In the Whirlwind of a New Age: A Defense Undersecretary's Quick Education, Part 4: Critical Reflections on the Iraq War

Douglas Feith
Title
  • Reflections on Enhanced Interrogations Techniques
  • 0:00:01

  • 0:00:01
  • Interviewer
  • Okay, today’s Thursday, July 28, 2011. We’re in the office of the Hudson Institute with Douglas Feith for our fourth installment of the interview for the Center for Oral History at West Point. So Doug, since we last met, the raid on the Bin Laden complex in Pakistan has happened. And I just want—interested in your reactions to it, since what happened on September 11th framed so much of the past 10 years for you.

  • 0:00:28
  • Douglas Feith
  • Well, it’s obviously happy news that we got bin Laden. It would’ve been—it would’ve been bad had he died quietly in his bed of natural causes. He—so I think it was a very good thing that we got him, and I think that the—that the President deserves credit for having decided to do something that was bold and politically risky. I think it was the right thing to do to authorize the raid, and I’m glad that the President did it.

  • 0:01:04
  • Interviewer
  • I’m curious just ’cause this occurred to me, that watching the news, reading the news reports about it—the SEALs got there. The rules of engagement were probably that if he was not armed that they were to take him alive, and yet he was not armed, and he was not taken alive. What is your sense of the legality of this, given the rules, those rules of engagement?

  • 0:01:29
  • Douglas Feith
  • I haven’t—I haven’t studied it as a matter of law, but my—my sense is when the administration says that they were on solid legal ground to do what they did, I’m willing to assume that that’s correct. I—I’ve heard various legal challenges, but they don’t—they don’t sound right to me.

  • 0:01:58
  • Interviewer
  • Well, self-defense could actually be argued, I mean, many ways, right? I mean so if there’s—I mean whether he’s armed or not, literally, that prospect that he could be armed and could be armed with something that’s not visible is already fine. Did—I want to ask you, ask you also about something that’s also happened since the last time we were together, and that is the Arab Spring.

  • Interviewer
  • And I actually want to back up for one moment—the—the—the killing of Osama bin Laden has reenergized some of the arguments over enhanced interrogation techniques, over the—the Bush administration’s method of prosecuting the War on Terror, whether that was contributed to the final pinpointing of where bin Laden was. Did you have an attitude about that?

  • 0:02:49
  • Douglas Feith
  • All I know on that is what CIA Director Panetta said, which was that the—the special interrogations of I think it was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and some others produced information that was important in the—in the work that led to the identification of—of bin Laden’s location. So Director Panetta made the linkage between those interrogations and the—and the success of the raid, so I assume that that’s correct.

  • 0:03:36
  • Interviewer
  • Does that make you feel that it’s a vindication of the administration’s conduct in those interrogations?

  • 0:03:43
  • Douglas Feith
  • Well, I mean it’s a vindication of the general principle that it was important to get whatever information we could, by lawful means, ’cause it’s important to point out that what President Bush said regarding detainee policy and interrogation policy was that everything we were supposed to do—we as a government were supposed to do—had to be humane and lawful.

  • Douglas Feith
  • And everybody understood that torture was not lawful; so the question was then posed to the appropriate people in the U.S. government who decide what’s lawful for the U.S. government, which is the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department, and they came back with these elaborate memos saying, “Here are some things you can do, and here are other things that you can’t do.” And they said that all of the interrogation techniques that were used—as I understand it. I was not—

  • 0:04:47
  • Interviewer
  • Mm-hmm. I understand. Yeah.

  • 0:04:48
  • Douglas Feith
  • I was not involved in this, but the—the—the people who were functioning as lawyers for the administration said—

  • 0:04:54
  • Interviewer
  • This’d be John Yoo, you’re saying, and—

  • 0:04:57
  • Douglas Feith
  • Well, the Office of Legal Counsel—

  • 0:04:58
  • Interviewer
  • Right, which is what he was from, yeah.

  • 0:04:59
  • Douglas Feith
  • He was—he was one of the lawyers. He, I guess, was one of the principal authors of at least one—one or two of the relevant memos. I don’t—there were other names on some of the memos.

  • Douglas Feith
  • But he—the Office of Legal Counsel said, “These are allowable techniques. They are lawful.” So it’s important, because after the fact, there were some people who argued—including President Obama—who argued that the decision that the lawyers who were the properly constituted sources of legal guidance for the administration, that the—that the advice that they gave was wrong, and that the techniques that they had approved were torture, and, therefore, not lawful.

  • 0:05:47
  • Douglas Feith
  • Now, this was second-guessing; so President Obama, essentially, second-guessed the lawyers. Now, that’s fine—I mean if he wants to second-guess, he can say, “I disagree with their legal conclusion.” But the fact is when President Bush and whoever was involved in these interrogations did what they did, and authorized what they authorized, they were doing so on the basis of lawyers telling them that it was lawful. And so it was not as if the President or the interrogators made a conscious decision to deviate from the law to do what they did. On the contrary—the President said, “Everything has to be humane. Everything has to be lawful.”

