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Rethinking the Iraq Critics

A Commentary by Michael Barone

Saturday, May 10, 2008

In trying to understand news about the conflicts in Iraq, I work to keep in mind the difference between what we know now about decision making in World War II and what most Americans knew at the time. From the memoirs and documents published after the war, we've learned how leaders made critical judgments. But at the time, even well-informed journalists only could guess at what was going on behind the scenes.

Today we're only beginning to learn about what went on behind the scenes in regard to Iraq. One important new source is the recently published "War and Decision" by Douglas Feith, the No. 3 civilian at the Pentagon from 2001 to 2005. Feith quotes extensively from unpublished documents and contemporary memorandums, just as in the late 1940s Robert Sherwood did in "Roosevelt and Hopkins" and Winston Churchill did in his World War II histories. The picture Feith paints is at considerable variance from the narratives with which we've become familiar.

One such narrative is, "Bush lied; people died." The claim is that "neocons," including Feith, politicized intelligence to show that Saddam Hussein's regime had weapons of mass destruction. Not so, as the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Silberman-Robb Commission have concluded already. Every intelligence agency believed Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, and the post-invasion Duelfer report concluded that he maintained the capability to produce them on short notice. There was abundant evidence of contacts between Saddam's regime and al-Qaida and other terrorist groups. Given Saddam's hostility to the United States and his stonewalling of the United Nations, American leaders had every reason to believe he posed a grave threat. Removing him removed that threat.

Unfortunately -- and here Feith is critical of his ultimate boss, George W. Bush -- the administration allowed its critics to frame the issue around the fact that stockpiles of weapons weren't found. Here we see at work the liberal fallacy, apparent in debates on gun control, that weapons are the problem rather than the people with the capability and will to use them to kill others. The fact that millions of law-abiding Americans have guns is not a problem; the problem is that criminals can get them and have the will to kill others. Similarly, the fact that France has WMDs is not a problem; the fact that Saddam Hussein had the capability to produce WMDs and the will to use them against us was.

Feith identifies as our central mistake the decision not to create an Iraqi Interim Authority to take over some sovereign functions soon after the overthrow of Saddam. Bush ordered the creation of such an authority March 10, 2003. But it was resisted by State Department and CIA leaders, who argued that Iraqis would not trust "externals" -- those in exile -- and who were especially determined to keep the Iraqi National Congress' Ahmed Chalabi from power. As head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, Paul Bremer took the State-CIA view and, without much supervision from Washington, decided that the U.S. occupation would continue for as long as two years. Only deft negotiation by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld produced a June 30, 2004, deadline for returning authority to Iraqis. The January 2005 elections placed many of the "externals," including Chalabi, in high office.

Feith admits he made mistakes and misjudgments. He criticizes Bush for not defending the main rationale for invasion -- protecting Americans from a genuine threat -- and instead emphasizing the subsidiary and iffy goal of establishing democracy. He says little about military operations, beyond noting that Bremer and the military leaders had no common approach to combating disorder.

There's still much to be learned about our decisions, good and bad, in Iraq. But Feith's book is a step forward, as were those of Sherwood and Churchill 60 years ago.

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