Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Setting the record straight?

Yesterday, I participated in a blogger conference call with Douglas Feith, whose new book attempts to set the record straight about Bush Administration decisionmaking in the run-up to and early stages of the Iraq war. I have to stress that I haven’t yet read the very long book, so I’m not going to offer a review of it. Rather, I want at the moment just to say a few words about Feith’s project and about some of the arguments that don’t depend upon close acquaintance with his insider’s knowledge of the events about which he writes.

As I’ve noted, his project is, above all, to provide a record that challenges the conventional wisdom about the Bush Administration’s deliberations. Consider, for example, his book’s website, which provides links to all the sources cited in his roughly 100 pages of footnotes that are available on the internet. His readers (and critics) can check the evidence for themselves. Feith also told us that he relied on notes he took of the meetings he attended. His view of these meetings is by no means impartial, and can be challenged. But, all things being equal, I would find a person who is willing to own his views more credible than someone disagrees anonymously.

So the defenders of the conventional wisdom--like the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank--will in the end have to rely on something more than ridicule to respond to the evidence. And other defenders, like the Post’s Thomas Ricks and Karen DeYoung--both of whom have written books that touch on Feith’s subject--will actually have to spend more than six hours with an incompletely edited manuscript in order adequately to characterize it. Will they? Well, thus far, the Post has declined to commission a review of the book, so perhaps they won’t have to.

One of the themes in our conversation with Feith that interested me the most is what he calls "strategic communication," the sustained effort to make the case for the Administration’s policy and explain it to the American people. For those of us who supported President Bush, this has been a source of immense frustration, as he and his subordinates have only sporadically sought to guide the public discussion. Feith offered a contrast between the Bush and Reagan Administrations on this point. While he praised the speeches delivered and arguments made by principal figures in the Bush Administration, he argued that, outside the limelight, the Administration failed. Here’s how he put it in the book:

White House officials did not generally encourage subcabinet officials to do speeches, interviews, or op-eds in support of our Iraq policy or our war on terrorism strategy. They chose to rely almost entirely on the President, Vice President, Powell, Rumsfeld, and Rice. That made it easier to keep official pronouncements “on message,” but it also meant writing off important audiences—including journalists, academics, and intellectuals—that could not be satisfied with generalizations delivered at a distance.

In the Reagan Administration, by contrast, there was a sustained effort to reach out to such audiences: officials were sent out with general themes, having the latitude to tailor them for specific audiences. Whether this would have made a big difference, I don’t know, but without the attempt, we’ll never know.

With great regret, Feith also cites the public release of the Duelfer Report, where apparently no concerted attempt was made to affect the public response to its simplest message. Yes, no stockpiles of WMD were found, which was the big headline. But, as Feith points out, the report also demonstrated that Saddam Hussein had retained his chemical and biological weapons facilities, his materiel, and his tech teams, so that the programs could have been started up within 3 - 5 weeks. The report also cited evidence of a clear intent to revive all the WMD programs, as soon as the West’s head was turned (as, indeed, it was turning). Once again, it might have been difficult to shift the press off the easy headline, but, Feith argues, no one made the effort, not even putting out a one page fact sheet aty the head of the report. The result, he says, was "a blow to American credibility from which we haven’t recovered and from which we may never recover" (as close as I could come to a direct quote while furiously taking notes).

If he were in the business of pointing fingers, this would have been a golden opportunity to blame someone. I asked him whose fault it was. His only response was that there’s plenty of blame to go around.

I’m buying the book. You should too.

Discussions - 17 Comments

Have you listened to Hugh Hewitt's interview of him? If not, check out Hewitt's website, where you can hear the audio clips. I too intend to read the book.

Oh come on, Joe. We went to war on the assumption that Saddam had stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons and a highly developed nuclear program. The Duelfer Report clearly stated that there were no such weapons and no active programs. The administration could have tried to spin that to make it appear less damaging -- indeed, Peter Wehner tired to do it with emails to prominent conservative intellectuals, including one to First Things -- but it would have been unconvincing. You don't invade a country over 4,000 miles from your borders, overthrow its government, and occupy it because its leader could one day restart a program that might create threatening weapons 3-5 years in the future. By that logic, any nation could invade any other nation at any time on the pretext of it being necessary to prevent a future threat. Until neocons admit the simple truth that this was a massive mistake, they will be unworthy of being trusted with responsibility for conducting our nation's foreign policy.

There were more reasons than WMD listed in Congress' sanctioning of hostilities. WMD was privileged by some, especially when they didn't materialize, but we had a host of compelling reasons obligating us to destroy him, his sons, his whole damn regime.

