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A treasure trove: Douglas Feith’s “War and Decision”

Like a lot of libertarians who had to put up with abuse from his more “purist” minded fellows for my support for the overthrow of Saddam’s regime in Iraq, I had second, third and even fourth thoughts about the whole venture. And my views on the situation are still not really settled eight years on from the start of full combat operations in 2003, and so I am still trying to reach a conclusion.

With that sort of thought in mind, a few days ago I got hold of Douglas Feith’s War and Decision, a book by a former senior Bush administration policy man at the very centre of things. Feith’s book contains absolute dynamite: links between Saddam’s regime and various terrorist groups (established as a clear fact) including al-Quaeda, and also a fair, but in its way devastating critique of the politicking, deviousness and general uselessness of the CIA. And after reading this book it occurs to me, rather like it did to writers such as Mark Steyn, that the CIA had become riddled with bureaucratic do-nothingism around the time of 9/11. There is a very good case for shutting the CIA down and rethinking how to handle such issues from a clean sheet of paper.

The book is also fatal to the reputation and judgement of Colin Powell, former Secretary of State. It also rehabilitates that of Donald Rumsfeld in certain respects, while not sparing criticism where it is due. And the book certainly does fess up to the administration’s failure to predict the scale of the insurgency, although Feith argues that one major error – encouraged by the CIA and the likes of Paul Bremer – was not moving fast enough to get Iraqis, both “external” and internal, into the government of Iraq post-invasion. By acting as an “occupier”, Feith says, the US gave opponents valuable propaganda. He’s got a good a point: consider that one of the smart moves by Churchill et al in 1944 was to get the Free French involved in the invasion of Normandy and subsequent entry into Paris. Getting the Iraqis to have “ownership” of the liberation of that tormented country would have been a smart move. It never really happened. And part of the reason for that was an almost pathological distrust of expat Iraqis by Powell, the CIA and other anti-neocons. This is fascinating stuff I had not really been aware of before. Another big error is over the whole issue of weapons of mass destruction: Feith argues that Bush and others gave needless ammuntion to fairweather hawks by arguing that Saddam had large stockpiles of X or Y; rather, the problem was Saddam’s capacity and clearly proven willingness to produce such weapons and use them that was the core of the problem. The 1990s-era sanctions were fast eroding by the turn of the last century; given a few years, it is highly likely that Saddam would be able to re-start his WMD programmes and use such weapons to deter any regime from trying to make him behave, in much the same way that Iran is now dangerously close to the point where it can support terror groups with impunity.

Through it all, the central issues that remains – in terms of foreign policy and defence – is George W Bush’s “pre-emption” policy. And it is well to remember that as far as Feith and other wonks were concerned, this was not about spreading democracy at “the point of a gun”, or about some dastardly neocon project to completely reshape the Islamic world. Rather, it was about a more specific objective, and one which, in my view, is fully consistent with the libertarian principle that military force in self defence is justified. That objective is to throw jihadists and their state sponsors off-balance: by destroying their bases, cutting off funds, killing key operatives, etc. The more that jihadists have to hide, to run, and spend time playing defence, the less time they have to cause mischief.

It is pretty clear from the letters and information presented by Feith that terrorist groups were using Iraq as a haven, and with Saddam’s active blessing. It also nails the idea that because Saddam’s regime was, in some ways, a “secular” one, that meant he had no real incentive to support islamic terror against the West. As Feith says, this argument has been greatly overdone: there is plenty of reason to suppose that tactical, for-convenience-sake alliances between “secular” and religious groups can be as lethal as those between religious states and religious groups.

