We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and the imagination of a more just world. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
Setting aside combat memoirs, of which there are a growing number, the literature of the Iraq War divides neatly into two categories. The first category, dominated by journalistic observers, indicts. The second category, accounts authored by insider participants, acquits. The two books reviewed here fall into the second category: They are exercises in self-exculpation. Pretending to explain, their actual purpose is to deflect responsibility.
Douglas Feith and Ricardo Sanchez are not exactly marquee figures. Yet each for a time played an important role in America’s Mesopotamian misadventure. From 2001 to 2005 Feith served in the Pentagon as the third-ranking figure in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) under Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld’s deputy. From 2003 to 2004 Lieutenant General Sanchez, now retired, served in Baghdad, commanding all coalition forces in Iraq.
Of the two accounts, Feith’s qualifies as the more sophisticated. It is also far and away the more dishonest. Feith trained as a lawyer, and War and Decision qualifies as a masterpiece of lawyerly, even Nixonian, obfuscation.
Like a shrewd defense attorney, Feith poses only those questions that will advance his case. As a result, his very long account confines itself to a very narrow range of issues. Although Feith styles himself a strategist, conscientious readers will learn nothing here about, say, the strategic significance of Persian Gulf oil. In War and Decision, oil just does not come up. Readers will be instructed in great detail about Saddam Hussein’s record as a vile and cruel dictator. They will remain oblivious to the record of U. S. support for the Iraqi tyrant during the Reagan era, despite the fact that Feith himself served in the Reagan administration. They will be reminded of the many intelligence failures attributable to the CIA. They will look in vain for any reference to allegations, substantiated at the highest level of the British government, that the Bush administration engaged in “fixing” intelligence to support precooked policy decisions. They will learn that Feith is Jewish and a self-described neoconservative, and that members of his extended family perished in the Holocaust. They will find no mention of Feith’s involvement in right-wing Israeli politics, notably as a participant in the group responsible for “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” prepared in 1996 for Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Among that study’s recommendations was one identifying Saddam’s overthrow as a key Israeli national security objective.
This careful discrimination between convenient and inconvenient facts enables Feith to craft a finely honed version of the Iraq War. The resulting narrative can be summarized in three sentences: Apart from the odd misstep or two, senior officials in OSD, to the man high-minded patriots and sophisticated thinkers, performed their duties brilliantly. Alas, their counterparts at the CIA and State Department, motivated by a combination of spite, prejudice, parochialism, and outright disloyalty to the president, conspired to frustrate or derail OSD’s plans. Abetted by L. Paul Bremer, who headed the Coalition Provisional Authority that governed Iraq during the first year after Saddam’s removal, they succeeded, with terrible consequences.
In mounting this defense of OSD, Feith concentrates on two themes. In the first, he offers a highly imaginative revisionist account of Operation Iraqi Freedom’s rationale and justification. In the second, he absolves himself and his Pentagon colleagues of any responsibility for the invasion’s catastrophic aftermath.
According to Feith, for all the emphasis that senior U. S. officials prior to March 2003 placed on weapons of mass destruction and Saddam’s alleged ties to Al Qaeda, those issues do not explain why the Bush administration actually opted for war. The truth is that the United States invaded Iraq as an act of self-defense. Saddam’s regime, Feith explains, posed a direct, looming threat to America itself. To permit the Iraqi dictator to remain in power was to give him “a chance to intimidate and hurt the United States”—an intolerable prospect. Viewed from this perspective, the much-ballyhooed failure to find any nuclear or biological weapons or to establish any connection between Saddam and Al Qaeda is simply beside the point. Saddam’s record of misbehavior and his persistent antagonism toward the United States provided more than ample justification for war. Indeed, Feith insists, after 9/11 force had become the only reasonable option. Invading Iraq was not only justified; it was a moral and strategic imperative.
Although Operation Iraqi Freedom opened on a promising note, President Bush’s declaration of mission accomplished, televised worldwide on May 1, 2003, proved a trifle premature. Hard on the heels of Saddam’s removal came a protracted, costly, and deeply embarrassing insurgency. Feith’s second theme is an attempt to claim credit for the successful drive on Baghdad while blaming everyone else for the ensuing quagmire. In effect, he constructs a variation on what we might call the Manstein Defense, mimicking German generals like Erich von Manstein who crowned themselves with laurels for the Wehrmacht’s early victories while tagging Hitler with responsibility for the army’s later defeats.
