By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
A former top Pentagon official blamed the Bush administration's top official in Iraq for abandoning a plan for a quick transition to Iraqi leadership in the summer of 2003 and instead keeping the U.S. government in control of the country for more than a year.
The decision to carry out "a lengthy occupation was, I believe, the single biggest mistake the United States made in Iraq," said Douglas J. Feith, who as undersecretary of defense for policy was a key figure in the drive to war.
Feith, in a speech last night at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, provided his most extensive public remarks on the war and reconstruction efforts in Iraq. When he briefed President Bush on U.S. plans for post-invasion Iraq, he recalled, "The original concept was not that the CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority] would be around for many, many months." But, he said, L. Paul Bremer, who ran the U.S. occupation authority in 2003 and 2004, decided that Feith's plan "was not implementable" and instead embarked on a course that antagonized Iraqis and spurred an insurgency.
After describing his differences with Bremer, Feith said, "I don't view this as an attack" on him, but rather an attempt to explain how reasonable officials advanced contrary views.
Bremer, in a brief telephone interview last night, took issue with Feith's account. "His argument isn't with me" but with Bush, Bremer said. The career diplomat said that Bush told him in May 2003, before he headed for Baghdad, to "take our time setting up an interim administration." Even before he left Washington, Bremer added, he thought the U.S. occupation "was going to take a couple of years." Bremer said Feith's view that there was a major change in course that summer is incorrect.
Sovereignty was formally transferred from the U.S. government to an interim Iraqi government in June 2004, ending the occupation after 14 months. But the war has continued on for more than three years, and about as many U.S. troops remain in Iraq now as there were during the invasion.
Feith, now a professor at Georgetown University, also pointed at Bremer for his handling of another key early move that has been controversial, the decision to ban members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party from public office. The approach was essentially correct, Feith said, but "some of the problems resulted from implementation, rather than the policy itself."
Feith served as one of the top civilians in the Pentagon from July 2001 until August 2005. Many military officers disliked his precise, intellectual approach to making decisions, which they found tangled and time-consuming. Most famously, retired Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, who led the U.S. invasion force in Iraq, stated in his memoir that Feith had achieved the reputation within the military of being "the dumbest [expletive] guy on the planet."
But Feith was consistently supported by then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who in a 2004 interview with the Associated Press called him "without question, one of the most brilliant individuals in government" and "one of the really . . . intellectual leaders in the administration in defense policy."
Until now, Feith has not said much about the Iraq war, except to respond to what he sees as the inaccuracies of others. In a Wall Street Journal review in May of former CIA director George J. Tenet's memoir, Feith charged, "He is willing to make up stories that suit his purposes."
With his own memoir, "War and Decision," scheduled to be published in March, Feith appears to be more willing to discuss the war in general.
The speech reunited Iraq hawks, with former Pentagon official Richard Perle introducing Feith, as former deputy defense secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz sat in the front. After Feith's talk, Wolfowitz commented that he thought it was "pretty much on the mark."