  • 0:06:28
  • Douglas Feith
  • And now the only reason there’s a question about this is that people came in later and said, “We disagree with the legal advice that the President got at the time.” So I think that’s an important thing to get in context; so when you say, “Does it vindicate what President Bush did?” What President Bush did was use lawful interrogation techniques, as he was assured, right? He used—he authorized lawful interrogation techniques to get as much information as we could from our detainees to help us prosecute the War on Terrorism to protect the United States. And did the capture of bin Laden, you know, vindicate that basic approach rule? Sure, it did, you know—along with many other things that vindicated that approach.

  • 0:07:21
  • Douglas Feith
  • I mean it’s clearly the responsible and proper thing to do was to get as much information as we could through lawful interrogations of detainees, because it was quite clear that in the—in dealing with the terrorism problem, the principle source of really valuable operational intelligence was going to be the detainees. I mean there’s very little that you can learn from satellites. This is not like you’re looking at, you know, Soviet tank formations moving into Western military districts, as was the case in the Cold War.

  • Douglas Feith
  • In this—in this challenge, this main source of information for us is what we can extract from the interrogation of captured terrorists.

  • 0:08:10
  • Interviewer
  • Well, pursuing just one step further, so, I mean, it’s not—so the disagreement is over whether it was lawful, looking backwards, right, retrospectively. And yet even having—what I’ve read of John Yoo’s determinations was that they—it was not lawful. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they had to adopt those methods in order to—in order to get the information they got. So the decision to adopt some of those methods in order to get the information would be the question I was asking you—whether it’s vindicated by the fact that we actually have these results.

  • 0:08:37
  • Douglas Feith
  • Well, I mean if you think about it, the—it seems to me the decision that was facing the President and the National Security Council, to the extent that they were involved in this, was what are the bounds of—of—what are the legal bounds on interrogation? And if methods—and knowing that torture was illegal, right, so—

  • 0:09:06
  • Interviewer
  • But definable—it needs to be—

  • 0:09:08
  • Douglas Feith
  • Well, of course there’s an issue of definition, which is why you go to lawyers and say, “What, you know, what can the law do to shed light on the question of what is a—a proper interrogation technique vs. a—an interrogation technique that would constitute torture?” And the lawyers come back and say, you know, “Based on the analysis of Eighth Amendment issues and other international issues and Geneva Convention issues, here’s—here are what the bounds are.”

  • Douglas Feith
  • Now, once you’re given those bounds, the policy question, then, is should you interrogate as—as vigorously as possible, within the bounds of the law, to get information to help us protect Americans from another 9/11? I mean I don’t—I don’t even see what the controversy about this—I mean, should they?

  • 0:09:59
  • Interviewer
  • Well, here’s the controversy—

  • 0:10:00
  • Douglas Feith
  • Let’s—let’s—let’s not interrogate them about. Let’s not—

  • 0:10:02
  • Interviewer
  • No, but—well, but the controversy would be whether, you know, going to the bounds of the law is necessary to produce the results that you—

  • 0:10:11
  • Douglas Feith
  • Well, can you imagine somebody suggesting to the President, “We have the—we can lawfully interrogate people, and use the kind of techniques that police use in civilized countries all over the world, of various types that don’t constitute torture, but that do constitute different kinds of psychological and other pressure,” right? “And it’s been determined that those are lawful, but you, Mr. President, may not want to interrogate people as vigorously as possible, so that if there’s another terrorist attack that might’ve been aborted through the interrogation if proper pressure were applied—you want to forego that, because you don’t want to interrogate people up to the bounds of the law?”

  • 0:11:05
  • Douglas Feith
  • I mean what—how short of the bounds of the law do you want to go? I mean—anyway, it’s—I don’t even understand how you can quite pose that question. I mean if it is lawful, if it’s not torture, if it—I guess the one limit that the President put on other than law was humane. He said, “Everything has to be humane and lawful.” So there, you could say, “I don’t want to go to the edge of the law if it would go beyond what is humane.”

  • 0:11:30
  • Interviewer
  • The threshold of humane might be different. Mm-hmm.

  • 0:11:33
  • Douglas Feith
  • But given that he said that the bounds were humane and lawful, I don’t see what standard you would want to use short of that, given that the stakes that you’re talking about are another 9/11.

  • Douglas Feith
  • And let’s, you know, recall that what’s in the background here is in about an hour and a quarter, 3,000 Americans were killed, the World Trade Center was destroyed, the Pentagon was attacked, and what are you willing to do in the way of interrogating people to try to prevent future attacks of that kind?

  • Douglas Feith
  • And the President says, “I’m willing to do—I’m not willing to do anything that’s inhumane. I’m not willing to do anything that’s illegal.” And that seems like a pretty reasonable standard.

  • A “Big Picture Look” at the Spread of Democracy in the Middle East
  • 0:12:16

  • 0:12:16
  • Interviewer
  • Let’s move on to the next—I wanted to ask you about the Arab Spring. Do you think there is a connection between the Arab Spring and what happened in Iraq in the past decade?