Feith tells a revealing story that demonstrates above all the astonishing combination of hubris and naiveté.
As Feith tells the tale, he and his Pentagon colleagues insisted from the outset on styling the American invasion as an act of liberation. The idea was to topple Saddam, quickly hand over the reins of government to friendly Iraqis, and get out. “Iraq belonged to the Iraqis,” Feith writes, as if personally uncovering a profound truth. The model was to be Afghanistan, currently a narco-state riven with armed Islamic radicals, which Feith nonetheless depicts as a stupendous success. There, after the invasion of 2001, he observes, the United States “never became an occupying power.” Mere weeks after the fall of Baghdad, however, the United States unwisely jettisoned its strategy of liberation. Largely as a consequence of a series of ill-advised decisions by Bremer, it opted instead to occupy and reconstruct Iraq. This, according to Feith, proved a fateful, yet utterly avoidable “self-inflicted wound.”
Neither of these arguments stands up to even casual scrutiny. Yet however unwittingly, Feith tells a revealing story that demonstrates above all the astonishing combination of hubris and naiveté that pervaded Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon.
History—U. S. history included—is a chronicle of great powers waging wars of conquest in “self-defense.” In 1846, for example, a “long-continued series of menaces” that culminated when enemy forces “invaded our territory and shed the blood of our fellow-citizens on our own soil” obliged the United States, ever so reluctantly, to take up arms against Mexico. So, at least, President James K. Polk explained in a message to Congress requesting a declaration of war. The amalgamation of California, Arizona, and New Mexico into the Union followed in short order.
The case of Iraq after 9/11 is analogous. Small, distant, isolated, underdeveloped, crippled by sanctions, its airspace penetrated daily by Anglo-American combat patrols, its army a shell of the force that the United States and its allies handily defeated in 1991, Saddam’s Iraq posed a negligible threat to the United States. Yet, as with the Polk administration in 1846, the Bush administration by 2003 (especially the upper echelons of OSD) had evolved large ambitions that could only be fulfilled by resorting to the sword.
The Mexican War worked out nicely for the American people, who soon gave up the pretense that the United States had invaded Mexico out of concern for self-defense. (For subsequent generations of Americans, Manifest Destiny became the preferred explanation for the war’s origins.) Alas, President Bush demonstrated little of President Polk’s acumen as a war manager. The Iraq War has benefited Americans not at all. With the failure to locate WMD or to establish direct Iraqi involvement in terrorism directed at the United States, the Bush administration’s proximate rationale for the war collapsed. So Feith concocts “self-defense” as a last-ditch, ex post facto substitute. It won’t wash.
What Feith will not acknowledge outright is that within OSD the prospect of a showdown with Iraq seemed inviting not because Saddam posed an imminent danger, but because he was so obviously weak. For those most keen to invade Iraq, the appeal of war lay in the expectation that an easy win there would give rise to an abundance of second-order benefits. In an appendix to War and Decision, Feith reprints a memo from Rumsfeld to national security adviser Condoleezza Rice dated July 27, 2001 in which the secretary of defense advocates ousting Saddam as a way to “enhance U. S. credibility and influence throughout the region.” Here we find an early hint of the Pentagon’s post-9/11 views: eliminating a bona fide bad guy promised to endow the United States with additional leverage that it could then employ against other ne’er-do-wells, recalcitrants, and false friends. The idea, Feith wrote in a May 2004 memo to Rumsfeld, was to “transform the Middle East and the broader world of Islam politically.” Employing American power to transform the Islamic world would “counter ideological support for terrorism,” which, according to Feith, held “the key to defeating terrorism in the longer term.”
In just about anyone’s book, the political transformation of the Islamic world qualifies as a breathtakingly large project. How exactly did the Bush administration intend to achieve this goal? Although citing with considerable pride the “precision” and analytical rigor of OSD’s work, Feith provides no evidence that the Pentagon ever addressed this fundamental question. Just days after 9/11, Rumsfeld was charging his subordinates to devise a plan of action that had “three, four, five moves behind it.” In fact, OSD conjured a plan with exactly two moves: first Afghanistan, and then Iraq; once U. S. forces made it to Baghdad, the other dominos were expected to topple.
