War and Decision
by Douglas J. Feith
New York: Harper, 2008. 674 pp. $27.95
Reviewed by Michael Rubin
Middle East Quarterly
Former U.S. officials, military officers, and journalists have penned dozens of books about the decision to oust Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and its aftermath. Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy between 2001 and 2005, has written one of the better accounts. Feith makes little attempt to present a broad history of prewar decision-making, instead focusing only on those aspects in which he played a substantial role. A comparison of his account with those of many journalists and pundits—George Packer, Tom Ricks, Peter Galbraith, and Larry Diamond, for example—shows just how shallow previous works have been. Feith sheds light on key debates about which writers who have portrayed themselves as central figures were unaware, such as the detailed debate about whether U.S. forces should engage in a prolonged occupation of Iraq. Feith had argued against occupation but was outmaneuvered by Deputy National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, his subordinate Zalmay Khalilzad, and State Department official Ryan Crocker.
Feith uses his account to correct the record—convincingly—about the false conventional wisdom that permeates many journalistic accounts of Iraq war planning and his tenure. He refutes allegations that the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans—to which this reviewer was assigned as a Council for Foreign Relations international affairs fellow—was involved in collecting intelligence when it was, in reality, a policy shop, the corollary to the State Department's Office of North Gulf Affairs. Feith also counters the notion that the Pentagon had ignored the State Department's Future of Iraq Project reports, which, despite their characterization in some press accounts, did not constitute postwar plans. And he dismisses as unfounded reports that he or anyone in the Pentagon simply sought to anoint Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi as Iraq's leader after Saddam's fall.
War and Decision is not perfect, however. Feith emerged from the Pentagon as perhaps its most vilified figure with both civilian and military officials singling out Feith for criticism. If Feith was right and his detractors often wrong, why did Feith become the scapegoat? Here, the book lacks introspection. Why did so many people consider Feith arrogant? Why did the uniformed military have a far poorer opinion of Feith than any other civilian official except, perhaps, Rumsfeld? Such questions are not merely academic because the passionate, if not irrational, hatred directed at Feith may very well have colored policy debates. Did diplomats and military officials oppose Feith's ideas on their merits, or were they prepared to undermine any proposal advanced by Feith simply to counter him? An old Washington adage goes that "Personnel are policy." There is no better example than Feith. If War and Decision is a study of leadership, his lack of introspection undermines it—or reflects the difficulty of Feith's tenure.
Nevertheless, Feith's study is much needed. Prior to his tome's publication, descriptions of Iraq war planning were like the proverbial blind men's description of the elephant. Many officials depicted the trunk or the tail. Journalists were myopic; they relied on leaks by officials who themselves had little insight. With War and Decision, Feith goes a long way to describing the elephant's body. His may not be the final account of the Iraq war, but it will certainly provide the basis for future historians.
Related Topics: Iraq, US policy | Michael Rubin | Winter 2009 MEQ
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