  • Interviewer
  • In other words, I know—let me explain this a little bit more. In your book, you make long discussion about what was the justification, the mission, in going to Iraq. Was it protecting America, or was it sowing the seeds of democracy? And you reject the sowing the seeds of democracy as a legitimate? or as a primary goal of the mission.

  • Interviewer
  • But here we see democracy starting to sort of develop, and—and—well, we think democracy is about to develop in large parts of the world which did not enjoy it until fairly recently. That happened to be Arab parts of the world, upon the heels of invasion of Iraq, historically speaking—do you think there’s any connection?

  • 0:13:17
  • Douglas Feith
  • Well, the—the point that I made about the relationship of promoting democracy to the justification for the war is that I do not believe the war could—could have been justified, or was justified, in order to do a political experiment in the Middle East, or in order to democratize Iraq. I believe that the justification for the war, and the proper justification, was a national security justification eliminating a threat to the United States. At the—

  • 0:13:50
  • Interviewer
  • Well, unless you make the argument that creating a democratic—a setting encouraging democracy somehow can lead to less of a threat.

  • 0:14:03
  • Douglas Feith
  • Yeah, but I don’t—if—I don’t—I don’t think that merely changing the government in Iraq to try to create a democracy there would’ve been, itself, a proper rationale, proper justification for the war. I think the justification for the war was—was a security-related one, directly, not through the indirect route that you just described.

  • Douglas Feith
  • But once the President decided that—that eliminating that, the threats that the Saddam Hussein regime posed was necessary, then he and his whole national security team understood that the removal of the Saddam Hussein regime was going to create an opportunity to replace it with political institutions that might develop democratically. And if they did develop democratically, could have good effects on the politics of the Arab world and the greater Muslim world, and that could have all kinds of other national security benefits down the road for the United States.

  • 0:15:23
  • Douglas Feith
  • I mean the point that I—that I made—and I think perhaps we made it in a—in an earlier talk with you—is that when we went to war in World War II, we did not go to war in order to create democracy in either Germany or Japan. But once we went to war for proper reasons, we understood that once we removed those regimes and got the unconditional surrender, we had an opportunity to create democratic institutions in those countries. And if we succeeded, it would have lots of national security benefits for the United States and its allies and friends around the world.

  • Douglas Feith
  • And I think a similar thing was going on in Iraq. Now, having said that, I would say that the—the developments in Iraq and the picture of Iraqis showing off their purple-stained fingers after their several national elections on—for the constitution and parliament and—there were three or four major elections in a short period of time after Saddam was removed.

  • 0:16:34
  • Douglas Feith
  • I think that, coupled with the pictures of Afghans similarly celebrating their opportunity to vote and elect their leaders—I think that probably did have a—an effect.

  • Douglas Feith
  • I think that when historians look back on the Arab Spring—especially if the Arab Spring does develop along democratic lines, and it’s not—it’s not inevitable that it will and there’s some disturbing signs that it might not. But if the Arab Spring does develop and—along democratic lines in various countries, and people step back and take a big-picture look at recent history, I think we can expect that historians will say in the big picture, you had a large area of the world, a large part of the Muslim world, that seemed to be inured to its lack of political freedom.

  • 0:17:38
  • Douglas Feith
  • And—and—and seemed to be immune to the spread of democracy that had occurred in Asia and Latin America and elsewhere, since the ’80s, and now all of a sudden, you see that the Middle East itself is—is—working to develop democratic political institutions. And when people take a big-picture look, I think they would see a number of things as important precursors or—or—or predecessor events in this march to democracy. One would be the—I think the—the liberation of Afghanistan and the elections there. Another would be what happened in Iraq. I think another would be the June 2009 demonstrations in Iran—the Green Movement demonstrations in Iran.

  • Douglas Feith
  • I think all of those things would, with enough historical perspective, look like elements that—that influenced people throughout the Middle East to demonstrate, and to ask for greater political rights.

  • Invasion Plans for Iraq
  • 0:18:55

  • 0:18:55
  • Interviewer
  • Let’s go back to the oral history quality of these interviews, and let’s go to the invasion itself. And I—I sensed from the book that you were not involved in the actual decisions, of course, for the light footprint, but you were there to—to—as party to these conversations. Can you set that scene for us of the decision about how to process the war and what those arguments were?

  • 0:19:23
  • Douglas Feith
  • Well, the—the plan that—that CENTCOM had on the shelf, as it were, for Iraq was pretty much a replay of the plan that had existed for Desert Shield-Desert Storm back in 1990-91. And it involved over half a million troops, and here we were, 10 years after the Gulf War.

  • Douglas Feith
  • There had been major developments that didn’t—that weren’t really reflected or taken into account in the—in that plan that was on the shelf. There had been substantial increases in American capabilities through the application of computer technology and miniaturization technology, making U.S. weapons system much—weapon systems much more precise, for example.

