May 23, 2008
War And Decision: Samizdat HistoryBy Clarice Feldman
A few days ago I had an opportunity to discuss the pithy but engagingly written book War and Decision with its author, Douglas Feith. The book is lengthy -- with endnotes it runs to 653 pages -- but has the virtue the other books about the internal processes on the Iraq war decision-making lack. It is well-detailed and superbly documented rather than the on-the-fly and off-the top-of-the-head self-serving and extensively reviewed accounts written by the other authors.
Feith's version of events is drawn from memos, briefings and his personal contemporaneous notes which, to the extent that they've been declassified, you can read here. (In addition, all the documents relied on can be read at the author's site: waranddecision.com/)
Why have I called this "samizdat history"? Samizdat suggests that this is an underground publication written and distributed outside official channels under circumstances subjecting the author to substantial consequences. I have called it that because the treatment of this important book by the Washington Post and the New York Times, suggests to me that there are important personal and commercial consequences for challenging the views of the owners/editors of these very influential newspapers.
Despite the fact that Feith has made available to us for the first time such a detailed and credible account of significant historical events, neither the Post nor the Times has considered the book review worthy to date.
To be sure other publications have reviewed it -- and quite favorably at that.
I asked Feith what he knew of the reason his book, which surely will be THE source document for scholars, was overlooked by both major newspapers and he recounted what he knew of the decision to keep their readers in the dark about his book.
The Washington Post
On a Saturday shortly before the book was released two reporters for the paper, Thomas Ricks and Karen De Young, got their hands on a leaked typescript of the book. Six hours later, having skimmed to look for some newsworthy tidbits and interviewed a few of the officials mentioned in it, they produced and the paper printed a Sunday news story on the book.
Feith asked the non-fiction book editor of the Post's Book World why the book had never been reviewed and was told Book World only does 4-5 non-fiction reviews per week, suggesting only space constraints were involved; but the editor did concede that he'd never seen the book and considered the Ricks-Delong pre-publication (quickie) news story sufficient coverage. (Contrast this, for example, with the review of Plame's oeuvre despite the repetition ad nauseum in the news section for years. Or the NYT's decision almost 2 decades ago to review the memoirs of the 28 year old law student Barack Obama. )
A follow up conversation with Marie Arana, the paper's Book World editor, got nowhere.To my recollection,the Post felt free to review every other book on the run up to the war and the post-war administration of Iraq, all of which shared the paper's erroneous accounts and ignored the one book that is well-documented and which exposes the other versions ( which in large part had been based on self-serving leaks by internal critics of the Administration) as false.
The New York Times
This paper has not flat out refused to review the book, but it has three times passed on the accounts written by James Risen who, a critic of the Administration on many key points, nevertheless has told Feith he considers this is an important, informative book. Risen particularly found the discussion by Feith of the post-war planning newsworthy and wrote a news article on it, which his editor turned down.
He then says he rewrote it and submitted the piece to the paper's "Week in Review". He reported to Feith that the paper was going to run it, but just prior to publication he phoned to say that a different editor had "killed it". Risen denied that the decision not to run the story was political, suggesting it was all bureaucratic finagling responsible.
But Risen did not stop there; he recounted that he rewrote the article a third time -- this time for the internet edition for the paper. It, too, was turned down.
A few days ago, Risen reported to Feith that the paper wouldn't run his account because Ricks and DeYoung had already written about it (in their hastily done pre-publication bit) for the Post.
Either we have now in our hands the sure fire formula for killing any chance the two major newspapers in the country will review a non-fiction book or even publish any well-considered news account of it, or both papers have shown they do not want to encourage their readers to read such a documented refutation of so much of the nonsense the papers have published about the war, the post-war and the Administration for 5 years.
I know how I come down on this question.
This means, of course, that if you read the book, and come to the next cocktail party actually well-informed and are surrounded by folks who only get their information from these two papers, you will be like the person who had to explain to Pauline Kael that Nixon won.
Nevertheless, on the assumption that truth not fitting in with the conceits of the bien pensants, matters to you, I urge you to read it.
In the very introduction, Feith observes:
And the author details all the hinges of fate present in this story. No one can consider himself well-educated on the war, on political science, on this administration and on current events who has not read this account and studied the painstakingly collected documentation of his report.
He emphasizes what most news reports never did: the risks of action versus the risks of inaction, as they were known after 9/11. He observes that his boss, the much vilified Donald Rumsfeld, detailed those risks perfectly in a memo Feith calls "The Parade of Horribles". Interestingly, he notes neither State nor the CIA, whose friends at the two newspapers so often characterized them as the "voices of caution", never produced a single piece of work which argued so seriously the dangers of action, when it was their responsibility to give the President the benefit of the full information at their disposal.
The book also makes clear that the foremost thing on the President's mind -- contra the many other rationales offered up by the Fifth Estate and those who peddled their tales to it -- was how to prevent another large-scale significant attack on U.S. soil when the decisions involved weighing numerous non-quantifiable risks and shoddy intelligence.
Critical to prevent our enemies bent on mass destruction in the U.S. was keeping terrorists from getting chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, a task for which a merely defensive strategy would be insufficient.
I have always believed that the absence of another 9/11 type attack here since 2001 was a far more difficult accomplishment than has been generally appreciated and an achievement for which the President has never received due credit. But I share with the author his belief that the Administration has done a poor job in describing and explaining its actions, something he does very well (See pp. 514-515.) In particular he has an outstanding chart showing the various rationales the President gave for the war (p.476- 477) and the consequences of his shift in rhetoric from Saddam's threat to Iraqi democracy:
Feith also does a fine job in detailing how State and CIA's actions after the invasion contrasted with their agreement not to maintain an Iraqi occupation and how that protracted occupation which followed their departure from the agreed upon plan did strategic long-lasting harm to the effort.
In sum, even though the Washington Post and New York Times aren't interested in having you read this book, it's a great one and you probably should even if they somehow change their mind and give it fair treatment.
Clarice Feldman is an attorney in Washington, DC.