Douglas Feith was under secretary of defense for policy from July 2001 until August 2005. He was in the thick of things before and during the war in Iraq. In Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, he explains how the President “nearly cost the U.S. the war.” In my view, Feith’s piece is the best analysis of the case for war that I have read all year. He writes:
‘In the fall of 2003, a few months after Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, U.S. officials began to despair of finding stockpiles of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. The resulting embarrassment caused a radical shift in administration rhetoric about the war in Iraq.
‘President Bush no longer stressed Saddam’s record or the threats from the Baathist regime as reasons for going to war. Rather, from that point forward, he focused almost exclusively on the larger aim of promoting democracy. This new focus compounded the damage to the president’s credibility that had already been caused by the CIA’s errors on Iraqi WMD. The president was seen as distancing himself from the actual case he had made for removing the Iraqi regime from power. . .
‘The stunning change in rhetoric appeared to confirm his critics’ argument that the security rationale for the war was at best an error, and at worst a lie. That’s a shame, for Mr. Bush had solid grounds for worrying about the dangers of leaving Saddam in power. . .
‘The most damaging effect of this communications strategy was that it changed the definition of success. Before the war, administration officials said that success would mean an Iraq that no longer threatened important U.S. interests â€“ that did not support terrorism, aspire to WMD, threaten its neighbors, or conduct mass murder. But from the fall of 2003 on, the president defined success as stable democracy in Iraq.
‘This was a public affairs decision that has had enormous strategic consequences for American support for the war. The new formula fails to connect the Iraq war directly to U.S. interests. It causes many Americans to question why we should be investing so much blood and treasure for Iraqis. And many Americans doubt that the new aim is realistic â€“ that stable democracy can be achieved in Iraq in the foreseeable future.
‘To fight a long war, the president has to ensure he can preserve public and congressional support for the effort. It is not an overstatement to say that the president’s shift in rhetoric nearly cost the U.S. the war. Victory or defeat can hinge on the president’s words as much as on the military plans of his generals or the actions of their troops on the ground.’
I think Feith’s analysis is spot-on. I for one have been frustrated with the administration’s inability to present a coherent, consistent message on the rationale for the war. On Just War grounds, there was and is an argument to made, but the President has not been making it (see George Weigel, “Just War and Iraq Wars,” First Things).
As a consequence, many Americans do not even remember what the primary rationale for the war was. Many Americans think that the U. S. attacked Iraq to keep Saddam Hussein from attacking us. That’s just wrong historically. No one really thought that Iraq’s military was a serious threat to the U.S. homeland.
The main rationale for the war was to prevent WMD from falling into the hands of terrorists who could reach the homeland (as 911 so tragically demonstrated). At the time, Iraq was at the top of the list of possible WMD vendors to terrorists, with the other members of the “axis of evil” (Iran and North Korea) following closely behind.
Feith’s piece is a must-read. Here’s the link: