Scott McClellan has made a stir with his book, What Happened, but it’s former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, who sheds some light on what happened in the Bush administration vis-à-vis the Iraq war in his book, War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terrorism. He recently took questions from National Review Online editor Kathryn Lopez about the book, it’s treatment in the media, and the war.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What’s your main goal for War and Decision?
Douglas J. Feith: I wrote War and Decision to provide a documented account of how the Bush administration developed the strategy for responding to the 9/11 attack. I want readers to understand what the president’s team aimed to accomplish in toppling the Taliban and Saddam Hussein regimes. The story is fascinating and important and I tell it from the actual memos we wrote for the president — and from the notes that I took at the key meetings of the Principals Committee and the National Security Council.
Several dozen books have created a conventional wisdom about Iraq policy that’s inaccurate on almost every main point. They did not rely on official records — the actual memos written at the time by the top officials for the key meetings. Rather, they relied either on anonymous sources or on after-the-fact interviews with officials who claimed (without substantiation) to remember what happened in meetings that occurred years before the interviews.
The actual written record refutes the widely believed but false notion that the President came to office hell-bent on war in Iraq and unwilling to consider options short of war. It disproves the assertion that the administration manipulated intelligence to “lie” the country into supporting the war. It exposes the falseness of the charge that the administration failed to plan for postwar Iraq. It counters the now-common contention that Saddam Hussein posed no terrorism threat and no WMD threat. My book brings forward important parts of that written record.
Lopez: Does Paul Bremer take an unfair bulk of the blame for what went wrong in Iraq?
Feith: In my view, Bremer has received much unfair criticism — especially for U.S. de-Baathification policy and for the decision to dissolve the Iraqi army. War and Decision explains why I think criticism on these matters has been unjust. But on other issues, I believe Bremer made large mistakes.
The single biggest mistake the United States made in Iraq, as I see it, was the decision to maintain an occupation government for 14 months, unlike what we had done in Afghanistan, where we overthrew the Taliban but did not establish a US occupation. The US occupation of Iraq helped fuel the insurgency. It tainted the Americans as occupiers and forfeited the opportunity to consolidate our position as liberators. And it was a decision in which Bremer was instrumental.
The latter chapters of my book deal with this history in detail.
Lopez: Bremer has defended himself on NRO. Do you disagree with his recounting of history — that he was following presidential orders, not defying them, when he didn’t “grant sovereignty to a group of Iraqi exiles immediately after Saddam’s defeat”?
Feith: Before my book came out, Bremer wrote that piece in which he anticipated that I would criticize him for disobeying presidential orders. But that is not what I criticize him for in my book. In fact, I take pains in the book to explain why Bremer had grounds to think he was authorized to take the positions he took.
My objection to Bremer’s policy — his refusal to turn substantial authority over to Iraqis soon after Saddam’s overthrow — was that it was unwise, not that it was insubordinate.
Lopez: How do you defend the statement “the record does not support the now-uncommon accusations that [President Bush and his advisers] were either reckless or fraudulent”?
Feith: The deliberations I review in my book show that the President and his advisers grappled in good faith with the range of national security challenges arising out of the 9/11 attack, some of which were unprecedented. The record shows that we did so honestly.