Anyway, having read the book, I can strongly recommend it. I leave with this quote, on page 523:

“But the largest benefit of success is avoiding the horrific costs of failure. Preventing calamities is one of the most important and least appreciated functions of government. When an evil is averted – perhaps as a result of insight, intensive effort and administrative skill – the result is that nothing happens. It is easy, after the fact, for critics to ignore or deprecate the accomplishment. Political opponents may scoff at the effort as unnecessary, citing the absence of disaster as proof that the problem could not have been very serious to begin with. After the Cold War, some commentators argued that the West’s victory was no big deal because the Soviet Union’s demise proved that the communist empire wasn’t much of a power after all. Likewise, because the United States has not suffered a large-scale terrorist attack since 9/11, some commentators have belittled the challenge of jihadist terrorism as overblown and ridiculed the description of it as “war”. And since Saddam has been overthrown, there are critics who speak dismissively of the danger he posed.”

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20 comments to A treasure trove: Douglas Feith’s “War and Decision”

  • Rich Rostrom

    …one of the smart moves by Churchill et al in 1944…

    Not really. Free France had been established in 1940, and immediately acquired a territorial base in French Equatorial Africa. By D-Day, Free France was in control of the entire French colonial empire except Indochina, plus Algeria (then considered part of “metropolitan” France), and Corsica (definitely part of “metropolitan” France), with authority over millions of French citizens. Free France had also formed substantial armed forces, including a full army corps of over 100,000 men.

    Thus, by D-Day there was no real decision to be made. The decision was made in 1940 when Churchill recognized De Gaulle’s group as the legitimate government-in-exile of France.

    It might have been useful if the U.S. had formed an Iraqi government-in-exile before the invasion, but that would have been tricky. There was no one of status comparable to De Gaulle, and Saddam was not a foreign occupier or lackey of one, so rallying Iraqis against him would be a lot harder.

    But I certainly agree that the CIA (and the State Department) contributed nothing but obstruction and misdirection. These “Arabists” wanted to keep the incumbent Sunni elite in power – that was what their Saudi friends wanted, and what they were comfortable with.

    The alternative was a more populist Shi’a-based regime, probably with Ahmed Chalabi in charge or playing a big role. Chalabi is no saint, but it appears that the CIA et al hated him for having been right when they were egregiously wrong about earlier operations in Iraq. There’s something to be said for having the right enemies.

    But as the old horseplayers used to say, “Shoulda, woulda, coulda…”

  • Laird

    Johnathan, I share your ambivalence over the Iraq invasion. I supported the invasion at the time, and still think it was the right thing to do in the aftermath of 9/11 (and I look forward to reading Feith’s book). I have no problem with a pre-emptive attack provided that the target poses a legitimate threat; one needn’t wait to be actually attacked before retaliating if the threat is real. Clearly, however, while we did an excellent job with the swift destruction of Hussein’s military, it is clear that we had absolutely no coherent plan for the aftermath. That was Bush’s (and Powell’s) unforgiveable error.

    Also, if our mission truly was the destruction of terrorist bases and their support systems, and the elimination of Hussein’s (existing or potential) WMD capability, and not “regime change” or the “exportation of democracy”, then at the end of the destruction phase our job was done. We should have gone home then, rather than occupying the country or rebuilding it; that was a job for the Iraqis, and whether they did it well or poorly was not our concern. Furthermore, as with any victorious army, we should have demanded war reparations, at the very least seizing some fraction (25%?) of Iraq’s oil production until our costs had been recouped.

    Which brings us, inevitably, to Libya. I saw no existential threat coming from Tripoli and opposed our involvement there, but Gadaffi certainly has a bad history and I could be wrong about that. Nonethelss, having made the decision to join in the attack against him, we should withdraw our forces as promptly as possible, avoid at all costs sending US troops into the country (either directly or through NATO), and demand reparations for our direct costs. If we’re going to go to war over oil, we should at least get some of it (rather than letting it all go to France).

    Also, nice post, Rich.

  • AndyJ

    It is easy to disparage the less-than-perfect results of any activity. Ignoring the alternatives is also foolish. No one knows the future. We -all- look ahead and make our plans and decisions based on what we expect/hope to be the best results.