  • Douglas Feith
  • There had been a deterioration to some extent in Iraqi capabilities from 1991 to 2001. And there was also the record that much of the equipment that had been taken over to Iraq in Desert Storm, for Desert Storm, had been returned in its boxes so that it was quite clear—

  • 0:20:58
  • Interviewer
  • Never used, in other words.

  • 0:20:59
  • Douglas Feith
  • Never used. So it was quite clear that—that the amount of resources was—

  • 0:21:06
  • Interviewer
  • Exceeded the need.

  • 0:21:07
  • Douglas Feith
  • Way overestimated in the—in—and that was true at the time, let alone how things had developed over the last 10 years. So for a variety of reasons, Secretary Rumsfeld asked General Franks, “Does it really make sense that if we needed a half a million men in 1990 that 10-11 years later, 13 years later, with all these different trends and developments, that we would still need a half a million men?”

  • Douglas Feith
  • And he didn’t order him to do it with fewer than the people that he wanted—he simply raised the question, “Does it really make sense, and I’d like your analysis of that.”

  • 0:21:54
  • Douglas Feith
  • General Franks came back and said that when he looked at the whole issue, and he and his CENTCOM war planners looked at the whole issue, it was not necessary to have a half a million or 600,000 men in place in order to—in order to launch the war. Now, the basis of the Franks plan, as I—as I recall the way it was presented, was it would be possible to start the military action with fewer—with fewer people in place than Saddam Hussein believed would be necessary. And part of—

  • 0:22:35
  • Interviewer
  • And that was part of the surprise, yeah.

  • 0:22:37
  • Douglas Feith
  • And part of the thinking was while Saddam might, in a broad sense, in a strategic sense, know that we’re coming, he—we could achieve a degree of tactical surprise by initiating the war before Saddam thought we were ready to start. And so the idea was we don’t need to have as many people as—as—as Saddam would think we would have to have. That would help us. And we could then have what Franks called “on-ramps,” where the military action starts. If you need more people, there are more people in the pipeline, ready to come. But those on-ramps can become, as it were, off-ramps—or I mean they—I’m not sure—

  • 0:23:28
  • Interviewer
  • I understand—

  • 0:23:29
  • Douglas Feith
  • The metaphor works very well, but he referred to them as on-ramps and off-ramps.

  • 0:23:30
  • Interviewer
  • Yes.

  • 0:23:31
  • Douglas Feith
  • What he was basically talking about is you could create pipelines, and you could either put people through the pipelines if you need additional people, or not put them through the pipelines if it turns out that you don’t need the additional people.

  • Douglas Feith
  • Another thing that I know that was on Secretary Rumsfeld’s mind, which got very little attention in the public debate about these things, but it’s the kind of thing that does way on a Secretary of Defense, is, as important as the Iraq War was, it was not the only thing going on in the world.

  • 0:24:02
  • Douglas Feith
  • And I know that—that one of the things that weighed on Secretary Rumsfeld was the danger—and he talked about this in the “parade of horribles” memo—the danger that if we got involved in Iraq, it may be seen by other countries in the world as an opportunity to launch aggressive actions while the United States was preoccupied. And what Secretary Rumsfeld was concerned about is he wanted resources given to the Iraq effort that were—that were sufficient for the job, but he didn’t want to throw everything, including the kitchen sink in, in Iraq at the expense of our ability to make sure that the Korean peninsula stayed stable, or other areas where the Chinese might move stayed stable, or other areas where other countries that might do dangerous things would stay stable.

  • Douglas Feith
  • So he was—he was concerned about the opportunity costs of—of putting resources into Iraq. And he had to balance the need to do everything necessary to put proper resources in Iraq against these other concerns.

  • 0:25:23
  • Interviewer
  • Now, the popular history is that, then, that the Army was disappointed with the level of commitment, right, the number of, the size of the force.

  • 0:25:30
  • Douglas Feith
  • When you say “the Army”—I’m always troubled by these discussions, because if—if by “the Army” you mean there were generals—

  • 0:25:39
  • Interviewer
  • Okay, all right, fair.

  • 0:25:41
  • Douglas Feith
  • In the Army who thought differently, I—the Army’s a big institution.

  • 0:25:45
  • Interviewer
  • Well, leading up to the point—right.

  • 0:25:46
  • Douglas Feith
  • I have no doubt whatsoever that there were people in the Army, there were people in the Air Force, there were people at the New York Times, there were people, you know—

  • 0:25:53
  • Interviewer
  • Well, but the Army Chief of Staff.

  • 0:25:54
  • Douglas Feith
  • All over. But all I’m saying is if you’re talking about individuals here and there in the bureaucracy who have their own views, and might’ve been second-guessing General Franks, and said, you know, “I might’ve done things differently,” it’s very possible that’s the case. But—

  • 0:26:10
  • Interviewer
  • Well, we’re talking about Shinseki here, of course.