This was not strategy; it was reckless opportunism, marinated in neoconservative ideology and further seasoned with OSD’s spectacular insouciance when it came to considering resources. When the Bush administration set out to reorder the Islamic world after 9/11, no one even bothered to ask whether the United States possessed the means required to make good on such a bold ambition. Nor, apparently, did anyone in OSD pay much attention to exactly what “transformation” might entail. Did it require forswearing support for terror? Categorically rejecting WMD? Embracing liberal democracy? Making peace with Israel? All of the above? A memo to President Bush drafted by Feith in late September 2001 simply took “the vastness of [U. S.] military and humanitarian resources” as a given. As the Pentagon’s policy chief, Feith never bothered to question this assumption, which proved groundless in the face of events.
The key point is this: Feith’s depiction of the Iraq War as a war of self-defense is a small lie concocted to camouflage a far more egregious transgression. The real crime lies not in dissembling about the war’s origins—in politics, such fictions are a dime a dozen. Rather, the real crime lies in Feith’s complicity in conceiving an ersatz strategy that failed to satisfy even the most rudimentary requirements of common sense. The Iraq War was always unnecessary. From the very moment of its conception, Feith and his colleagues in OSD contrived to make it profoundly stupid as well. Invading Iraq was never going to “transform” Islam. Nor was it ever going to “counter ideological support for terrorism.” Indeed, war was almost guaranteed to produce precisely the opposite result—inflaming hostility toward the United States across the Islamic world.
Bremer snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by abandoning “liberation” in favor of occupation.
Worse, this spurious Feith Doctrine of self-defense is at odds with existing American interests. To take but one example: If Saddam’s past offenses and belligerent attitude constituted sufficient reason for the United States to wage a war of self-defense against Iraq, then surely Iran’s nuclear program and its support for those resisting the U. S. presence in Iraq can be justified on similar grounds; Washington’s history of intervening in Iranian affairs and President Bush’s inclusion of Iran in his “axis of evil” provide Tehran ample reason to fear U. S. aggression. For those with a taste for irony, the massive infiltration of immigrants from south of the border into California and the Southwest might even qualify as an unconventional form of self-defense, Mexicans belatedly retrieving what was theirs in the first place.
Then there is Feith’s charge that Bremer snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by abandoning “liberation” in favor of occupation. Here, too, what purports to be truth-telling is in reality little more than diversionary scapegoating.
A careful reading of Feith’s account reveals that OSD’s own plan for liberating Iraq amounted to occupation by another name. Under the terms of that plan, which Feith claims as his own handiwork, immediately upon removing Saddam Hussein from power, U. S. officials in Baghdad were to constitute an Iraqi Interim Authority (IIA) consisting of Iraqi leaders who would manage Iraqi affairs while simultaneously devising the permanent political institutions for the post-Saddam era. From the outset, this project would have an Iraqi face and therefore, according to Feith, likely command broad Iraqi support. To put it another way, by its very existence, the IIA would remove any Iraqi inclination to oppose the United States.
Yet OSD never actually intended that Iraqis—other than those chosen in advance by the United States—would determine their own nation’s fate. For Feith and his colleagues, “liberation” was a codeword that meant indirect control. OSD sought to exercise that control in three ways.
First, it established under Pentagon jurisdiction an agency designed to direct developments in Baghdad after Saddam’s removal. This was the misleadingly named Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), created by OSD in January 2003 and headed by retired army Lieutenant General Jay Garner, Rumsfeld’s handpicked choice for the job.
Second, against bitter opposition from the CIA and State Department, Feith and his colleagues tried to ensure that OSD would have the final say in deciding exactly which Iraqis would occupy positions of influence in the IIA. Contemporary press reports identified neoconservative favorite Ahmad Chalabi as the Pentagon’s preferred candidate to run the IIA. Feith denies that OSD was promoting Chalabi, but his relentless attacks on Chalabi’s critics, professing bafflement at how others could malign someone of such manifest decency, belie those denials. (Subsequent charges that Chalabi was playing a double game, leaking sensitive intelligence to Iran, number among the matters that Feith ignores altogether.)
Third, even as it was touting the Iraqi Interim Authority as an embryonic government run by Iraqis, OSD established narrow limits on that government’s prerogatives. For example, as Feith notes in passing, under the IIA, the United States would retain “the authority to appoint top officials for the ministries of Defense, Finance, Interior, and Oil.” That authority provided the ultimate guarantee that the United States would continue to call the shots. The IIA would be a puppet regime, Feith and his colleagues apparently expecting Iraqis either not to notice or not to care who was actually pulling the strings.