Let's not play fast and loose with the facts for minor political points, which in the scoring thereof only injure ourselves.

Saddam was up to his neck in the fomenting of muslim mayhem. That was more than enough reason to expunge him from the face of the earth.

Saddam had a record of attacking neighbors and using WMD, both against neighbors and against his own people. By itself, this was reason enough to distinguish him from the "run of the mill" dictator with nuclear ambitions.

Even without 9/11, even assuming arguendo that Saddam had no WMD, which is a huge assumption by the way, even without that, we had a bevy of reasons to move against him in strength. Just as we have a bevy of reasons to move against Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia.

We don't need any additional reason, just as we don't require any additional proof. We have more than enough.

The "mainstream" media is no longer the place, if it ever was, to learn what's going on. Screw them.

I'm not at all sure it would help, say, McCain to get a national conversation going on the merits of the invasion. There were good reasons for kicking the cruel and murderous psycho Saddam out, but his actual possession of WMDs or connections with the actual 9/11 terrorists turned out not to be among them. Yet they are the ones we mistakenly emphasized in public. And of course there were really good reasons for invading if success would likely be quick, fairly easy, and an accomplishment that would satisfy our friends and stupefy our enemies. But all in all it's hard to say that the botched occupation has, over the longer term, increased the respect we get or made our job of keeping the world's crazies in line easier. I'm for the staying the course and all that now. BUT: Although reviewing the record probably vindicates the president's honor, it's at the expense of a focus on a lot of "issues" about basic competence and sound planning. In retrospect, the invasion seems much more of a roll of the dice than it should have been. Our "Republican" focus should be on facing responsibily current challenges.

"...facing responsibly current challenges"

By facing "responsibly" in that sentence, do you mean facing "prudently" or "practically"?

People seem to understand the ideological reasons for going into Iraq, and then feel free to disagree. A better explanation of why it was the right thing to do on practical grounds would have been better and certainly safer, politically. As it is, the complaints about "neo-conservatives" have all been about an ideological reason for the war that did not seem prudent, because ideological and not practical.

Of course, if there were no reasonable reasons that would have stood up to public scrutiny and made a good job of political salesmanship possible, then no wonder it never happened. Those folks who speak confidently of GWB being vindicated in time, as in "He's like Truman, and will be appreciated later." are counting on a straightened record, a full accounting of events and eventualities that are vindication.

Anyway, a bevy of reasons to move against any country does not mean that it is wise or even expedient to do so. If this war puts a Democratic ideologue in the White House and gives us a Congress full of the same, even the best and brightest possible reasons for invasion are going seem pretty dim and unsatisfying.

Anyway, a bevy of reasons to move against any country does not mean that it is wise or even expedient to do so. If this war puts a Democratic ideologue in the White House and gives us a Congress full of the same, even the best and brightest possible reasons for invasion are going seem pretty dim and unsatisfying.

Thank you, Kate. This is exactly right. Whatever the reason really was for invading Iraq (I suspect it had a lot more to do with the overall policy of "draining the swamp" in the Middle East), the administration foolishly chose to put WMDs front and center of its justification. Now the only question is whether it was stupid or lying.

"Now the only question is whether it was stupid or lying."

Neither, it is just not a great PR machine.

Peter: yes.

Kate: yes.

John: yes.

the administration foolishly chose to put WMDs front and center of its justification. Now the only question is whether it was stupid or lying.

I'm very far from being a Bush fan, but that seems unduely harsh. The decision was made on the best intelligence available. The intelligence was wrong, and Bush can be faulted for not leading a reform of the CIA, but knowing what we thought we knew in late 2002, it was the right move.

That's why so many Democrats signed off on it.

The aftermath was bungled though. I still think we should have installed a more-or-less pro Western strongman, a Franco or Pinochet type. And then left.

Peter: Yes, but the issue isn't going to go away. Honor matters, false history and political myths matter, and so does the civil "I can see why you thought that" discourse that 80% of the Dems simply abandoned on this issue.

Kate: Yes.

John: Hell no.

Oops, duh, my bad. I meant that "Hell no" for John Moser, not John. There is something to the shoulda-backed-a-liberalizing-strongman argument. Hard to think the American populace would have accepted it in 2003, however.

On reflection, I need to qualify my "yes" to John Moser. I don't think excessive hopefulness amounts to stupidity, and I don't think mendacity played a role in it. But they should have been much more careful about the intelligence.

Carl's response to Peter: Yes.

Joe: Yes

John, wasn't Chalabi supposed to be our strongman? He turned out not to be so strong. Oh well.

The best you will get on an interpretation of the war and policies and decisions leading up to the same. A must to read by every American truly interested in these times and what we are faced with. I could not put it down!!!

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