    In politics being right is not good enough. One must be overwhelmingly right and able to quickly demonstrate that any immediate failure to act would have brought dire consequences. I watched Pierre Trudeau delay-delay-delay on any action until the whole spectrum was shouting or action; then act. Older politicians preferred to solve problems long in advance of their arrival when they are small and inexpensive.

    We are in a TV/internet world where quick reactions save the day. Acting early is boring and opens the complaints of cowboy-ism, adventure-ism, and macho-ego-ism…

    We are in Libya for the same reasons we went into Somalia, Kosovo, Macedonia and all the other little wars… because Someone Has To… altho, it gets expensive and dangerous as well as potentially drawing the US further in…

    Bug-Out Bill showed in Somalia- when the US runs away it emboldens observers. A response of overwhelming force would save so many lives and cower the observers. Nobody expected Bush to stay in Iraq… same in Afghanistan… Bug-Out-Barry has stayed longer than he said and when Aug 1 rolls around the US will still be there…Just as we are still in Kosovo…

    Think of the trillions not spent on military weapons and preparedness the past 60 years…
    It’s not a role America chose. but nobody else seemed to step forward.

    The US waited and waited and waited for Europe to act as Yugoslavia broke apart… The alternatives to US action would make/have made a much more dangerous world.

    We cannot live in the past with everything known and more details flowing as the years progress… we have to live in the present and anticipate the future.

  • PeterT

    Well, well

    I too supported the invasion of Iraq at the time, but am embarrased about it now, as everybody else in the same position should be.

    Whatever we might say now, at the time the case for invading Iraq on grounds of self-defense was extremely weak. Ultimately the war and its aftermath led to the death of at least one hundred thousand people, with some estimates coming close to half a million.

    Compared to other government actions, wars have a relatively large probability of extremely negative ‘tail’ outcomes. War is, or should be, the libertarian’s ultimate nightmare – mass violation of individual life and property.

    It is mostly only governments that are capable of idiotic and amoral action on this scale which is why they should be feared, hated, and resisted. The AGW circus is a good example of the kind of sh#t only governments can pull off. No evidence of danger, potentially catastrophic consequences of action.

    Following this..

    I think the case for going to war in Libya is much stronger than was the case for going to war in Iraq.

    a) There is a homegrown revolution that began without western support.

    b) There is relatively strong international support for the current level of military action, including in the middle east.

    c) No ethnic tensions, at least compared to Iraq – the Yugoslavia of the middle east.

    d) It should be relatively quick to get the oil flowing again once this is over.

    e) Iran does not share a border with Libya.

    This does not mean that we should support the war in Libya. My point is that on the face of it the various risks of military action are much much lower than they were in the case of Iraq.

    There are situations in which the potential outcomes of both action and inaction could be unpalatable. But we do not know this in advance. It is generally advisable to take incremental action and not throw caution to the wind.

  • Laird

    “We are in Libya for the same reasons we went into Somalia, Kosovo, Macedonia and all the other little wars . . . because Someone Has To.”

    Why? Just because you (or some other do-gooder) claims that “someone” has to do so doesn’t make it true. It also doesn’t mean that I have to be that Someone. Organize an army and go do it yourself. No one’s stopping you. But I’m not paying for it.

    “The US waited and waited and waited for Europe to act as Yugoslavia broke apart… The alternatives to US action would make/have made a much more dangerous world.”

    No, although it might have made Europe a more dangeous place. So let the Europeans deal with it. And pay for it. Not my problem.

    If you don’t go in at all you never reach the problem of “running away”, do you?

  • Laird

    PeterT, the one thing missing from your list is the existence of any sort of threat to the US (or anyone else for that matter, but my concern is with US involvement). And that’s the only legitimate justification for military action. In 2003 there was at least a colorable threat from Iraq (even if subsequent developments showed that it was overblown); there is none in Libya, and no one is even pretending that there is. If the Arab League sees a problem in Libya let them deal with it. I don’t see their aircraft enforcing the “no-fly” zone, do you? Funny, that, no?

