The passage last week in the U.S. House of Representatives of a nonbinding
resolution opposing a troop buildup in Iraq was pure symbolism. But in modern
war, such symbolism is often as powerful as an exploding car bomb.
Whatever its ultimate place in the account of the stunning decline in
American public support for this war, it does serve as an adequate barometer of the
fact that most politicians feel there is more danger in being labeled as a war
supporter than one of its opponents.
But perhaps no one has a right to feel as exposed by this turn of events than
one of the men labeled as the war's architects, former Undersecretary of
Defense for Policy Douglas Feith.
Feith, the son of a Holocaust survivor and Philadelphia community activist,
left the administration in 2005 after four years of hard labor in a Pentagon
tasked with fighting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the general
post-9/11 conflict with Al Qaeda. But this Washington attorney, who also served
in the Reagan-administration Pentagon, has not faded into the obscurity that
is usually the reward of Cabinet undersecretaries.
SINGLING OUT FEITH
Instead, he is the subject of an ongoing media blitz led by The New York
Times, in which he has been made to appear the chief culprit in the "Bush lied us
into war" explanation for the invasion of Iraq.
While no one in the administration can be surprised that the public sees the
failure to find "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq as a standing rebuke to
much of what came out of Washington before the invasion, Feith is
particularly vulnerable since he headed a Pentagon intelligence unit that supposedly
circulated the idea that Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda were closely associated.
Since, the story goes, most CIA analysts disagreed with that analysis, Feith and
his cohorts are the among the chief "liars" who should be called to account.
Along these lines, a recent Pentagon investigation into the affair criticized
Feith for disseminating "alternative intelligence assessments on the Iraq and
Al Qaeda relationship that were inconsistent with the consensus of the
intelligence community, to senior decision-makers."
The report was the basis for a scathing editorial in the Times on Feb. 10, in
which the veteran analyst was derisively described as a "renegade
intelligence buff" who did "dirty work" to deceive the nation. Yet for all of that, Feith's critics at the Times and in Congress had to concede that nothing he had
done was remotely illegal. He had, in fact, been tasked with taking a skeptical
view of an official intelligence community whose pre-9/11 failures were every
bit as bad as its pre-Iraq work.
Everyone in the administration, Feith included, turned out to have been wrong
in some, though not all, of their prewar assessments. But it should be
pointed out that Feith never alleged, as some assert, that Saddam and Osama bin
Laden coordinated the attacks.
Under current circumstances, it appears to be impossible for partisans to
credit their opponents with good faith even when they turn out to be wrong. Thus,
a dedicated public servant who, though he properly understood the gravity of
the terrorist threat to the United States (something that cannot be said for
many in the intelligence bureaucracy, Congress and the Times), may have drawn
some wrong conclusions about conflicting evidence gets to be a piņata for those
who cannot content themselves with darts thrown at former defense secretary
Donald Rumsfeld or President Bush.
A more insightful reading of the report came in a New York Sun editorial on
Feb. 12, which saw nothing wrong in Feith's willingness to question a CIA that
seemed to be involved in some oddly politicized "shenanigans" itself in those
tumultuous days. Rather than the shame that the Times thinks Feith deserves,
the Sun believes that in time his role will be vindicated by history because
he risked all "to ask the tough questions."
Let's hope they are right about that, but it is no surprise that Feith has
been singled out by those with a political axe to grind. His name was usually
among the first listed when anti-Semitic jibes about neo-conservative Jews and
Israel pushing America into war began to surface. It was a crude lie, but given
that the war has dragged on longer than an impatient public can tolerate, it
was to be expected that Feith would be among the first to be pilloried by
far-left bloggers, as well as more established media.
But there is more at stake in the venomous nature of the current debate about
the origins of the war than the reputation of an experienced Washington
player like Feith, who knew what he was getting into when he returned to government
service in 2001. Congressional and press inquisitions about the origins of
the war are entirely appropriate. Yet if the result of all of these
investigations is merely to heighten the sense of cynicism that pervades everything
is said about the war, then the poison will affect more than the future
disposition of U.S. troops in Iraq.
If the point of the targeting of Douglas Feith seems to mean anything, it is
that anyone who questions what the Pentagon investigators called the "consensus
" of the intelligence community is headed for trouble. But considering that
the CIA failed so miserably in the last decade of war against a deadly Islamist
enemy, that would be a terrible mistake.
The fact that the agency was riddled with leaders like Michael Scheuer, an
analyst who was allowed to pen an anti-administration and anti-Israel diatribe
titled Imperial Hubris while on duty speaks volumes about the odd nature of the
contemporary CIA. Under these circumstances, it would seem that the next
administration, be it Republican or Democratic, is going to need a Douglas Feith
to provide its leaders with a skeptical look at what the spooks are feeding it.
That will be all the more important because the next president is likely
going to have to confront the threat from an Iranian regime whose threats loom
over us today even more heavily than those of Saddam Hussein did a few years ago.
This rogue nation is unlikely to be deterred from its nuclear ambitions by an
America that is too divided and war-weary to call it to account for its
intervention in Iraq or its nuclear threats against Israel and the West.
And if the only conclusion we can draw from the decision to go to war in Iraq
is that we should never believe those who fear the worst about Middle Eastern
jihadists and dictators, then we are heading for certain disaster.
Unfortunately, that is exactly what Feith's critics at the Times seem to be
telling us. The tone and the context of their commentary on Feith seem to savor
more of a new campaign to deter Americans from the necessary task of taking
on Iran than to account for Iraq.
At a time when America's leaders need to be finding the courage to confront
our enemies, it would be a pity if Feith's successors in this or future
administrations will be worrying more about the politicized agenda of a cynical media
than the peril that Iranian nukes will present us.