The Return of the Neocons
Bush Hawks Aggressively Working to Rewrite Accepted Iraq War History
By James Risen 6/19/2008
Ever since the Rumsfeld era at the Pentagon ended abruptly in the aftermath of the Democratic victory in the 2006 mid-term elections, the civilian hawks who ruled the Defense Dept. during the early years of the Iraq war have remained largely silent. They have not engaged publicly even as their culpability for the Iraq war's myriad failures has congealed into accepted wisdom.
But for the Pentagon troika most identified with Iraq – former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith -- silence has not equaled happiness. It certainly has not meant acceptance of their fate at the hands of the many journalists, former generals and assorted ex-members of the Bush administration who have taken to the cable talk fests and the nation’s media outlets to reject and denounce them. Nor does it mean they walk the aisles at Barnes & Noble with equanimity while scanning shelves filled with books that lay the fault for George W. Bush’s failed presidency at their doorstep.
This anti-Pentagon historical narrative is straightforward and seems well established: Wolfowitz and Feith ran a neoconservative frat house while an arrogant, fiddling Rumsfeld roared against anyone who dared try to bring him the truth.
Neoconservatives -- a loose association of pundits, politicians and analysts who put a right-wing spin on American exceptionalism and coupled that with an embrace of the doctrine of pre-emptive war -- began pushing for regime change in Iraq in the 1990s. Wolfowitz and Feith brought this desire to oust Saddam Hussein with them when they joined the Bush administration.
After 9/11, neoconservatives inside and outside the administration argued for war; Washington must act because Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and might share them with terrorists. Inside the government, Rumsfeld, not a neoconservative himself, embraced and advanced these arguments, following the lead of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. Perhaps Rumsfeld also sensed that the war in Afghanistan had been too quick and remote to serve as a true demonstration of U.S. power in the Middle East.
And so, during the critical 18 months between the Sept. 11 attacks and the invasion of Iraq, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Feith were united at the forefront of the administration's march to war.
Five years later, 4,000 young Americans have died. No Pentagon leaders have been so thoroughly repudiated since the days of Robert McNamara and the Vietnam War.
When the Iraq war was young, and they were at the height of their power, few men in America seemed less concerned by or more disdainful of their public critics. The image created by a compilation of Rumsfeld’s most famous quotations, words that will surely appear in the first paragraphs of his obituary -- “stuff happens,” "democracy is messy," “You go to war with the Army you have” -- is of a man too busy and important to do anything other than casually mock the little people getting in his way.
Perhaps being out of power makes one more susceptible to the slings and arrows; perhaps at night they wake with visions of a future in which some young filmmaker comes to them with a request to remake “The Fog of War.” For whatever reason, it is clear that the incoming fire from the left, right and center has finally gotten to be too much. Feith, in particular, is now willing to reveal how much it all has hurt.
“You wind up having the first, second and third drafts of history shaped by the first set of leaks,” Feith lamented. “You can imagine, from my point of view, that is grim to see.”
Now, the Rumsfeld team is starting to fight back. Rumsfeld recently announced that he is writing his memoirs, while Feith’s account, “War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terrorism,” came out this spring.
In a series of lengthy interviews over several weeks, Feith explicitly stated that his objective in writing his book was to start the process of altering the accepted history of the Iraq war, to adjust the Rumsfeld team’s place in history. He wants to change the narrative -- before it is too late.
Feith sees his book as nothing less than the opening salvo in what he and many of his allies hope will be a major and prolonged campaign by Bush administration hawks to develop a new school of revisionist history of the early 21st century, in which they will be heroes, rather than the villains. They see this fight for historical dominance as the last battle of the war in Iraq.
How far this devolves into the “stabbed in the back” school of history remains to be seen. But the outlines are already clear.
Feith argues that the Pentagon team’s historical standing has been victimized by its unilateral disarmament in the leak and access wars of the Bush administration, even as their foes at the State Dept. and the Central Intelligence Agency whispered to the press about the evil men at the Pentagon. Rumsfeld so hated leaks and leakers, Feith says, that the Pentagon team allowed themselves to be Swiftboated by the forces under Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and CIA Director George Tenet.
“It caused enormous damage to me personally,” Feith said. “I wasn’t in a position to contradict false and damaging things said about me.”
And yet, he added, top State and CIA officials were too cowardly to raise any objections to the war during White House meetings.
