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.