  • 0:26:12
  • Douglas Feith
  • Well, okay, but as I understand it, General Shinseki—I mean he had an opportunity to talk to Tommy Franks. He was a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Franks met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They discussed this. General Shinseki later met, I believe, with the other Chiefs, with the President, who said, “Are you familiar with the plan? Are you happy with the plan? Is the plan adequately resourced?” And I don’t believe that a single Chief raised any questions with the President, even though this was their chance.

  • Douglas Feith
  • And so I mean the argument that General Shinseki did not approve of General Franks’ plan, and thought it was inadequate, I’m not sure that’s correct. I mean I’d be interested if you talked to General Shinseki and asked him. And if General Shinseki actually thought that the plan was—was dangerous and wrong and bad and under-resourced—

  • 0:27:07
  • Interviewer
  • Why he didn’t speak up at the time, you’re saying.

  • 0:27:09
  • Douglas Feith
  • I mean I—I would be surprised that he wouldn’t speak up in the many opportunities he had to speak up, either to Secretary Rumsfeld or to the President, about it. So I mean I think that there’s a lot of very loose talk about things like “the Army didn’t approve.” I don’t know what you mean by “the Army didn’t approve.” Also, another important point—most Americans don’t understand who’s responsible for war plans, and—

  • 0:27:37
  • Interviewer
  • CENTCOM vs.—you mean the—

  • 0:27:39
  • Douglas Feith
  • The military services versus the combatant commands.

  • 0:27:41
  • Interviewer
  • Right. Right.

  • 0:27:43
  • Douglas Feith
  • The way our system is set up, the military services are not responsible for making war plans. The Army, the Navy, the Air Force do not make war plans. The war plans are made by the combatant commanders—the commanders of the Pacific Command, the Central Command, the European Command, etc. And so it was Central Command that had the responsibility to make the war plan—then the plans get reviewed and discussed by various parties, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

  • Douglas Feith
  • And the Chief of Staff of the Army is a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and so in his capacity as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he gets to review the war plans. But in his capacity as Chief of Staff of the Army, he doesn’t make war plans. And as I said, he played his role. He had his opportunity to comment. I believe he did comment, and as far as I know, he did not object to the war plan. And—

  • 0:28:44
  • Interviewer
  • At that moment, you think.

  • 0:28:48
  • Douglas Feith
  • I’m not sure that he ever objected to the war plan. I know—I don’t know. Again, I wasn’t—I wasn’t in on all—all—all the relevant discussions. But I never heard that—that he actually objected to the war plan. The whole issue about General Shinseki comes up because at one point—I think it was before, just before the war started—General Shinseki was giving testimony in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Senator Levin asked him a question about troop levels for—I think it was for the post-Saddam period in Iraq.

  • 0:29:27
  • Douglas Feith
  • And—and General Shinseki, if I recall correctly, pushed back and said something to the effect of it’s not really his area. It’s not really his responsibility. He doesn’t want to answer. And Senator Levin, who’s a persistent guy, you know, pushed him, pushed him, pushed him until General Shinseki finally said something about, “Well, it might involve several hundreds of thousands of people.” Now, that wasn’t—that wasn’t, as I understand it, the considered opinion of the Department of the Army. It wasn’t based on any analysis. It wasn’t based on his having developed a rival war plan or anything. It was the result of badgering questioning.

  • Douglas Feith
  • You know, it was kind of a off-the-top-of-the-head remark, based on—on I don’t know what, from a general who basically got badgered into answering a question that he had initially not wanted to answer. And then a whole legend got built on that exchange, which was not a—you know, a deeply—

  • 0:30:41
  • Interviewer
  • Considered point.

  • 0:30:43
  • Douglas Feith
  • Considered discussion. And so, I just—I think that it’s—it’s important to avoid what I think is misleading and really kind of unconstructive formulations, where people say things like, you know, we went to war in Iraq with a plan that the Army as an institution had somehow rejected. And I don’t think that’s the case.

  • 0:31:10
  • Interviewer
  • Let’s look at a couple of the other controversies of the particularly post-Saddam period.

  • 0:31:14
  • Douglas Feith
  • One thing, let me just make sure that I’m turned off here or something. Alright.

  • The Necessity of De-Baathification
  • 0:31:20

  • 0:31:20
  • Interviewer
  • De-Baathification—good idea, not a good idea? This was instituted by Paul Bremer after the—after he assumed command from Jay Garner, right? And can you describe the situation there, what your attitude was about it, and what it—what it meant, and whether you thought it was successful?

  • 0:31:44
  • Douglas Feith
  • Well, de-Baathification was a topic that was discussed at some length in the interagency deliberations about Iraq before the war, and then throughout the spring. And there was a general view that some kind of de-Baathification was going to be required, because the Baath Party ran—I mean the Baath Party was the Saddam Hussein regime, right? I mean it wasn’t just a political party. It was—I mean the Baath Party was the Saddam Hussein regime similarly to the way the Nazi Party was the Hitler regime.

