Hardcover: 688 pages
Publisher: Harper (April 8, 2008)
War and Decision, an analytical description of a dysfunctional National Security Council and disloyal senior officials, will be studied for years by journalists, historians and aspiring political appointees. Half of the book is a convincing refutation of unfair allegations about the author. The other half presents a balanced analysis of policy debates about Iraq inside the administration between mid-2001 and mid-2004. While the length of War and Decision may deter the casual reader, its hefty substance gives credence to three themes.
First, poisonous leaks by senior CIA and State officials corroded trust inside the administration and damaged its public image. Feith cites leak after leak aimed at undercutting him personally, the Defense Department in general and the neoconservative political philosophy. The Bush administration was systematically undercut and trashed by its own senior officials. President Bush, who bragged he did not read newspapers, and his NSC adviser, Condoleeza Rice, tolerated disloyalty and paid the price in plummeting public approval and increasing political opposition.
Feith marshals evidence in great detail that rebuts previous allegations about his supposedly secret intelligence operation to undercut the CIA, the Pentagon's insistence on placing Chalabi in charge of Iraq or resisting a State Department plan for reconstruction. Unfortunately, his effort is probably to little avail. Facts rarely change ideological attitudes. The leakers effectively appealed to the liberal instincts of many journalists to shape narratives around presumptive political philosophies. Once Feith, Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld were branded with the scarlet word 'neocon', then the substance of their positions - and the credibility of the leaks degrading them - became secondary.
In hundreds of pages, Feith lays out the case that CIA and State officials, disagreeing with Bush's policies, leaked false stories impugning so-called neocons in order to enlist the press. Journalists who pride themselves on healthy skepticism should read this book to understand how they can be played. As for the disloyal officials, Feith argues they should have resigned honorably. Small chance of that, when you can put the knife into someone's back.
Potential political appointees should read the book and ask themselves how they would react. Feith depicts Rumsfeld as a crafty, anti-ideological manager and intellectual counter-puncher with "Boy Scout" principles of honor that included not leaking to the press. Loyally obeying his boss, Feith didn't fight back the way his mentor, Richard Perle, had fought in the '80s. "I now see more clearly," Feith wrote, "the intense animus behind the systematic leaking and "backgrounding" that undermined President Bush and others who supported him. Our failure - as targets - to heed the attack, to protest it, and to fight back, was a form of unilateral disarmament that did not serve the interests of the President, the country, or truth."
The second theme that emerges from the book is that of a dysfunctional NSC system. According to Feith, "Rice worked to spare the President having to decide between clear-cut, mutually exclusive options." Before the war, Bush had approved a pre-war plan to place an Iraqi interim government in charge once Saddam was removed. When Baghdad fell, though, State and CIA feared Chalabi would gain power and proposed a multiyear transition. When Bremer left for Baghdad, the Pentagon believed the president had ordered a quick handover to Iraqis; Bremer believed he was to remain in charge indefinitely. "Among Garner, Khalilzad, Bremer, Powell, Rumsfeld, and Rice," Feith wrote, "there was not a common, clear understanding of what the President wanted done."
In chapter after chapter, the book describes an administration where the principals excelled at identifying the defects in any plan and were spared the discipline of having to agree to one course of action and see it through. General Tommy Franks denied that his Central Command and the 170,000 soldiers had any role in Iraq's reconstruction. Rumsfeld warned that "Yankee can-do" initiative deprived other countries of incentives to pull their own weight. Powell urged a "go slow" approach in Iraq. Bremer reported to Bush, Powell and Rumsfeld, and spoke to Rice almost daily. This meant, Feith wrote, that Bremer "effectively had no boss. This was not how the interagency process was supposed to work."
The third - and perhaps accidental - theme of the book is the contradiction it draws between the NSC deliberations and the war that was raging. President Bush appears decisive in his own mind, and an enigma to all around him. In Feith's book, the NSC principals treat the tribal, sectarian, religious and extremist currents roiling Iraq as intellectual concepts that could be resolved by wise senior officials armed with video teleconferencing machines.
Feith did make a two-day visit to Iraq. "In August of 2003 I traveled to Iraq for the first time," Feith writes. "It is valuable for any top policy official to visit the theater of operations. One can never be reminded often enough that national security policy is ultimately about human beings."
The human beings who were killing American soldiers had motivations that eluded the policymakers and couldn't be grasped by short visits. Feith writes that before the war he never saw a CIA assessment warning that the Baathists would organize an insurgency, let alone ally with foreign jihadists. The NSC principals didn't see the train coming that ran over them. Feith points out that on the one hand he wasn't sure what the president's policy goals were, while on the other Rumsfeld excluded the Pentagon policy shop from operational discussions with the military.
Policy, however uninformed, is supposed to direct the selection of a war-making strategy.
That didn't happen during the Iraq war. An insurgency grows from the bottom up, reflecting Tolstoy's view that the collective, inchoate will of the people shapes the course of a nation's history and is indifferent to discussions in the king's palaces. Washington existed inside its own bubble, showing no humility in the face of a fiendishly complex war. The interagency process in Washington concocted and debated policy theories, explained at length by Feith, that were disconnected from decisions, sensible or otherwise, about military strategy.
These high-level policy discussions didn't influence insurgent actions. In April of 2004, having ordered the Marines, against their better judgment, to seize Fallujah, a fractious city of 300,000, President Bush then stopped the assault mid-way to permit a 24-hour negotiation. Feith describes how at the NSC level, the battle for Fallujah was discussed in the context of political theories - how to placate the Sunnis, how to handle Sadr, etc. At the time, I was with a Marine commander whose battalion had gained momentum by breaking through a heavily-defended city block, only to be halted by the ceasefire. The battalion held onto that block, beating off attacks for 14 more days, while Feith describes the NSC deliberating political theory before calling off the attack altogether.
The NSC became too wrapped up in itself, forgetting that battle is determined by the spirit of those doing the fighting, and that the first duty of leaders is to take care of their men. One pores over Feith's book - so meticulous in describing a dysfunctional NSC - looking for the decisions that made a difference in the war. Feith was too much the gentleman to entitle his book, War and Indecision. But aside from handing over the keys to the kingdom to Bremer, it is hard to identify any NSC decision through mid-2004 that affected events on the ground. Feith describes interminable debates inside the NSC about Iraqi attitudes toward sovereignty and the role of expatriates.
"But none of these judgments," he concludes, "had any reality outside the subjective thoughts of the officials who asserted them."
That, unfortunately, is a fitting epitaph for the NSC during the early years of the war in Iraq.
Bing West's third book on Iraq - The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics and the End Game in Iraq - will be published by Random House in August.