    And as to that “homegrown revolution”, the more we learn about it the more involvement we see by Iran and al Qaeda. Don’t you just love the irony of the US military defending al Qaeda? So here’s my modest proposal: arm the rebels, then stand back and let both sides slaughter each other. We win either way.

  • Peter Melia

    A very good article, Jonathan, must look out for the book.
    However, perhaps Churchill’s move with regards to France might not be so clear cut in Iraq, or indeed in any Muslim country.
    There is the Shiite/Sunni divide.
    I think that the Eastern third of Iraq is peopled by Shiites as is Iran, and the South-Western people are Sunnis as are the Saudis.
    In the North are the Kurds who are also Sunnis.
    The Shiites also believe in the “12th Imam” which is now being widely talked about.

  • guy herbert

    Jonathan, I’m fascinated how you think the book can establish “as clear fact” particular things in the murky matter of Middle East politics.

    And I wonder why we should take one side rather than another in the Washington turf wars, of which an apologia for his part in the Bush administration and the Office of Special Plans by Feith forms part. I’m not a great fan of the CIA. But if the choice is between that blowsy agency and the subltly, insight disinterest and grand strategic acumen of the DoD, which he here represents, I could just as easily be.

    But then I guess I’m one of those people he attempts to slur by suggesting they can be categorised with those he imagines are retrospectively complacent about the Cold War. (Though what seems to emerge from the Mitrokhin Archive is that US grand strategy very nearly lost it in the Third World, when it should have been a walkover.) I do think Saddam didn’t pose a great threat (though there were sound strategic reasons for overthrowing him, badly served by the practice). I am even less sympathetic on the ‘war on terror’ than his straw men are. I think it is more of a threat to a free society than the jihadis.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Guy writes:

    Jonathan, I’m fascinated how you think the book can establish “as clear fact” particular things in the murky matter of Middle East politics.

    The facts are listed in memos from the CIA and others, some of which were not published before. There is a whole collection of this material that Feith lists in his book and which he is now publishing on his own website. What is convincing is that the evidence he gives is not hearsay or suchlike. And he is reliable: a lot of his material can be corroborated and cross-referenced. That is a big plus in my book.

    The way he dissects the dissembling of certain people – such as Powell – is deadly because he relies on published comments and actual actions, and then checks them against other facts. This is not just a case of “my word against yours”.

    I’m not a great fan of the CIA. But if the choice is between that blowsy agency and the subltly, insight disinterest and grand strategic acumen of the DoD, which he here represents, I could just as easily be.

    It is not necessary to put faith in any branch of the US administration. But it stands to reason, given the CIA’s track record in failing to do its basic job – ie, predict and stop 9/11 and suchlike – that that organisation has some self-justification to do. And the advice and commentary coming out of Rumsfeld’s office looks a damn sight more credible than the stuff from Tenet, Armitage or others.

    But then I guess I’m one of those people he attempts to slur by suggesting they can be categorised with those he imagines are retrospectively complacent about the Cold War.

    Maybe he is, Guy. The point is that an awful lot of people, almost within days of the Berlin Wall coming down, were saying words to the effect that “oh, the Russians were never much of a bother anyway, all that stuff about their armies was just Reaganite propaganda…”. Funny, because a lot of these folk were also claiming that Russia was in some ways the economic equal of the West just a short time before. I don’t recall them saying that it was a paper tiger back in say, 1984.

    One thing that libertarians need to grasp is not to assume that we have an either/or choice: security vs liberty. In the case of some libertarians, they try to choose sides by denying that there is much of a problem in the first place.

  • John B

    If Bush had not been destroyed by his own administration he might have done something good.
    As things were, it was probably a set up to get rid of the good conservative optimism that had come in during the Reagan/Thatcher/Lech Walesa/Pope John Paul era.
    And it worked.
    There are terrible plots afoot now, it seems.

