Douglas Feith, an undersecretary of defense in
the Bush administration from 2001 to 2005 and an early supporter of the U.S.
invasion of Iraq, recently wrote a remarkable defense of the war. His article,
We Went to War in Iraq," was published on the July 3 opinion page
of the Wall Street Journal. I will highlight and examine some of his
claims. The modern term for this is "fisking."
"As a participant in the confidential, top-level administration meetings
about Iraq, it was clear to me at the time that, had there been a realistic
alternative to war to counter the threat from Saddam, Mr. Bush would have chosen
Notice how he stacks the deck by assuming that there was a threat and that
the threat had to be countered. There were many realistic alternatives to war,
but Feith insists that each alternative be one that counters "the threat
from Saddam." What was this threat?
"Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld worried particularly about
the U.S. and British pilots enforcing the no-fly zones over northern and
southern Iraq. Iraqi forces were shooting at the U.S. and British aircraft
virtually every day; if a plane went down, the pilot would likely be killed
In other words, part of the threat came from Saddam Hussein having his military
shoot at U.S. and British planes flying over Iraq. But there was an easy way
to avoid this threat and one that Rumsfeld contemplated: stop flying planes
Feith tells his readers that on July 27, 2001, Mr. Rumsfeld sent a memo to
Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice,
and Vice President Dick Cheney that stated that if the U.S. ended the no-fly
"[W]e know he [Saddam] has crawled a good distance out of the box
and is currently doing the things that will ultimately be harmful to his neighbors
in the region and to U.S. interests – namely developing WMD and the means to
deliver them and increasing his strength at home and in the region month-by-month.
Within a few years the U.S. will undoubtedly have to confront a Saddam armed
with nuclear weapons."
Notice that the threat is not to the U.S. but to Saddam's neighbors and to
"U.S. interests." But, then, wasn't it up to the neighbors to deal
with that threat? And, by the way, what are U.S. interests? Feith, and apparently
Rumsfeld, did not say. Finally, take the worst case: that Saddam would have,
in a few years, armed himself with nuclear weapons. Why would the U.S. government
have had to confront him? The U.S. government has dealt with far more brutal
– and far more armed – regimes during the nuclear era – think China – without
going to war with them. Why would a Saddam Hussein with only a few nuclear
weapons be sui generis?
Ultimately, writes Feith, President Bush decided to oust Saddam by force based
on five factors.
"1. Saddam was a threat to U.S. interests before 9/11. The Iraqi dictator
had started wars against Iran and Kuwait, and had fired missiles at Saudi Arabia
That Feith (and, if Feith is accurate, Bush) saw this as an important reason
is stunning. Yes, Saddam had started a war against Iran, and the U.S.
government under President Reagan supported him. Now, I happen to agree
with Feith if he's saying that Reagan shouldn't have done so. But isn't it
strange to turn on an ally because he was once an ally? It's also true that
Saddam had started a war against Kuwait. But during the first Gulf War, the
United States pushed Saddam out of Kuwait. The U.S. won that one, remember?
What's the point in fighting someone (and, more important, millions of innocent
people in his country) over something where you have already won? Next,
Saddam had fired missiles at Saudi Arabia and Israel. That was during the
first Gulf War. The missiles fired at Israel were not a threat to the United
States. The ones fired at Saudi Arabia were fired at a U.S. ally in the war.
Countries at war with each other often fire missiles at each other. It's not
nice, and I wish both sides would stop. But to put the missiles fired at Saudi
Arabia in a separate category is unconscionable on Feith's part. Surely, he
knew that these missiles were part of Saddam's war effort. More of Feith's,
and allegedly Bush's, reason #1:
"Unrepentant about the rape of Kuwait, he remained intensely hostile
to the U.S."
Saddam was unrepentant about a previous action. And the point is? Does it
really make sense to invade a country, putting millions of people at risk,
because the dictator of that country is "unrepentant?" And funny,
isn't it, how losing a war to the U.S. made him "hostile to the U.S.?"
Again, so what? If I attacked everyone who was hostile to me, I would never
get anything else done. Still more of Feith's, and allegedly Bush's, reason
"He provided training, funds, safe haven and political support to
various types of terrorists. He had developed WMD and used chemical weapons
fatally against Iran and Iraqi Kurds. Iraq's official press issued statements
praising the 9/11 attacks on the U.S."
Notice that Feith doesn't claim that the terrorists Saddam supported were
threats to the U.S. Also, Feith neglects to mention one particular country
that supplied Saddam with chemical weapons. Of course, it was the
United States. Gives a bit of a different picture, doesn't it? I hadn't
known that Iraq's official press had praised the 9/11 attacks. That's horrible,
but, really, does it justify an invasion? What if the Voice of America, which
is the U.S. official press, praised a terrorist attack on, say, Iran? Would
that justify the Iranian government invading the U.S.?
"2. The threat of renewed aggression by Saddam was more troubling
and urgent after 9/11. Though Saddam's regime was not implicated in the 9/11
operation, it was an important state supporter of terrorism. And President
Bush's strategy was not simply retaliation against the group responsible for
9/11. Rather it was to prevent the next major attack. This focused U.S. officials
not just on al-Qaeda, but on all the terrorist groups and state supporters
of terrorism who might be inspired by 9/11 – especially on those with the potential
to use weapons of mass destruction."
Notice that Feith admits that Saddam was not implicated in the 9/11 operation.
That didn't seem to matter much, though. For Feith and, apparently, for Bush,
a government that supported terrorism against any country needed to be stopped.
But that's poor reasoning. A government's main legitimate function is to protect
its people, not other countries' people.
Feith's point #3 is that to contain the threat from Saddam, all reasonable
means short of war had been tried unsuccessfully. But notice that Feith hasn't
yet established that Saddam was a threat.
"4. While there were large risks involved in a war, the risks of leaving
Saddam in power were even larger. The U.S. and British pilots patrolling the
no-fly zones were routinely under enemy fire, and a larger confrontation –
over Kuwait again or some other issue – appeared virtually certain to arise
once Saddam succeeded in getting out from under the UN's crumbling economic
Here, Feith makes the point that if the U.S. government wanted to have a lot
of influence and power in the Middle East, it would have to deal with a stronger
Saddam. This might have been true, but it ignores a cleaner and safer option:
have the U.S. government stop intervening in the Middle East.
"5. America after 9/11 had a lower tolerance for such dangers. It
was reasonable – one might say obligatory – for the president to worry about
a renewed confrontation with Saddam. Like many others, he feared Saddam might
then use weapons of mass destruction again, perhaps deployed against us through
a proxy such as one of the many terrorist groups Iraq supported."
But what was this fear based on? Let's say that Saddam Hussein had been able
to get nuclear weapons. If he had given them to a terrorist group, then that
terrorist group would have been able to threaten him. Was Saddam Hussein, a
man who had survived in a dangerous job for over two decades, that stupid?
Feith does throw a parting bone to those of us who opposed the war before
it began. He writes:
"Thoughtful, patriotic Americans differed then and now on whether
the risk of leaving Saddam in power outweighed the risk of war."
Somehow, I don't remember the pro-war side saying that we were thoughtful
and patriotic. What I remember is people calling us "appeasers."
Now, maybe Douglas Feith wasn't one of these. I would like to think that he
was sitting in the Pentagon chiding his fellow neoconservatives for questioning
our patriotism. Was he?
Copyright © 2008 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to
reprint should be directed to the author