The point here is not to defend L. Paul Bremer, whose tenure as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority produced an unmitigated disaster. Rather, the point is to recognize that as an alternative to Bremer’s ham-handed policy of occupation, Feith’s concept of liberation was really no alternative at all. It was the same policy with a different label attached.
There is a further problem with making Bremer the fall guy: he was, after all, Rumsfeld’s man, doing Rumsfeld’s bidding. With ORHA barely having set up shop in Baghdad, Rumsfeld decided that Garner had to go. Feith denies that Garner was fired, but to characterize his abrupt replacement in any other way is laughable. Rumsfeld then urged President Bush to install Bremer as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, reporting directly to the secretary of defense.
Furthermore, by the summer of 2003 Rumsfeld himself did not want to speed up the process of creating a fully sovereign Iraqi government. Feith lets on that Rumsfeld was “unhappy that the Iraqis were pushing so hard for power.” The secretary of defense needed more time to assess the political acceptability of the various Iraqis vying for positions of leadership. With that in mind, he “wanted to tap the brakes on the political process,” slowing down efforts to transfer power. When Bremer scrapped the IIA, his decision was consistent with Rumsfeld’s wishes. Indeed, Rumsfeld concurred in Bremer’s decision.
Feith portrays the Iraqi Interim Authority as the war’s great missed opportunity: If only Bremer had adhered to OSD’s conception of liberation, all would have turned out well. The argument fails on two counts. First, the actual purpose of the IIA was not to empower Iraqis but to facilitate even while disguising the exercise of American control. Second, it was Rumsfeld himself who decided that indirect control did not suffice. The United States opted for a policy of outright occupation in large part because the Pentagon itself came to the conclusion that that occupation was essential to achieving U. S. objectives. If the occupation was a self-inflicted wound, Feith’s boss pulled the trigger.
A memo drafted by Feith for Rumsfeld, reaching the desk of President Bush on September 30, 2001, declared, “If the war does not significantly change the world’s political map, the U. S. will not achieve its aim.” Considered in that light, the wars that Feith labored so mightily to promote, not only the war in Iraq but also the larger global war on terror, must be judged abject failures.
Feith wants his readers to believe that failure stemmed from errors in execution, most of them attributable to decisions made beyond the confines of OSD. The truth is that the principal explanation for failure is a conceptual one: pseudo-strategists within OSD misconstrued the threat, misread the Islamic world, and vastly overestimated American power. From day one, with Feith their willing accomplice, they got it wrong. This mendacious and self-serving book serves only to affirm Feith’s complicity in the ensuing debacle.
Ricardo Sanchez is the highest-ranking Latino military officer in this nation’s history, rising from grinding poverty to achieve the lofty rank of three-star general. Wiser in Battle is above all an expression of his anger and bitterness at not achieving four-star rank. He uses his memoir to lash out at those he holds responsible for denying him further promotion. The result can only be described as unseemly. It is never pretty to see a grown man whine.
General Sanchez depicts himself as a man of honor surrounded by careerists and connivers. During his thirty-three years as a serving officer, while “a greed for power” motivated others, he sought only to do the right thing. Long before he assumed command in Baghdad, Sanchez had reached certain conclusions about civilians back in Washington, not only politicians but also journalists: they tended to be largely clueless and were certainly not to be trusted.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld confirmed this negative impression of anyone not wearing a uniform. Sanchez describes Rumsfeld as a meddler and a micromanager, intent on exercising not only civilian control but even “civilian command of the military.” For a political appointee to claim such sweeping authority was, in Sanchez’s eyes, “a recipe for disaster.”
Without offering any substantiating evidence, Sanchez charges that Rumsfeld, shortly after 9/11, gave the green light for torture—according to Sanchez, a “colossal mistake.” With his famously abrasive manner, Rumsfeld had also induced within the Pentagon “an environment of fear and retribution that made top military leaders hesitant to stand up to the administration’s authoritarianism.” In essence, after 9/11 an intimidated officer corps lost its moral compass. Embarking on its global war on terror, the Bush administration had “unleashed the hounds of hell.” Even at the uppermost levels of armed services, “no one seemed to have the moral courage to get the animals back in their cages.”
Such qualms of conscience did not prevent Sanchez from interviewing with Rumsfeld for promotion to lieutenant general or from accepting an appointment to command all U. S. and coalition forces in Iraq just weeks after President Bush’s “mission accomplished” speech.