  • Paul Marks

    I never supported the Iraq operation of 2003 – not for “legal” reasons (I am not intereted in “international law” which these days means the arbitrary whims of the United Nations and other leftist groups and organizations).The war with Saddam over Kuwait had never formally ended – and both Congress and the British House of Commons voted to send forces against Saddam, that was the only law I was interested in.

    My objections to the operation were practical ones.

    I feared a pro Iranian regime would come to power (I am still concerned about that).

    And….

    I did not think that it would be worth the lives and, yes, the MONEY the operation would cost.

    My opinion has not changed.

    However, I despised most of the people in Britain who were against the operation – believing them to be anti American fanatics.

    My opinion of them has not changed either.

  • For the life of me I cannot understand how people who are paranoid about the slightest regulatory movement by busybodies and do-gooders can, in ambivalence support an action that imposes death and destruction upon people. If the level of skepticism for, say, a carbon tax is so high on this blog, what should the commensurate level of skepticism about “nation-building” and pre-emptive war be?
    In short, are you fucking insane or what?

  • Johnathan Pearce

    For the life of me I cannot understand how people who are paranoid about the slightest regulatory movement by busybodies and do-gooders can, in ambivalence support an action that imposes death and destruction upon people. If the level of skepticism for, say, a carbon tax is so high on this blog, what should the commensurate level of skepticism about “nation-building” and pre-emptive war be?
    In short, are you fucking insane or what?

    For a person using the tag “Contemplationist”, that was a remarkably overwrought comment. First off, we are not “paranoid” about regulations: I like to think that libertarians tend to take a more nuanced view: it is STATE regulations that tend to be the problem. Private regulations (such as dress codes in a club, rules governing a private stock exchange, no).

    Second, there is a rather massive difference between pre-emptively taking down a regime that has done all the horrendous things Saddam’s did, and threatened to do, on the one hand, and taxing economic activity in the name of an unproven and highly questionable theory (AGW), on the other. I think drawing such a parallel is, to use your expression, “fucking insane”.

    That said, there is a very rough similarity between the Precautionary Principle, as invoked by some Greens, and the pre-emption doctrine, as applied to dealing with rogue nations. But I would argue that in the latter case, the proponents have rather a lot of actual evidence to base their ideas on. However, in both cases, it is entirely legitimate for libertarians, and anyone else, to point out that the Precautionary Principle and Pre-emption have costs, such as lost output, potential loss of life, etc.

    But remember, even a minimal, libertarian state applies some kind of precautionary principle: we have courts, judges and external defence as a precaution against possible attack, etc.

  • It really is remarkable. The 19 jihadi Saudis and Egyptians did not result in attacks on Saudi Arabia. But Iraq it did! Oh, what about Pakistan the CREATORS of Taliban and nurturers of Bin Laden? They get more fighter planes and billions in aid! Oh my. It seems like 2002-2004 were times of mass psychosis where every bad argument was swallowed up even by the supposedly cynical libertarians for death and destruction.

    So the regime did bad things eh? I see. Do you need me to list all the regimes in this bastard world of ours that have committed atrocities?

    Do you not see how you are beholden to Progressive 20th century notions of bold plans and actions to remake societies instead of the conservative stance of caution? Do you not know enough history to know that “isolationist” is a swear word cooked up by 20th C PROGRESSIVES to diss Conservatives who did not want shit to do with the First World War?

    The point about regulations was about proportionality. You ( and I) would rightly denounce and scrutinize very hard the idea of a Green regulatory regime. How then can so callous a reason as “fight them there so we dont fight them here” be applied towards War?

    Really no one has any business whatsoever calling himself a libertarian if hes ambivalent about the Iraq war in 2011. None at all.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Well Contemplationist, I think I will reserve judgement on who gets to decide whether anyone is or is not a libertarian.

