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"My Pentagon Years"

A briefing by Douglas J. Feith
May 8, 2008
(includes an audio recording of this talk)

Douglas J. Feith was undersecretary of defense for policy in the Bush administration (2001-05), and is a professor of national security policy at Georgetown University. He previously served in several capacities in the Reagan administration. His articles on foreign and defense affairs have appeared in the Middle East Quarterly as well as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Commentary. He was educated at Georgetown University and Harvard College.

The Middle East Forum presented Douglas J. Feith in a discussion of his new book, War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terrorism (HarperCollins), a chronicle of his experiences as undersecretary of defense for policy in the Bush administration between 2001 and 2005. In this position, he formulated policy through critical stages of the wars in Iraq and against radical Islam.

Feith began by articulating some of the thoughts developed by policymakers in the immediate aftermath of the 9-11 attack. "In my book, I'm looking at the development of a strategy for the war on terrorism, and if one is going to understand that it is useful to go back and capture the frame of mind that we had as a country, and specifically that the policy makers had within the administration right after the attack."

Feith pointed out that President Bush's description of the situation right after 9-11 as a "war" was a significant break with previous U.S. policy. The standard response, for decades, was to have the FBI arrest the perpetrators, prosecute, and punish them. In his book, Feith chronicles how the administration crafted a strategy to fight a war against an amorphous enemy that was not only hard to locate, but hard to define. His thesis is that the U.S. "developed a proper apprehension of the threat and a good strategy," and that "the administration has done a better job of conceiving the strategy and executing it than talking about it." Indeed, the administration's failure was in explaining and justifying this strategy to the U.S. and the world, which is one of several major criticisms of the administration Feith makes in his book.

He described Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's approach to problematic issues, which was to ask what major strategic thoughts should guide deliberations on the issue. Feith outlined the five major strategic thoughts that were developed right after 9-11. These thoughts, he pointed out, laid the foundation for American national security policy for the war on terrorism.

  1. The U.S. government had to do something. The immediate instinct of some officials, particularly in the state department and CIA, was to do what had been done in the past: find the people responsible and punish them. President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Rumsfeld argued that the government's obligation to the American people was not simply retaliation but prevention of the next attack; essentially, a defense strategy.
  2. The enemy in the war is a network, and while the next attack could come from Al-Qaeda, it could also come from other parts of the global jihadist network. The network includes not only the terrorist groups but their state supporters. The different elements of the network, groups and states, maintain various types of connections: financial, ideological, logistical, operational. Thus, severing these connections became part of American strategy.
  3. 9-11 was a departure from most previous instances of terrorism, in that "they were not using terrorism as political theater," to garner attention and sympathy for their cause, but to wreak mass destruction. Preventing terrorists from getting weapons of mass destruction became a key part of U.S. strategy. Feith noted how the "leading state supporters are also the leading countries of WMD proliferation concern, and that coincidence was a fact of strategic importance."
  4. The purpose of our national security policy is not simply to protect people and territory but to secure our constitutional system, our civil liberties, and the open nature of our society. Feith discussed how the president, in his first major speech to Congress after 9-11, stated that the stakes in the war on terrorism could not be greater because terrorism threatens our way of life.
  5. The U.S. cannot rely on a defensive strategy, because it would have to curtail civil liberties in the process of trying to protect every possible target at home. Feith explained how this thinking led to an offensive strategy of hitting the terrorists abroad.

Feith talked about how his book contradicts much of the accepted narrative about the administration's decision to go to war in Iraq, such as the notion that President Bush came into office determined to go to war no matter what, and the allegation that the U.S. didn't plan for post-Saddam Iraq.

He discussed his methodology in War and Decision, of using extensive citations, quotations from previously classified documents, and his own notes from meetings of the National Security Council, using only exact quotations of people's remarks. He included 140 pages of references and made documents available at to support his challenge to the conventional, but according to Feith, deeply flawed account of the creation of American strategy. His goal was to create an account that is "civil, useful, and accurate," meticulously relying on the contemporaneous written record.

The politicization of intelligence is an important theme in Feith's book. The controversy between the Defense Department and the CIA over the Al-Qaeda-Iraq connection was not a clash in which the former argued for a relationship and the latter against. Rather, "it was an argument about methodology and professionalism." The problem was that the State Department and the CIA leaked information to the press, a tactic to which the Defense Department did not resort. However, Feith notes, "we didn't talk to the press very much, which was foolish," and so the State Department-CIA team shaped the public's conception.

Another of his major topics, said Feith, is the postwar plan for political transition in post-Saddam Iraq, a plan which he presents for "the first time anywhere." The defense department aimed for a short American stay in Iraq, to put Iraqis in control of government. This plan, approved by the president, was built on American experience in Afghanistan, where there was no occupation government and no insurgency as in Iraq. Feith analyzes how the plan was undone. He calls the 14-month occupation government of Iraq by the U.S. a "very costly error," which left a large-scale insurgency in its wake.

When questioned about the future of Iraq, Feith referred to recent positive signs in the war, such as the Sunni tribal leaders' 180-degree switch from supporting Al-Qaeda to allying with the U.S., the ceasefire declared by Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, the substantial improvement in the operations capabilities of the Iraqi army and police, and political developments including power and revenue sharing, as well as some legislative progress.

He criticized the administration's redefinition of the U.S. goal in Iraq, beginning in 2003, from reducing threats to promoting democracy, as a major error which set the standard of success unreasonably high and almost led Congress to pull out of the war in the summer of 2007. The solution in Iraq, according to Feith, is to "contain the magnitude of the problems, and increase the capacity of the Iraqis to manage their own problems."

Summary account by Mimi Stillman.


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