  • Douglas Feith
  • And—and the Nazi Party ran Germany for only 12 years, whereas the Baath Party ran Iraq for about 30 years. And so, there was no question that if you were going to replace the Saddam Hussein regime with some kind of different and better and potentially free or representative or democratic government, you were going to have to do something to eliminate the grip on every major institution of—of Iraq that the Baath Party had had. And the other thing was we wanted to encourage all kinds of people to participate in the political process in Iraq.

  • 0:33:25
  • Douglas Feith
  • Encourage people who had been terrorized and beaten down by their own government to be willing to stick their heads up and—and take responsibility and step forward and play a role in the political system, under circumstances where if any of them had—had done that under, you know, under Saddam, they would’ve been subject to murder or terrible tortures. And so it was clear that we were not going to get to first base in building any kind of new institutions in Iraq after Saddam if people believed that the—the Baath Party retained its hold on the country. So some kind of de-Baathification was required.

  • Douglas Feith
  • Now, the next question is—

  • 0:34:13
  • Interviewer
  • What kind?

  • 0:34:14
  • Douglas Feith
  • What was put in place—what kind? And let me describe to you—I can summarize it very quickly. Let me describe to you the policy that was ultimately adopted, because there’s terrible misunderstanding about this. I know there’s been a big controversy—was de-Baathification a big mistake?

  • Douglas Feith
  • And people tend to think it was a very Draconian policy, which caused all kinds of problems. Let me describe the policy, and you can judge for yourself whether you think it’s Draconian. The policy had three elements, the one that was ultimately adopted by the United States after a lot of discussion. And it wasn’t just Jerry Bremer’s invention—he basically adopted a policy that had been worked interagency for some months.

  • 0:34:57
  • Douglas Feith
  • The policy had three elements. The first was the top approximately 1 1/2% of the leadership of the Party could—was—was going to be subject to a disability, okay? Now, let’s understand what we’re talking about here. The Party had somewhere in the neighborhood of two, two and a half million people in it. The country was approximately 25 million people, so you’re talking about a little bit less than 10% of the country was in the Party.

  • Douglas Feith
  • And of that 10% that was in the Party, we said 98% of them will not be affected by de-Baathification, you know, or this—this element of the de-Baathification regime, this disability that we’re imposing. Now, with respect to the—the absolute top leadership—the top 1 1/2% or so—of this unbelievably bloody and brutal and inhumane regime—this top 1 1/2% will be subject to a disability. Now, what’s the disability? Did we say we were going to kill them? Did we say we were going to cut their hands off? Did we say we were going to confiscate all their property? No, none of those things.

  • 0:36:22
  • Douglas Feith
  • We said they can’t work for the government. So this extremely supposedly Draconian policy is that—if—if you were in the top 98% of the Baath Party, you weren’t affected by this. But if you were in the top 1 1/2%, you couldn’t work for the government—that’s the first element of the de-Baathification policy.

  • Douglas Feith
  • The second element was the top leadership of major governmental institutions, right—the top one or two layers, three layers of—of major institutions, like down to the level of whatever—an Under Secretary or an equivalent of an Under Secretary or Assistant Secretary of State in the U.S. System—could not be Baath Party members.

  • 0:37:12
  • Douglas Feith
  • So the major institutions would not be run by Baath Party members, but they could work for them—again, if they were not in the top 1 1/2%—so that was the second element. The top leadership of these institutions could not be Baath Party members.

  • Douglas Feith
  • And the third element of the policy was that on an individual basis, there could be exceptions to the first two elements. That was the policy. And that policy is described by many people as Draconian, and what I would say is—I mean anything short of that was, for all practical purposes, no de-Baathification policy.

  • 0:37:51
  • Douglas Feith
  • And now, if somebody wants to argue that it shouldn’t have been 1 1/2%, it should’ve been 1.4%, so instead of being whatever it was—20-X thousand people, it should’ve been 19,000 people—okay. I mean one can debate that. But that’s not where the debate is. The debate, supposedly, is that it was a mistake to do de-Baathification, because, supposedly, the fact of a de-Baathification policy was so antagonistic to the Sunni Arabs in Iraq that it caused, you know, a large part of the problems that caused the insurgency. I don’t think that’s the case, and I think that—that the issue needs to be understood also from the point of view of what kinds of problems would have occurred?

  • 0:38:39
  • Douglas Feith
  • This actually did weigh on us—what kinds of problems would have occurred had there been no de-Baathification policy? There were large parts of the Iraqi population—in particular, the 60% of the country that’s Shiite Arab, and the 20% of the country that’s Kurd—that would’ve been profoundly disturbed had they thought that we removed Saddam, and we were going to leave the Baathists in control of major institutions in the country. And that there was going to be no punishment at all for the leadership of the Baath Party—and had we not had any kind of de-Baathification, we might’ve had violence and serious instability coming from the opposition of about 80% of the country that was not Sunni Arab.

  • Why the Insurgency Happened
  • 0:39:36

  • 0:39:36
  • Interviewer
  • But now the argument is usually raised, along—coupled along with the disbanding of the Army, as reasons why the insurgency happens and why it’s as ferocious as it is. So what is your explanation for why the insurgency happens, and whether we could have prevented it from happening with a better plan?

