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.

Which is to say that you could have lopped off the entire top echelon of the American command structure for the Iraq war -- and achieved at least as good a result, if not a better one.

By Phillip Carter |  June 2, 2008; 2:31 PM ET  | Category:  Books
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Perhaps Phillip Bobbitt's new book provides some clue (though you certainly don't need Bobbitt's guidance to reach the same conclusion): We haven't reformed our mindset from fighting the wars of the 20th century, where we could assume that our enemy was monolithic. Warring between nation-states meant that if you captured the government, you controlled the center of gravity.

All the major players in the Pentagon, the State Department, the NSC, the White House, the Heritage Foundation - developed their attitudes in the Cold War and brought them to the confrontation with Iraq and Al Qaeda. The Axis of Evil simply replaced the Evil Empire.

Fools tread where angels fear to follow.

Posted by: LowHangingMissles | June 2, 2008 4:00 PM

William E Odom, RIP

Soldier, Army officer, military intelligence officer, LTG, national policy adviser, scholar, strategic thinker. Of the clear Realist, Clausewitzian type . . . his brilliance will be sorely missed. Pity the land that loses its eyes.

Posted by: seydlitz89 | June 2, 2008 6:31 PM

Phil,

Before we go praising Bing West's "analysis", we should not forget the role he played in the Pentagon Military-analyst debacle.

The FOIA'd email records are replete with HUNDREDS of emails which discuss Bing West's "reliability" as a "DoD surrogate."

Like MG Robert Scales (ret.), Mr. West served at the pleasure of Rumsfeld's politicize public affairs shop.

We must NEVER forget this ... no matter how much ole' Bing wants to rehabilitate his sullied reputation.

Posted by: IRR Soldier... | June 2, 2008 6:55 PM

So Doug has a complex interwoven tale to tell? At least according to one of Donny Rumsfelds profesional bobble head dolls. Didn't Collin Powell call this guy the dumbest....individual he had ever met?
I don't suppose his tale involves how he ended up with all of Chalabis buddies from the INC sitting in the situation room telling the Decider a bed time tale full of anthrax, sarin and thermo-nuclear ambition.
See that's what I want to know. I thought we might find out when the FBI discovered the Deciders trusted adviser was an Iranian spy (Chalabi, not Feith...as far as I know) , but the Republican Department of Justice decided prosecuting somebody who lied us into a war on behalf of the Iranian government was a little too much reality for the average Republican. Here sits his accomplice , spouting that well known administration refrain.
" Mistakes were made...though not by me"

Posted by: dijetlo | June 2, 2008 11:07 PM

What's wrong with Kansas? What's wrong with America? I will tell you in no uncertain terms--It's the GD Fascists, the ones that used to refer to themselves as Republicans. Yes, they are Fascists in deeds and words, and stupid and ignorant ones at that. Yes, the are Criminals--big time criminals creating the largest robbery in history. Yes, you focus on terrorism and fear and they are entering your back door and robbing you, your children and then your grandchildren and you being the fool you are will once again probably become a suicide voter and vote for McCain. You can cut your own economic throat if you want but you do not have the right to cut the economic throat of your children and grandchildren. Overcome your petty emotions and focus on the big picture. Do not forget the last 7 plus years of the Big Lie and High Crimes of the GD Fascists!

Posted by: ghostcommander | June 3, 2008 1:15 AM

This is what happens when you let 19 dead guys drive your foreign policy.

Posted by: srv | June 3, 2008 12:28 PM

Once upon a time, the National Security Affairs Advisor was the person who briefed the President in the morning about what had come in over the various secure intelligence reporting wires from the night before. When Henry Kissinger got the job, he used the fact that he had the real skinny from the real intelligence gatherers and analysts to muscle George Schultz out of any prominent role in advising the president. When he got George Schultz's job, he made sure that he had access to the (remnamed) National Security Advisor's material so he wouldn't get the same treatment. Some where in there a group of senior advisors got Kissinger's level of access, so that the NSC could properly advise the President based on what the Intelligence folks were really saying.

George didn't like that arrangement, and made the NSC a claque of true believers, inserted between the President and any semblance of the real (Intelligence gathering based) world. Condie Rice, who should have been scouring the briefs to keep George properly informed, (That was, after all her job) instead scrubbed the reports of any material that might contradict the mindset of the inner circle. Then, when George used "Intelligence Failures" as his excuse for the war's obvious lack of justification, Congress duplicated the National Security Advisers functions in an "Intelligence Czar", and put Porter Goss in charge so he could duplicate Condie's behavior in sheltering the President (while utterly screwing up every aspect of the Intelligence Community he could.)

We do need a NSC, we DON'T need an Intelligence Czar, but what we mostly need is a NSC that has it's obligations to the country, NOT to the President it advises. Its job is to give the President bad news and Good advice. Not to tell the President "Your the Boss, Boss. Whatever you say, Boss."

Is it possible to insure that we never again get such a bunch of sycophants as a NSC?

God I hope so.

Posted by: ceflynline@msn.com | June 3, 2008 10:14 PM

Dijetlo makes a few errors:

1) Gen Tommy Franks called Doug Feith the stupidest
F^&*ing idiot he ever knew, not Colin Powell

2) Ahmed Chalabi is most likely an Iranian agent

3) Doug Feith is at best heavily conflicted with his dual
citizenship as an israeli national and may well be an agent
of the Mossad. Certainly his chief deputy Larry Franklin
was indicted, convicted and is serving time for being a
Mossad Agent.

Posted by: pat b | June 5, 2008 7:12 PM

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