When Sanchez assumed command, evidence of a brewing insurgency was already mounting. While back in Washington Feith was lovingly perfecting his vision of an Iraqi Interim Authority, Baghdad was already coming apart at the seams. By the time Sanchez departed Baghdad a year later, chaos had engulfed Iraq, and U. S. forces were caught in the middle of a civil war that Sanchez himself reports “our actions had undeniably ignited.” Punctuating this deteriorating situation was the Abu Ghraib scandal, which seemed to affirm that something had gone fundamentally wrong.
In short, when the animals in Iraq escaped their cages, Ricardo Sanchez was the chief zookeeper. His mission was to secure Iraq. He failed egregiously. The results of his efforts were almost entirely negative. As measured by the number of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians killed and wounded, they were also costly. Yet none of this, Sanchez insists, was his fault.
According to a core value of the military professional ethic, commanders are responsible for everything that occurs on their watch. The whole point of Wiser in Battle is to suggest that in the case of Ricardo Sanchez the principle of command responsibility should not apply.
As a consequence, Sanchez’s narrative of his year in Baghdad becomes essentially one long list of recriminations. Rumsfeld, who dangled the prospect of a fourth star only to reverse himself after Abu Ghraib, comes across as his principal nemesis. The secretary of defense, however, is but one target among many. Sanchez takes his own shots at the widely discredited Bremer, with whom he tangled repeatedly, and blasts the entire National Security Council mechanism as “incompetent.” He professes shock at discovering that, for the White House, “ensuring the success of President Bush’s reelection campaign” took precedence over all other considerations. Nor does Sanchez spare his fellow generals, especially those serving on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. When General Peter Pace, JCS vice-chairman, broke the news that the much-coveted promotion was not going to happen, Sanchez replied, “Well, sir, you all have betrayed me.”
Sanchez refrains from criticizing the president directly, depicting him as well-intentioned yet utterly out of his depth. During a videoconference in the midst of the notorious first Fallujah offensive of April 2004, Bush offered the following guidance to his field commander: “Kick ass! If someone tries to stop the march to democracy, we will seek them out and kill them! We must be tougher than hell! . . . Stay strong! Stay the course! Kill them! Be confident! Prevail! We are going to wipe them out!” Two days later orders from above directed Sanchez to suspend the offensive. “Politics”—Sanchez employs the term as shorthand for any intrusion by ignorant civilians with ulterior motives—had produced “a strategic defeat for the United States and a moral victory for the insurgents.”
Sanchez’s assessment of Bush applies to himself as well: no doubt meaning well, he was out of his depth. Unlike the execrable Feith, earnestly crafting memos back in the Pentagon, Sanchez knew better than to imagine that depicting Americans as “liberators” was going change the facts on the ground.“According to any definition,” he writes,“. . . we were, in fact, occupiers” (emphasis in original). Yet Wiser in Battle contains little to suggest that Sanchez understood the actual nature of the problem in Iraq any better than Feith did. The aggrieved general’s distaste for politics, which is intrinsic to war and from the outset played a central role in this particular conflict, indicates that understanding lay beyond his ability. The book’s title notwithstanding, wisdom—or even thoughtful reflection—is notable by its absence.
Sanchez was the wrong man for the job. That Feith’s boss should have appointed Sanchez in the first place provides further confirmation—if any were needed—of OSD’s monumental capacity for screwing up.
Apart from the finger-pointing and score-settling, these two accounts do agree at least implicitly on a single issue: taken as a whole, the national security apparatus is irredeemably broken. The so-called “interagency process” created to harmonize the efforts of national security institutions so that the president receives sound and timely advice and to ensure that presidential decisions are promptly implemented, whether in Baghdad or within the Beltway, actually produces the opposite effect. From quite different vantage points, Feith and Sanchez affirm that the principal product generated by the interagency process is disharmony, dishonesty, and dysfunction. Whether a different process employing the same people or recruiting different people while retaining the existing process would yield different results is difficult to say. To imagine, however, that simply electing a new chief executive in November will fix the problem is surely to succumb to an illusion.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
In her new book, Danish poet Olga Ravn writes with open love, pity, and compassion for her strange yet familiar creations.
Draconian individual punishment distracts from systemic change and reinforces the cruelest and most racist system of incarceration on the planet.
Our well-being depends on a better understanding of how the logic of labor has twisted our relationship with pleasure.