WAR AND DECISION: INSIDE THE PENTAGON AT THE DAWN OF THE WAR ON TERRORISM
By Douglas J. Feith
HarperCollins, $27.95, 674 pages
REVIEWED BY JOHN WEISMAN
There is a lot to recommend “War and Decision,” Douglas J. Feith’s apologia of his 2001-2005 tour as Donald Rumsfeld’s under secretary of defense for policy. Few books have chronicled the labyrinthine, cutthroat process of policy-making from the inside in as detailed a manner as has Mr. Feith. Mr. Feith is also a fine writer. But the most important contribution “W&D” makes to the growing body of literature about Afghanistan, Iraq, and the war on terror and why it should be required reading in schools of public service and government was probably inadvertent on Mr. Feith’s part.
“W&D” should be widely read so we never again make the mistakes Mr. Feith and his fellow Pentagon, State Department, CIA and White House senior political staffers made during their planning and execution of the Iraq war, or their tunnel vision abandonment of a successful Afghan campaign that has condemned us to near stalemate and a rejuvenated, opium-funded Taliban. It is obvious Mr. Feith is bright. His vacuity about the real world, however, is shocking.
But not unexpected. Mr. Feith’s entire professional life has been spent either in the practice of law or the development of public policy. Thus, he comes off as the textbook example of someone to whom process is more important than victory. Mr. Feith loses sight of the real battlefields — the ones on which soldiers die — in favor of the paper wars fought between competing factions of bureaucrats.
This is a fatal flaw during wartime. Winston Churchill — one of Mr. Feith’s heroes — understood this truth. To Churchill, victory meant everything. And if it took head-cracking and tossing process out the window to achieve victory at all costs, so be it. Mr. Feith doesn’t think that way. For Mr. Feith, process is all.
There are also some gaps in “W&D.” But then Mr. Feith, like the lawyer he is, is prone to buttressing his position with pointillist details and citations while leaving out anything that might give aid and comfort to opposing counsel. He is hugely antagonistic toward CIA. Thus, CIA’s many flaws get ample verbiage in “War and Decision.” Its accomplishments do not. Even when they deserve to.
Take for example Mr. Feith’s timeline “Afghanistan and the War on Terror, September 2001-December 2002.” He cites October 7 as the beginning of the Afghan war and October 19th as “First entry into Afghanistan of U.S. Special Ops Forces.” Neither Mr. Feith’s timeline nor his prose mention the fact that CIA’s JAWBREAKER team led by veteran CIA operations officer Gary C. Schroen hit the ground in Afghanistan at 2:45 PM (Local time) on 26 September, 2001, more than three weeks before the first Green Beret.
Mr. Feith never explains that JAWBREAKER, which carried millions of dollars to buy the Northern Alliance’s assistance, both paved the way for the Army’s special operations personnel, and worked hand in glove with its SF partners to marshal indigenous forces that killed and captured large numbers of Taliban and al-Qaeda combatants.
Equally jarring is Mr. Feith’s wide-eyed assertion that his colleague Paul Wolfowitz made “an important contribution” by proposing the concept that Green Beret forces “make contact with the Afghan Northern Alliance and any other potentially cooperating local forces” to act as force multipliers. What is mind-boggling about his assertion is that Mr. Feith appears to have no idea that Green Berets have been acting as force multipliers for decades. Indeed, they are doing exactly that in Afghanistan right now.
Maybe it’s naive, but one expects that under secretaries of defense will have at minimum a rudimentary working knowledge of military doctrine and capabilities. Mr. Feith seems not to, which becomes even more than frightening given his wide swath of responsibilities under Secretary Rumsfeld.
Another example of Mr. Feith’s real-world ignorance is evident in his coverage of Secretary Rumsfeld’s “Strategic Thoughts” paper, Mr. Rumsfeld’s “conception of a global war on terrorism.” In a nutshell, the Rumsfeldian concept was to get state sponsors of terrorism to alter their behavior through an asymmetric stick-and-carrot combination of military threat, political pressure, humanitarian aid and the use of NGOs.
Again, Mr. Feith’s wide-eyed, ‘gee whiz’ reaction belies the fact that this approach is essentially the same one employed in the 1980s by such counterterrorist pioneers as Adm. James A. Lyons, Jr., who as CINCPACFLT balanced the projection of awesome American sea power with the subtle threat of special forces and humanitarian assistance of the hospital ship USNS Mercy, or Duane R. Clarridge, creator and first chief of CIA CounterTerrorist Center, whose effective asymmetric campaign against the Abu Nidal Organization combined covert action, diplomacy, and PSYOP elements to put Abu Nidal out of business. Seems to me that one vital part of policy-making is knowing when you’ve invented the wheel, and when you haven’t. Once again, Mr. Feith seems clueless.
Mr. Feith does a fair amount of score-settling in “W&D.” He repeatedly goes after CIA for its shoddy work, politicized leadership and flawed analysis. And he hits CIA for its inability to gather human-sourced intelligence. “We knew the CIA’s coverage of Iraq was spotty,” Mr. Feith writes, “though it wasn’t until after Saddam’s ouster that we learned how pathetically scant its sources in Iraq were.”
But even here Mr. Feith’s puzzlement is troubling, because as far back as 2001, CIA alumni (including veteran Middle East Clandestine Service officer Robert Baer in his memoir “See No Evil”) had gone public about CIA’s dearth of human sources in Iraq and the bloodshed and turmoil that would follow any regime change. Did no one in Mr. Feith’s office — including Mr. Feith’s trusted staffer Chris Straub — who had actually traveled to Northern Iraq with Mr. Baer in the 1990s — read any of these articles or books?
Mr. Feith does have a nice way with words. He portrays former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage as “A hulking bodybuilder with a foghorn voice [who] cultivated the persona of a stereotypical longshoreman union enforcer.” Nicely done and spot-on accurate. To Mr. Feith, Mr. Armitage is a constant roadblock to effective policy.
So is Mr. Armitage’s boss, SECSTATE Colin Powell, who comes off as insincere and ineffective when it comes to pushing the administration’s positions. Mr. Feith is convinced that if Mr. Powell had arm-twisted the Europeans — especially the French and the Germans — and had put his prestige on the line with the Turks pre-invasion, things might have gone differently. And CENTCOM commander Gen. Tommy Franks (who according to Bob Woodward’s 2004 book “Plan of Attack” once referred to Mr. Feith as “the [expletive] stupidest guy on the face of the earth”), is castigated mainly for his inattention to post-war planning in Iraq.
Here, I must quibble. In his criticism of Gen. Franks, Mr. Feith is far too kind.
There are also fascinating enlightenments. Mr. Feith relates how SECDEF Rumsfeld wrote a pre-war memo listing all the possible calamities that could befall the United States in Iraq. It is unsettling to realize that most of Mr. Rumsfeld’s list, which came to be known as the “Parade of the Horribles,” came true. And Mr. Feith admits straight up that neither he nor Mr. Rumsfeld nor anyone else anticipated “post regime violence of the type that we encountered in the insurgency …” The evidence was there of course, but no one wanted to see it.
And if there was ever any doubt that the Bush administration became so fixated on Iraq that it allowed its initial success in Afghanistan to wither from inattention, Mr. Feith provides a smoking gun. All one has to do is check the index of his book for “Afghanistan.” After page 165 of a tome that runs 674 pages there are but three passing citations. Obviously in Mr. Feith’s mind, and by extension the administration’s, Afghanistan was no longer a matter of consequence once the decision to invade Iraq was made. Once again, process trumped victory. Quel dommage.
John Weisman’s most recent CIA novel, “Direct Action,” is currently available from Avon Books. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.