Who Needs the NSC?
In the current edition of National Review, Bing West reviews Doug Feith's recently published memoir War and Decision -- a book that aims to explain Feith's rocky tenure as undersecretary of defense for policy and justify some of the administration's more controversial decisions.
West comes to the task with considerable credentials: He served in Vietnam as a Marine infantry officer and combat adviser and afterwards wrote a book on combat advising. He was assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. And he has written the seminal books on the march to Baghdad and assaults on Fallujah. (His forthcoming book will examine the Anbar awakening.) So it's no surprise that this review reads a bit like John Wooden dissecting the deeds and words of a second-tier NCAA coach who can't seem to make the playoffs.
West writes that Feith weaves his narrative with three strands. The first is a rebuttal to years of "poisonous" leaks about Feith's role in the Pentagon. The second is a dissection by Feith of a "dysfunctional NSC system," where principals and agencies failed to work together. The third, according to West, may be most interesting:
The third -- and perhaps accidental -- theme of the book is the contradiction it draws between the NSC deliberations and the war that was raging. President Bush appears decisive in his own mind, and an enigma to all around him. In Feith's book, the NSC principals treat the tribal, sectarian, religious and extremist currents roiling Iraq as intellectual concepts that could be resolved by wise senior officials armed with video teleconferencing machines.
Feith did make a two-day visit to Iraq. "In August of 2003 I traveled to Iraq for the first time," Feith writes. "It is valuable for any top policy official to visit the theater of operations. One can never be reminded often enough that national security policy is ultimately about human beings."
The human beings who were killing American soldiers had motivations that eluded the policymakers and couldn't be grasped by short visits. Feith writes that before the war he never saw a CIA assessment warning that the Baathists would organize an insurgency, let alone ally with foreign jihadists. The NSC principals didn't see the train coming that ran over them. Feith points out that on the one hand he wasn't sure what the president's policy goals were, while on the other Rumsfeld excluded the Pentagon policy shop from operational discussions with the military.
Policy, however uninformed, is supposed to direct the selection of a war-making strategy.
That didn't happen during the Iraq war. An insurgency grows from the bottom up, reflecting Tolstoy's view that the collective, inchoate will of the people shapes the course of a nation's history and is indifferent to discussions in the king's palaces. Washington existed inside its own bubble, showing no humility in the face of a fiendishly complex war. The interagency process in Washington concocted and debated policy theories, explained at length by Feith, that were disconnected from decisions, sensible or otherwise, about military strategy.
...The NSC became too wrapped up in itself, forgetting that battle is determined by the spirit of those doing the fighting, and that the first duty of leaders is to take care of their men. One pores over Feith's book - so meticulous in describing a dysfunctional NSC - looking for the decisions that made a difference in the war. Feith was too much the gentleman to entitle his book, War and Indecision. But aside from handing over the keys to the kingdom to Bremer, it is hard to identify any NSC decision through mid-2004 that affected events on the ground.
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