War and Decision: Doug Feith Explains

Doug Feith has collected his memories from inside the Pentagon, circa 2001—2005. Henry Kissinger blurbs for the back cover, "Even those, as I, who take issue with some of its conclusions, will gain a better perspective from reading this book."

I have probably read more of Feith’s 674 pages than Kissinger did — and strangely enough, I find myself sharing the old devil’s take, just this once.

On page 3, I gained my first ah-ha moment. Feith relates that upon being notified in Moscow that a second plane had struck the towers in NYC, he heard Bush say on CNN "Terrorism against our nation will not stand." Feith immediately thought of Iraq, because Bush the younger had eerily echoed Pop’s words during the long U.S. mobilization for war against Iraq in the fall of 1990. Lesser mortals would qualify their personal list of countries the United States should bomb with actual events, real threats, and even the odd fact. But Doug Feith immediately grasped (and agreed with) the true Iraq-oriented intentions of our 43rd president, the latter fresh from the second grade and My Pet Goat. The Number Three suit in the Pentagon had his marching orders.

Who knew it was that simple? There was a time I laughed at Straussian esotericism as a guide for foreign policy, but no longer!

Fact-checking as I read, I am stopped briefly on page 4 where Feith writes that, "… the 9/11 attack took the lives of 189 people working at the Pentagon." Now, I don’t mean to set off the 9-11 truth movement, but is Doug Feith suggesting that in addition to the 125 Pentagon workers burned, crushed and suffocated to death on 9/11, the 64 passengers on Flight 77 were also Pentagon employees? Think of the implications… but I digress.

Look, numbers aren’t his thing. He’s an idea guy. For example, he believes in a global, comprehensive, multifaceted war on terror, and understands that, "[L]aw enforcement is merely an after-the-fact apparatus." Feith gives interesting eyewitness testimony of the various Yes-Men in the administration, including then-JCS Chairman Hank Shelton’s during a meeting two days after 9/11. Bush asked, "Can we do the Afghanistan and Iraq missions at the same time?" Shelton answered "Yes."

One might have thought that Shelton would have answered, "What Iraq mission, sir?" or perhaps the slightly more suitable, "Huh?" But one must recall that in February 1999, under a different President, then-JCS Chairman Shelton had conducted a press conference that went something like this:

Q: People in the Arab world and Islamic world, they are wondering whether the United States have the right to, I mean, to make the plans to overthrow the regime in Baghdad. You know, it is not according to international law; it is not according to anything. But it is an American plan to just overthrow the regime. What’s the opinion about that, and what’s the American strategy towards the Iraq regime in the coming period?

Gen. Shelton: Thank you. I think that not only our American leadership but the leadership throughout the international community — based on Saddam Hussein’s actions and the way that the Iraqi people have suffered under his leadership — all believe that Iraq would be better off if there was a change in the leadership, a change in the regime. We have made it clear that we would be willing to support those groups, both internal as well as external, that are opposed to Saddam Hussein, because we think that the Iraqi people deserve better. Now, we all also agree that we think that Iraq as a nation should continue. We’re not advocating a splintered Iraq. But we will continue to provide whatever support we can to those that would like to see a regime change.

Reading Feith’s memoir reminds us that the more things change, the more they stay the same. I don’t want to set off the "9-11 Changed Everything" crowd, but apparently they don’t follow their Pentagon briefings very closely! Regime change is regime change — and it’s one of the few reasons still given by our government for the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Feith does a good job of detailing the many Republicrats and Demmicans who supported more war with Iraq, and others, throughout the post-Cold War era.

Doug Feith grew up in a liberal family enamored of Franklin Roosevelt, and later, LBJ, yet he and his liberal classmates voted a pro-Vietnam War teacher as "most intelligent." Big governments and big wars don’t scare Doug Feith and implicitly, at a young age, he understood the integral nature of the warfare-welfare state. Typical of many neoconservative republicrats, Feith also worked for Senator Boeing (Scoop Jackson) and came to know the likes of Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, and even worked on Admiral Elmo Zumwalt’s failed campaign in the late 1970s to become a Democratic Senator of Virginia. I don’t want to set off the New World Order conspiracists, but we learn that it was Zumwalt who recommended Doug Feith for membership in the Council on Foreign Relations.