  • 0:39:53
  • Douglas Feith
  • Well, I—I think that there—there were a number of reasons why various people became insurgents. And in some cases, I think that you had—you had Sunni Arabs, who are about 20% of the population, wanting to fight to the death to try to preserve their preeminence in Iraq.

  • 0:40:19
  • Interviewer
  • Had we not anticipated that?

  • 0:40:20
  • Douglas Feith
  • Oh, we did anticipate—

  • 0:40:21
  • Interviewer
  • In your “memo of horribles,” or—

  • 0:40:22
  • Douglas Feith
  • We did anticipate it. I mean it was clear that the Sunni Arabs were not going to be happy going from, you know, running the country as they—as a privileged class to being part of a new political system where the decisions would be made more democratically, and they would be—they would have the power that a minority group has.

  • 0:40:48
  • Interviewer
  • Does that mean the insurgency was inevitable, given what we were—what you’re—

  • 0:40:51
  • Douglas Feith
  • Well, what I would say is a degree of dissatisfaction on the part of the Sunnis was inevitable. Whether that dissatisfaction would turn into insurgency was not inevitable, that kind of—we anticipated it as a possible problem, but not as an inevitability.

  • Douglas Feith
  • And—and I think that there were—and I infer this from the fact that initially, you had intelligence that the number of people involved in active violent opposition to the new political order was quite small, and it grew over time. I think that one of the things that happened—and I highlight this in my book as a major problem—was we went into Iraq with the intention of liberating, not occupying, the country.

  • 0:41:50
  • Douglas Feith
  • But for reasons that I think we’ve discussed in earlier interviews, and that I discussed at length in my book, we wound up basically going with the State Department-preferred approach, rather than the Defense Department-preferred approach, of setting up an occupation government in Iraq. I think that was an enormous mistake, and I think what it did is it made credible to numerous Iraqis the—the charge that the United States had come into the country, not to liberate them, but to dominate them, control their lives, steal their resources, and—and run the place.

  • 0:42:39
  • Douglas Feith
  • And I think that encouraged a lot of Iraqis, who otherwise would not have been insurgents, that they needed to become insurgents in order to liberate their country. I mean they really—I think that a number of them sincerely believed that the United States was ill-motivated, because instead of turning responsibility over quickly to Iraqis, as we had done in Afghanistan when we overthrew the Taliban regime—we didn’t set up an occupation government. But instead of following that model in Iraq, we set up a—an occupation government that lasted 14 months. And what we found is, while at the beginning of that 14 months, as I think we discussed before, we had problems, at the end of that 14 months, we had a full-blown insurgency. And I think—I don’t want to suggest that the entire reason we went from problems to a full-blown insurgency was—was this mistake on setting up an occupation government.

  • 0:43:40
  • Douglas Feith
  • There were other reasons. But I think that everything that contributed to that kind of dissatisfaction that led to violence on the part of Iraqis I think was aggravated by the fact that we made this—this very serious error of—of not sharing political power earlier with Iraqis. And playing into the argument that we were there to dominate and control and possibly steal their resources, which is what our enemies were saying there.

  • 0:44:10
  • Interviewer
  • That’s—that’s potentially the fatal flaw of the plan, I suppose you could argue. But I mean when you look back—and we’re coming to the end of the time here. When you look back at—at your period in Defense, what would you have done differently in this respect with these wars?

  • 0:44:31
  • Douglas Feith
  • Well, I think what we—we should—I think we should have implemented the Iraqi interim authority plan that we had developed and presented to the President, and that he had approved before the war. And I think that that would have—that would have at least reduced the chances that—that the Iraqis would’ve—would’ve supported a—an insurgency, as they did. And I think that—that had we done more to ensure that this was a liberation strategy rather than what appeared to be an occupation strategy, I think we might’ve avoided some of these problems.

  • Douglas Feith
  • Would it have eliminated the—the—would it have eliminated the insurgency altogether? Maybe not—I mean there were lots of things that contributed to the insurgency—in particular, the ability of the regime to continue to function and play a significant role in the country, even after it was overthrown.

  • 0:45:48
  • Interviewer
  • And even after Saddam Hussein was gone.

  • 0:45:50
  • Douglas Feith
  • Yeah.

  • 0:45:51
  • Interviewer
  • Yeah.

  • 0:45:52
  • Douglas Feith
  • And—and that was a—that was really a—something that our intelligence community didn’t anticipate at all. I mean the intelligence community did various studies of—I remember there was one particular study they did, which later got published, of all the various things that the Saddam Hussein regime could do to mess us up. You know, we were trying to think of, you know, if they were gaming this, and saying, “How could we interfere with the United States and screw them up and disrupt their plans and—and surprise them and—and upend their expectations?”

