Friday, May 06, 2005

# Posted 1:46 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

IN SEARCH OF A NEO-CON MEA CULPA: This week, the New Yorker brings us a profile of Douglas Feith by staff writer Jeffrey Goldberg. Or to be more precise, the New Yorker brings us Goldberg's summary of his extended effort to get Feith to admit that the Bush administration had no justification for invading Iraq and that it massively screwed up the occupation. Apparently, Feith understood from the very beginning what Goldberg wanted to get out of him:
"I’m not going to be making some Oprah-like confessions,” he told me at the start.
Goldberg is kind enough to let Feith get a few good shots in, even if he uses the prerogatives of the author to ensure that Feith doesn't come out looking like the winner. For example:
One afternoon, I asked Feith what had gone wrong in Iraq. “Your assumption is that everything went wrong,” he replied.
Naturally, Goldberg never asks Feith what went right in Iraq. He never asks why the Bush administration had so much faith that Iraq's first elections would be a success even though the media and the experts had such great expectations of failure. Nor does Goldberg ask why the Shi'ites -- once portrayed by the American media as fanatical and vindictive -- have demonstrated such remarkable tolerance and such remarkable commitment to the democratic process in spite of the Sunni insurgents' vicious attacks on Shi'ite civilians and religious sites.

Of course, there is much that went very wrong in Iraq. After recounting Feith's barb about his assumption that everything has gone wrong, Goldberg writes that
I hadn’t said that, but I spoke of the loss of American lives—more than fifteen hundred soldiers, most of whom died after the declared end of major combat operations. This number, I said, strikes many people as a large and terrible loss.
And so it is. Feith expresses sympathy for the families of the fallen soldiers, but then offers up one of his weaker arguments in defense of the war: "This was an operation to prevent the next, as it were, 9/11." This sets up Goldberg for his mea culpa request:
I asked Feith if he would have recommended the invasion of Iraq if he knew then what he knows now.
I found Feith's response to that question to be thoroughly unpersuasive although not outlandish:
“Given the ease, as everybody knows, with which one can reconstitute stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons if you have the capabilities which he had, I don’t think the rationale for the war hinged on the existence of stockpiles.”
Let me put it this way: Would George Bush ever have been able to get majority support for the war in either Congress or the polls if he said that Saddam Hussein doesn't have chemical weapons? Would Bush even have tried to persuade the American public to go to war against weapons that didn't yet exist? (That was a rhetorical question.)

When it comes to the occupation, Feith fares considerably better. Better than he should, perhaps. Goldberg lets him blame almost everything that went wrong on Tommy Franks and Paul Bremer. Nor does Goldberg challenge the following assertion:
Feith said that the Pentagon carefully considered the possibility that the invasion and its aftermath could be disastrous. He mentioned what he called the “parade of horribles” memo, drafted by Rumsfeld in October, 2002, which listed all the things that could go wrong in the invasion. “Instead of saying, ‘How can we conceal from the President those things that would make him reluctant?,’ we decided we had to go to him before he makes such an important decision with a list of all those things that could possibly go wrong,” Feith said.
I fully believe that there was a "parade of horribles" memo and that Feith and Rumsfeld conveyed its substance to the President. But writing a memo is not the same as planning serioiusly for an occupation.

Why does Goldberg let Feith get off relatively easy on this point if he is so determined to shred apart his arguments for going to war? Well, first of all, Feith blames other members of the administration for what went wrong, so Bush doesn't get off the hook. But perhaps more importantly, I think that Goldberg -- along with many, many others, who spent eighteen months believing that the occupation of Iraq was a quagmire -- have been completely thrown off balance by the democratic surge in the Middle East. Goldberg starts off the closing paragraph of his essay by writing that
History may one day judge the removal of Saddam Hussein as the spark that set off a democratic revolution across the Muslim world. But if Iraq disintegrates historians will deal harshly with the President and his tacticians, the men most directly responsible for taking a noble idea—the defeat of a tyrant and the introduction of liberty—and letting it fail.
Naturally, Goldberg isn't about to celebrate the invasion of Iraq as the midwife of democracy in the Middle East. But ironically enough, the first of those two sentences represents at least as much of a mea culpa as anything Feith stated for the record. While one can have an extended debate about whether the invasion of Iraq had any impact on Lebanon, Egypt, etc., the fact that writers such as Goldberg can even imagine how history will vindicate George W. Bush illustrates how much the terms of debate have changed in just a few short months.
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