Feith does not view this as journalists did at the time -- which was that many in the Bush administration were reluctant to criticize Iraq policy out of fear of retribution from a powerful vice president and an intimidating secretary of defense. He sees hypocrites who went along with the war, who told the president to his face that they supported his policies, but then through bureaucratic petulance made sure that critical decisions were never made, that paralysis was the order of the day. Meanwhile, they sought to convince friends outside the administration that they were not really allied with the neoconservatives.
“What I find interesting is that they chose to not take on the strategic questions in the Situation Room when they had a chance,” says Feith. “If Powell or Tenet, or somebody like that, wanted more meetings, more debates, they could have had them.”
Instead, State and CIA sulked and pouted and refused to collaborate, effectively sabotaging post-war planning, Feith says. The best-laid plans for Iraq’s political reconstruction put forth by the Pentagon were left stillborn in a confused inter-agency process in the weeks leading up to the invasion, he argues; and no one, certainly not National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, ever tried to bring order out of the bureaucratic chaos.
Yet it is Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Feith who were left holding the bag for the failures in Iraq, while pretty much everyone else seems to have skated from the judgment of history, Feith seethes. “The now-standard story portrays the president and his supporters in the administration as militaristic and reckless, closed-minded and ideological, thoughtless at best and even dishonest – and hell bent on war with Iraq from the administration’s inception,” he writes in his book. It is a false narrative, he writes, that “has swept the field.”
Other top officials from Rumsfeld’s inner circle agree that the truth is far more complex and has yet to come out. “The pundits have it pretty much wrong about Rumsfeld,” said retired Air Force Gen. Richard Meyers, chairman of the joint chiefs during Rumsfeld’s tenure, who is now also writing his memoirs. “I think they have it 85 percent wrong. Not many people who have written about Rumsfeld have worked with him and been in the room. I don’t think anybody has captured it yet.”
Wolfowitz is pleased that the counter-offensive has begun, noting that he believes that Feith, through his book, finally, “explodes some of the myths that have become conventional wisdom.” Wolfowitz added, “it’s a beginning point,” for a serious discussion.
As the first out of the gate with a book, Feith is setting the tone for the Pentagon counter-campaign. He begins by recognizing the need to tackle big, damning issues head on. So he focuses on what he describes as the most damaging lie -- that the Pentagon team was trying to anoint Ahmed Chalabi as ruler of Iraq.
“I’m putting out a bold challenge – I have gone through the documents, senior level Pentagon documents, and I can’t find any documents supporting the extremely important conspiracy charge that we were plotting to anoint Chalabi,” said Feith. “It is frustrating to me to deal with these canards, because no senior person at the Pentagon was proposing that.”
As head of the largest Iraqi exile group operating in the West in the years before the invasion, Chalabi had gained prominence through his success at convincing key political leaders in Washington and London of the rightness of ousting Saddam. Yet he had also won powerful enemies, notably at the CIA, where officers who worked with Chalabi had concluded that he was a liar and a crook. During the run-up to the 2003 invasion, Chalabi's group, the Iraqi National Congress, began to force-feed Washington many Iraqi "defectors," who claimed to have information about Saddam's supposed weapons of mass destruction. His information found its way through the Pentagon right to the president, and was crucial in bolstering the public case for war.
But Chalabi's star began to fall when it turned out that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and that his defectors had been feeding disinformation to the U.S. intelligence community. The Americans broke with him in 2004, when the CIA and the National Security Agency alleged that he had told Iran that the United States had broken their codes.
His relations with the Bush administration have run hot and cold since. But it is now clear that the men who ran the Pentagon at the time of the invasion are eager to disown Chalabi.
That is easier said than done. Feith recognizes that the notion the Pentagon wanted Chalabi to rule Iraq is not only accepted as fact today, it was conventional wisdom within large swaths of the Bush administration during the run-up to the war. And the impression that Pentagon neoconservatives were pushing a huckster destroyed the Rumsfeld team's ability to gain acceptance of its post-war plans throughout the administration, he argues.
"The view that we were doing that was enormously important in influencing policy at the time," Feith said, "because the State Department and CIA opposed a series of specific measures that were designed to facilitate the political transition and general reconstruction of Iraq because they saw them all through their particular prism of antagonism to Chalabi. Every time we denied that we were trying to anoint Chalabi, people at State or CIA would say that was just part of the cover-up of our conspiracy.”
Feith adds that the Pentagon leadership was actually agnostic about Chalabi. “We didn’t think of ourselves as pro-Chalabi,” Feith insisted, “but we didn’t think of ourselves as anti-Chalabi, either.”
