Fighting Words

A Tale of Two Tell-Alls

If you want to read a serious book about the intervention in Iraq, look to Douglas Feith.

When Bush’s Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill defected from the Cabinet in 2002 and Ron Suskind told O’Neill’s story of being surrounded by fools, Michael Kinsley observed that the president deserved all he got from the book. Anyone dumb enough to hire a fool like O’Neill in the first place ought to have known what to expect. So it goes with the ludicrous figure of Scott McClellan. I used to watch this mooncalf blunder his way through press conferences and think, Exactly where do we find such men? For the job of swabbing out the White House stables, yes. But for any task involving the weighing of words? Hah! Now it seems that he realizes, and with a shock at that, that there was a certain amount of “spin” or propaganda involved in his job description. Well, give the man a cigar. Beyond that, the book is effectively valueless to the anti-war camp since, as McClellan says of the president, “I consider him a fundamentally decent person, and I do not believe he or his White House deliberately or consciously sought to deceive the American people.”

Bertrand Russell’s principle of evidence against interest—if the pope has doubts about Jesus, his doubts are by definition more newsworthy than the next person’s—doesn’t really justify the ocean of coverage in which the talentless McClellan is currently so far out of his depth. For one thing, he doesn’t supply anything that can really be called evidence. For another, having not noticed any “propaganda machine” at the time he was perspiring his way through his simple job, he has a clear mercenary interest in discovering one in retrospect.

If you want to read a serious book about the origins and consequences of the intervention in Iraq in 2003, you owe it to yourself to get hold of a copy of Douglas Feith’s War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terrorism. As undersecretary of defense for policy, Feith was one of those most intimately involved in the argument about whether to and, if so, how to put an end to the regime of Saddam Hussein. His book contains notes made in real time at the National Security Council, a trove of declassified documentation, and a thoroughly well-organized catalog of sources and papers and memos. Feith has also done us the service of establishing a Web site where you can go and follow up all his sources and check them for yourself against his analysis and explanation. There is more of value in any chapter of this archive than in any of the ramblings of McClellan. As I write this on the first day of June, about a book that was published in the first week of April, the books pages of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Boston Globe have not seen fit to give Feith a review. An article on his book, written by the excellent James Risen for the news pages of the New York Times, has not run. This all might seem less questionable if it were not for the still-ballooning acreage awarded to Scott McClellan.

Feith was and is very much identified with the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party, and he certainly did not believe that Saddam Hussein was ever containable in a sanctions “box.” But he is capable of separating his views from his narrative, and this absorbing account of the interdepartmental and ideological quarrels within the Bush administration, on the Afghanistan and Guantanamo fronts as well as about Iraq, will make it difficult if not impossible for people to go on claiming that, for instance:

  1. There was no rational reason to suspect a continuing Iraqi WMD threat. Feith’s citations from the Duelfer Report alone are stunning in their implications.
  2. That alternatives to war were never discussed and that the administration was out to “get” Saddam Hussein from the start.
  3. That the advocates of regime change hoped and indeed planned to anoint Ahmad Chalabi as a figurehead leader in Baghdad.
  4. That there was no consideration given to postwar planning.

It’s also of considerable interest to learn that the main argument for adhering to the Geneva Conventions was made within the Pentagon and that the man who expressed the most prewar misgivings concerning Iraq was none other than Donald Rumsfeld. Feith doesn’t deny that he has biases of his own. One of these concerns the widely circulated charge that his own Office of Special Plans was engaged in cherry-picking and stovepiping intelligence. Another is the criticism, made by most of the neocon faction, of Paul Bremer and the occupation regime that he ran in Baghdad. In all instances, however, Feith writes in an unrancorous manner and is careful to supply the evidence and the testimony and, where possible, the actual documentation, from all sides.

Without explicitly saying so, Feith makes a huge contribution to the growing case for considering the Central Intelligence Agency to be well beyond salvage. Its role as a highly politicized and bewilderingly incompetent body, disastrous enough in having left us under open skies before Sept. 11, 2001, became something more like catastrophic with the gross mishandling of Iraq. For these revelations alone, this book is well worth the acquisition. (I might add that, unlike McClellan, Feith is contributing all his earnings and royalties to charities that care for our men and women in uniform.)

I don’t know Feith, but I can pay him two further compliments: When you read him on a detail with which you yourself are familiar, he is factually reliable (and it’s not often that one can say that, believe me). And his prose style is easy, nonbureaucratic, dry, and sometimes amusing. If a book that was truly informative was called a “tell-all” by our media, then War and Decision would qualify. As it is, we seem to reserve that term for the work of bigmouths who have little, if anything, to impart.