    Let’s unpack:

    “The 19 jihadi Saudis and Egyptians did not result in attacks on Saudi Arabia. But Iraq it did! Oh, what about Pakistan the CREATORS of Taliban and nurturers of Bin Laden? They get more fighter planes and billions in aid! Oh my. It seems like 2002-2004 were times of mass psychosis where every bad argument was swallowed up even by the supposedly cynical libertarians for death and destruction.”

    Well leaving aside the silly final sentence, you are of course entirely correct that the terrorists of 9/11, and in relation to other events, came from a number of countries. But you are overlooking the point that the West had to start somewhere in taking down regimes considered to be a threat. Saudi and Pakistan claimed – however shakily – to be trying to co-operate in dealing with such people. I personally think we have been way too lenient on both countries. We should not sell them arms and this is a reason for why I think we must reduce reliance on Saudi oil for security reasons.

    So the regime did bad things eh? I see. Do you need me to list all the regimes in this bastard world of ours that have committed atrocities?

    Well, just because we cannot deal with all the regimes, does not mean we should not deal with those that we can. Got to start somewhere. In any event, Iraq, given is attacks on neighbours, breaches of ceasefires, support for terror, etc, put itself at the top of the list.

    Do you not see how you are beholden to Progressive 20th century notions of bold plans and actions to remake societies instead of the conservative stance of caution? Do you not know enough history to know that “isolationist” is a swear word cooked up by 20th C PROGRESSIVES to diss Conservatives who did not want shit to do with the First World War?

    No, I deny the charge. I am not looking to remake anything, and neither are the likes of Doug Feith. I am in the business of arguing that if some regimes are very dangerous, then after an event like 9/11, sitting on my arse and treating terror attacks as a purely law enforcement issue is naive (that is my being polite).

    The point about regulations was about proportionality. You ( and I) would rightly denounce and scrutinize very hard the idea of a Green regulatory regime. How then can so callous a reason as “fight them there so we dont fight them here” be applied towards War?

    Go and re-read my previous comment. I made it clear that there really is no parallel between the PP and the idea of pre-emptively dealing with a regime known for committing appalling acts. In the latter case, there is evidence, a track record, etc.

  • “the dumbest fucking guy on the planet” Tommy Franks

  • Johnathan Pearce

    “the dumbest fucking guy on the planet” Tommy Franks

    Franks does not come out very well from the Feith book, but in fairness, I have not read Frank’s own account of the war and the events leading up to it, so I would not be so fast to rush to judgement. He may have been stubborn; dumb, no.

  • Gary

    People should buy guns and defend themselves, its not the government’s job to protect you, unless you are a cowardly wimp who wants to hide behind the military (a giant, wasteful bureaucratic entity with anti-individualistic communist tendencies).

    Defend yourselves, you lazy weaklings.

  • Gary

    Also, Iraq’s government is the business of the Iraqi people. Nothing to do with you or me.

    Those who say otherwise are supporters of a Communist-style Mega Government. What right has a government to expand itself into another nation?

    Can’t believe people support such Fascist expansionism.

    Rumsfeld was an incompetent parasite who sponged off the US taxpayer. He entered government to line is own pockets, like all the whores in Washington and the Pentagon.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Gary, do you do TV as well?

    Seriously, if a country, eg, Iraq, menaces other countries (Israel, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United States, etc), then the countries menaced by such aggression are entitled to take the necessary steps. Even the more radical libertarians understand this, even if we might debate the facts of each case, the methods, etc.

    Also, the country was run by a fascist dictator and his crime family. Perhaps you could explain why it is “communist” to wish to remove such a thug from power. (That is a different question from whether it is, given the problems, wise to do so in certain circumstances).

    To talk of removing dictators as “fascist expansionism” either suggests you are mentally retarded or a troll. I’ll have to figure out which.

    “People should buy guns and defend themselves, its not the government’s job to protect you, unless you are a cowardly wimp who wants to hide behind the military (a giant, wasteful bureaucratic entity with anti-individualistic communist tendencies).”

    LOL.