’s account of defending against global terrorism, as an affordable let alone psychologically feasible strategic imperative? There seems here a glaring disconnect. I myself grew increasingly restless to find such a rationale, implausible as it might be. “Imminence of threat,” real or not, is not effectively argued. Rumsfeld appears everywhere to scorn “prediction” and he, Wolfowitz and Feith scorn intelligence. Yet far more disastrous than Bush’s Failure of Explanation is the overall Failure of Imagination in the policy of Feith and his senior colleagues and which Feith would defend in his too-long and off-the-mark Apologia. It’s enough to point to the post-Saddam debacle in Iraq when thinking about a Failure of Imagination.

I do have a few suspicions. Bush is a cunning, narrowly appealing (just enough so, I guess we must say) and lucky politician (reminiscent, you could say unkindly, of the movie, Being There), not close to a strategist. Rumsfeld is a very smart man whose mind tends to a brilliant premature closure on complexity (too much of it soaring on a foolhardy ambitiousness), a warrior given in spells of leadership power to impressive, fearsome, but hurried oversimplifications of dire matters that give a false sense of incisiveness, even a comforting one. Rumsfeld, I sense intensely, front-loaded Bush for quite a while and carried many if not most days back then: Rumsfeld knew how to write-up important recommendations to Bush and make them translate to Bush’s perspective, his Gestalt, if you will. C.I.A was as bad as you’d expect. The instincts toward inertia out there were probably by and large the right ones–they weren’t enthusiasts here–but as a famous technology entrepreneur with whom I once visited there told a group of forward-leaning, ear-cocked senior officials in a conference room–it looked like that tableaux in the old When-E.F.-Hutton-Talks-People-Listen commercial–“Here’s what you guys need to do to solve your technology infrastructure problems. Get your ten smartest people together in one room and give them all the support they need. They’ll figure it out. But there’s only one problem. You don’t have ten smart people.” Reading between Feith lines, State seemed a place of some sanity but not much avail when push came to shove. The media comes off badly. Conspiracy-headline chasers. They could outrun any lawyers chasing ambulances.

War And Decision is a narrative, exhausting, that ensues from a very bad mistake in strategic judgment. Bertrand Russell once said of Thomas Aquinas that despite the latter’s great intellectual powers, Aquinas isn’t a true philosopher. Aquinas made up his mind on the basis of the Revealed Word, and so he wasn’t truly inquiring. It’s pretty easy to structure the Chain of Being when the Revealed Word has already told you who the top four or five beings are. This anecdote somehow crowds into my mind after reading Feith’s Apologia. You end up more or less convinced that of late our Republic has been very unlucky. Wrong people, wrong place, wrong time, too-strong wrong inclinations. You must have one or two or three great leaders when you really need them. Clarity. Common sense. A sense of how the psychology of the Other might work and how to use that in a self-enlightened way. The threat of terrorists with WMD is perhaps the most likely great threat we’ve faced, and, not to be glib, what’s been done of late, certainly as embodied in Feith’s analysis, isn’t cutting it, as they say. Feith’s story is a rambling, inferior, but indispensable drama of what has happened to us in unfortunate times. War And Decision makes you understand how rare and crucial are the smart ones.