At the ripe age of 23, Feith tells us he was invited to join a new lobby, as a charter board member. That organization was JINSA, and the year was 1976. Chapter 2 of his memoir is entitled "Personal Trajectory." Apparently Feith was a precocious youth, devolving only years later into the remarkably incompetent and competitively stupid Pentagon bureaucrat that Tommy Franks had to work with.

But being stupid is not a crime, and Feith is certainly right about government price controls, when he writes that "gasoline lines occur only when governments try to control oil prices." It was this kind of pro-market attitude that brought him into the Reagan administration, but Feith doesn’t go far enough in his assessment of the existent unfree market. U.S. military intervention in the Middle East, since before the time of his heroic FDR, has been a way our government has tried to "control" oil prices. It is a costly way to do business — and the cost is largely unseen and often unmeasurable. It is a government subsidy, an effective price control, counted in vague defensive terms, exacted in hubris at home and anger abroad, accruing a moral and constitutional debt for all Americans.

Feith shares many unimportant things in his memoir, and of course, this is the charm of the genre. But the gaping holes in his history are themselves quite telling. His "personal trajectory" fails to mention his removal from the National Security Council staff and briefly denies the loss of a security clearance in 1982. It details very little about the fifteen years he spent (between September 1986 and July 2001) working with Jerusalem attorney Marc Zell on "public policy issues." Strangely, Zell is not even listed in the index, nor could I find him mentioned anywhere except as the nameless "friend" with whom Feith founded his law firm, Feith and Zell. We still know little about Marc Zell, an important character in Feith’s life and career, quoted extensively here. Feith also mentions little of substance in the heated congressional confirmation debate that occurred after he was nominated to be Bush 43’s Under Secretary for Defense Policy. For Feith it was pure party politics; as the President of the Arab American Institute pointed out in testimony before Congress and in an op-ed after Feith’s confirmation, there were serious national security issues at stake. The Office of Special Plans gets less than two pages, and curiously Abram Shulsky is indexed in the book only once, as a staff advisor, and is not mentioned as director of the OSP. Well — actually, Abe is mentioned twice; his review of the memoir is acknowledged and appreciated. Larry Franklin, an employee of Feith who was arrested for passing classified information to Israel, via AIPAC, is not mentioned in the book.

Gaping holes aside, the book clears up some concerns I had, as follows:

  • How did the shapeless and cerebral Feith get hired by mercurial and impatient wrestler Don Rumsfeld? By Feith’s own telling, Rumsfeld was profoundly unimpressed by Doug Feith in the interview room. However, in spite of Feith’s poor performance in his interview, " …the portrait painted by my colleagues over the years — Wolfowitz, Ikle, [Senator] Kyl, Perle and others — persuaded him…."
  • How did Feith get a post-Pentagon appointment at Georgetown teaching national security and anti-terrorism after leaving the Pentagon after the Iraq mission was accomplished? Turns out, in 1976 Feith had worked an internship at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency for a guy named Robert Gallucci. In 2004, Ambassador Gallucci was the dean of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, and he decided to hire Doug Feith.
  • What was the goal in Afghanistan? He writes: …the fundamental strategic goal of our attack — …was never to punish the Taliban, but to pressure state supporters of terrorism globally and thereby disrupt terrorist planning and operations (p. 125).
  • Did Feith really believe that Saddam Hussein and al Qaida worked together, or that there was a 9-11 link with Iraq? He writes: No one I know of believed Saddam was part of the 9/11 plot; we had no substantial reason to believe he was. Nor did we have any intelligence that Saddam was plotting specific operations with al Qaida or any other terrorist group (p. 215). According to this exhaustive study by the Center for Public Integrity on who said what and when, while in the Pentagon, Feith must have led a life of studied isolation. He knew no one in the administration, in mainstream media, in Washington, or in the rest of the country, and he apparently had no idea what he himself was saying in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.
  • What was the real problem in the decision-making relating to the Iraq war? He writes: When leaders decide that war is necessary, communicating that reasoning … is a critical element of strategy and statecraft. The Administration’s public statements were the basis on which the American people and their representatives in Congress supported the war. [There were] …flaws in that presentation…(p. 228).
  • Why did we go to war in Iraq? He writes: In my view, the reason to go to war with Iraq was self-defense (p. 235).
  • How is the occupation going? He writes: [The 14-month occupation ended in June 2004 and was] … in my view, unnecessary (p. 497)
  • What is strategy in war? He writes: Every strategy is an experiment, and one has to be ready to modify or abandon the hypothesis if real-world events contradict it (p. 123).
  • What is your judgment of President Bush? He writes: …[Bush] approached his national security responsibilities with solemnity, awe, and love for the Constitution. He faced grave problems and made difficult decisions with strategic insight and nonpartisan concern for the best interests of the country (p. 526).