  • 0:46:34
  • Douglas Feith
  • And they were asked to think very creatively from Saddam’s point of view of everything you could do to screw us up. And they did this big study with all kinds of ideas—as I said, it’s now available on the internet, I believe. All of the ideas that the intelligence community came up with ended with the overthrow—all the actions ended with the overthrow of the regime. None of them anticipated that once the regime is overthrown, it could go underground and make a—an alliance with the Jihadists.

  • Douglas Feith
  • And the Baathist-Jihadist alliance could then feed and sustain and command an insurgency that would go for years, and it just wasn’t—that was—that was something that was, apparently, just beyond the imagination of our intelligence community. But that’s in fact what happened, and I think, as I said, that some of the decisions that got made at the political level—

  • 0:47:39
  • Interviewer
  • Contributed.

  • 0:47:40
  • Douglas Feith
  • Contributed to that.

  • How Will History Judge?
  • 0:47:41

  • 0:47:41
  • Interviewer
  • Let me ask you one last question—and I appreciate all the time you’ve given us, and this is a great series of interviews you’ve done. So predict for me—you’re out 25 years from now. You’re looking at a history book describing this period of American history and the war in Iraq. History always needs a little time to sort of sift through what the results really are. What do you think? How’s the—what’s the two or three-sentence description of the war in Iraq, as seen historically? Success?

  • 0:48:12
  • Douglas Feith
  • I’m—well—I’m not comfortable projecting. It’s going to depend a lot on events that haven’t yet occurred, and I mean one can imagine terrible scenarios where the political system in Iraq deteriorates. Whatever’s been accomplished there crumbles, you get civil war and violence and disaster, and I think that would color everybody’s view of what we did. On the other hand, if one took—takes a rosy projection, and the Iraqis actually succeed in putting together a political system that—that works reasonably well, and goes from democratic election to democratic election.

  • Douglas Feith
  • Especially if the Arab Spring goes off in a democratic direction in key countries, and then people say that it was somehow related to Iraq—which I think historians would likely say if that happens. And then people look back and see a—a better, more democratic, more accountable, less violent politics throughout the Middle East, and people say at least a contributing factor to that, it was the—was the liberation of Iraq. I think then people would look back and have a much more favorable view. I think that, you know, a key element of any analysis has to be looking at what the administration thought it was accomplishing—

  • 0:49:52
  • Interviewer
  • At the time.

  • 0:49:53
  • Douglas Feith
  • At the time, and what we hoped to accomplish was two major things. One was removing the specific set of threats that Saddam Hussein and his sons represented, to the United States and our interests in the world, and we’ve eliminated those. And with all the things that we are worried about in the world, we are no longer worried about the danger of Saddam Hussein and his sons, and Saddam’s defiance of the U.N. in his pursuit of WMD, and all the other things that were the subject of all those U.N. Security Council resolutions throughout the 1990s.

  • 0:50:33
  • Douglas Feith
  • And so that’s a major accomplishment in and of itself. We eliminated the various problems that flowed from—from Saddam’s tyranny in Iraq. The other thing was we wanted to make Saddam’s regime an example, because of its support for terrorism, and because of its defiance of the world in the WMD field. It’s the defiance of the U.N. and the weapons inspections and—and the various prohibitions. And—and that was part of a broader strategy in the War on Terrorism to make state supporters of terrorism understand that there are costs involved in being in the pro-terrorism business, and being in the support-for-terrorism business.

  • Douglas Feith
  • And that was part of the—the strategy that was adopted to—to do everything reasonable that we could to disrupt international terrorist networks after 911, in the hope that we would prevent future attacks. And here we are, almost 10 years after 911, and there has not been the follow-on attack that people reasonably feared, and that’s a major success. And so I think when people in the future look back, if they understand the Iraq War as an element of the broader War on Terrorism strategy—not because Iraq was related to 9/11, which it wasn’t, but just because Iraq was an element of the international network of states that were supporting terrorist groups.

  • 0:52:18
  • Douglas Feith
  • Then I think there’s the inherent value of getting rid of the Saddam Hussein problem, and there’s the value of that operation in contributing to the broader War on Terrorism. And those are both substantial values. And so I think those are positive elements. Now, it happens to be the war came at a large cost, and people will—and then depending on how other things play in the future, I think people will come up with their net judgment of whether—whether the war was a good thing or a bad thing. The war clearly, to my mind, had—had some very beneficial results, and it had—it came at a very high cost.

  • Douglas Feith
  • And so exactly how it’s going to net out in the future will, you know, we’ll have to see, but I think, as I said, it’s going to depend on how things play out, and whether it’s seen as having contributed to things that might be valuable, that play out down the road.

  • 0:53:22
  • Interviewer
  • Thank you very much.

DESCRIPTION

In this, the fourth part of his COH interview, Douglas Feith, the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy in the George W. Bush administration, discusses what went "wrong" in Iraq and reflects on the accomplishments in spite of the devastating insurgency that followed the end of formal hostilities.

VIDEO DETAILS

conflicts Iraq War Afghanistan War
topics Strategies

BIOGRAPHICAL DETAILS

name Douglas Feith
institution Harvard University
graduation year 1975
service dates 0
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