Rather than simply pushing to anoint Chalabi, Feith says his office developed a formal plan for political reorganization built around an entity to be known as the Iraq Interim Authority. The plan -- abandoned by the White House in the immediate aftermath of the invasion -- called for a temporary government that would include U.S. officials, leading Iraqi exiles and Iraqis who had remained in Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s rule. Chalabi was to be among the exiles playing a leading role, but Feith insists that no one in the Pentagon leadership ever sought to impose Chalabi as the leader.
He says that the Chalabi conspiracy charge can be disproven by the fact that the two men sent to run the post-war reconstruction – former general Jay Garner, followed by former ambassador L. Paul Bremer – were never given orders to anoint Chalabi. “If they were not told to favor Chalabi, then there couldn’t have been a conspiracy,” Feith said. “Then there was no drive shaft connecting the engine to the wheels.”
Both Garner and Bremer said in interviews that they were never given directions by the Pentagon to anoint Chalabi. Garner, briefly in charge of reconstruction in Iraq after the invasion, said, “I heard Rumsfeld say several times I have no candidate,” for ruler of Iraq. “I never saw any inclination he was pushing Chalabi.”
Garner observed that “Feith, I think, was a friend of Chalabi. And he took me through the positives and negatives of the exiles and candidates, but he never told me to appoint Chalabi. It never happened that he said, 'Make Ahmed the premier.' But he respected him. He told me that he, Perle (Richard Perle, former chairman of the Defense Policy Board for Rumsfeld) and Wolfowitz had met frequently with Chalabi in the past to discuss the freedom of Iraq.”
“For me, I don’t like Chalabi,” Garner volunteered. “He and I instantly disliked each other. He’s a crook, a man who can’t be trusted.”
Bremer added, “Nobody ever said to me the plan was for Chalabi to have the job. Nobody ever told me to put Chalabi in power.”
In an interview from Baghdad, Chalabi also insisted, “I know of no discussion at all between me and the Pentagon or any one in the U.S. government and anyone close to me, to install me in any capacity in Iraq.” He complained that “the adversaries of Feith and Wolfowitz seemed to fear that I would emerge as a leader in post-war Iraq, and so they had an ABC doctrine -- 'Anybody But Chalabi.'”
But while Feith sees this as solid evidence dispelling the Chalabi conspiracy charge, his legion of critics from the Bush administration remain unconvinced. They say these arguments – no orders to Garner and Bremer, no Pentagon documents supporting Chalabi’s ascension -- are only used by Feith as part of a legalistic effort to obscure what happened.
“Do you really think they would have written it down?” asked one former senior administration official.
The critics say that, to varying degrees, Wolfowitz and Feith at the Pentagon, Cheney at the White House, and Perle on the outside all promoted Chalabi before the war. But, they were unable to convince either Rumsfeld or, more important, Bush.
“Bush was very clear," said one former top administration official, critical of the neoconservatives, “he said, I will not put my thumb on the scales. He wasn’t going to favor one guy.”
And no matter how badly Wolfowitz, Feith and the others might have wanted Chalabi, they didn’t have the power to install him.
Perle, perhaps Chalabi’s most vocal and influential patron in Washington at the time of the invasion, said in an interview that he believes that the fact that Rumsfeld was never a Chalabi supporter was critical -- since that meant the Pentagon was not going to push him on Bush.
“Rumsfeld’s view was that the cream will rise to the surface,” recalled Perle. “He did not want to get into the business of picking leaders for Iraq, although I don’t think he ever thought that meant Iraq would be leaderless. But Rumsfeld never fought for Chalabi. The idea that he was the Pentagon’s boy is wrong. One person made decisions at the DOD, and that was Don Rumsfeld. Those people who kept saying the Pentagon’s policy was Chalabi didn’t understand how DOD worked.”
Asked whether he thought Feith and Wolfowitz would have installed Chalabi if they had been in charge, Perle said: “Early on, they would have supported a government-in-exile and the INC [the Iraqi National Congress, Chalabi’s group] would certainly have been at the center of it. And to do it right there would have had to have been a transparent process. …They certainly thought that Chalabi was, if not the most competent Iraqi, at least in the top two or three.”
But Chalabi was not installed, and a U.S. occupation, through Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority, was launched instead.
An anti-American insurgency followed, and now, five bloody years later, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Feith are just beginning their long struggle for historical redemption.
James Risen is an investigative reporter for The New York Times and the author of "State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration." He won a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting, for his pieces about government surveillance programs.