This type of mulishness, and mulish writing, continues throughout the memoir. You’ve been forewarned.

Several questions I had were not addressed. I’m curious about how and when the basebuilding decisions were made, and the new strategic CENTCOM footprint (vacating Saudi Arabia, and surrounding Iran with permanent bases, lilypads and launching pads). We recall the travails of Army Corps of Engineers contracting officer Bunny Greenhouse when she pushed back at granting "emergency" sole-source Iraq construction contracts to Halliburton on a non-emergency five-year basis. Even though this is a major area of concern for the OSD policy directorate, Feith says nothing.

How did we build the bases without a status of forces agreement? No one seems to know the answers, except maybe Thucydides, who understood that the strong do what they will, while the weak suffer what they must.

Doug Feith has done his part to try and reshape the record of the last days of the American empire. Hamid Karzai was welcomed back by all Afghans as a democratic leader, and easily re-elected in 2004 (we dare not say how we got him elected or why). The war on terror is comprehensive, endless, defensive, and constitutional. War is the choice of presidents and kings and pharaohs, and they must convince people and the congresses to go along with it, and support it enthusiastically, and pay for it with their blood and their treasure. Saddam could have hurt us badly — and by implication if a weak, sanctioned, sick, unarmed dictatorship of 26 million people halfway around the world can gravely threaten our way of life, well…. You can see we need to be very afraid and we better trust the fine people appointed by the president to keep us safe.

Luckily, Feith’s Orwellian rewriting of history is flawed by his own lack of awareness of American history, his misunderstanding of the Constitution, and his curious lack of insight about who he is and what he represents, in a historical sense. Iraq in particular was a grave threat to no country, not even Israel — as the government of Israel is happy to remind us.

Feith suggests we conducted a preemptive defensive war against terrorism in Iraq. But the United States has steadily militarily colonized southern Europe, Afghanistan and Iraq not to defend against terrorism or anything else, but to defend favored regimes in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Israel, and to ensure sustained global demand for reserve dollars. Invasion of Iraq to create a safe haven for our own forces had been considered in certain circles even back when anti-communist Wahhabists were on the CIA payroll.

Had Feith discussed some of this thinking, and if possible, related it to terrorism, the book would have been more interesting, and more relevant to both the past and the future. Had he been more frank, and yet less catty about his observations of other key players, that would have given the book some unique value. As it stands, the book seems to be shoddily prepared and taped together, dusty and dated before it is even unwrapped, unsatisfying and aimed at an audience that already knows the punch line.

Perhaps, in this contrived and pained insider’s retelling of the Pentagon’s lurch to war, the medium is the message. If so, the war on terror may be on its way to the deep discount bin, and that would be a very good thing.