Blind Into Baghdad

The U.S. occupation of Iraq is a debacle not because the government did no planning but because a vast amount of expert planning was willfully ignored by the people in charge. The inside story of a historic failure

On a Friday afternoon last November, I met Douglas Feith in his office at the Pentagon to discuss what has happened in Iraq. Feith's title is undersecretary of defense for policy, which places him, along with several other undersecretaries, just below Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz in the Pentagon's hierarchy. Informally he is seen in Washington as "Wolfowitz's Wolfowitz"—that is, as a deputy who has a wide range of responsibilities but is clearly identified with one particular policy. That policy is bringing regime change to Iraq—a goal that both Wolfowitz and Feith strongly advocated through the 1990s. To opponents of the war in Iraq, Feith is one of several shadowy, Rasputinlike figures who are shaping U.S. policy. He is seen much the way enemies of the Clinton Administration saw Hillary Clinton. Others associated with the Bush Administration who are seen this way include the consultant Richard Perle; Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney; and the Vice President himself. What these officials have in common is their presumably great private influence and—even in the case of the Vice President—their limited public visibility and accountability.

In person Douglas Feith is nothing like Rasputin. Between a Reagan-era stint in the Pentagon and his current job he was a Washington lawyer for fifteen years, and he answered my questions with a lawyer's affability in the face of presumed disagreement. I could be biased in Feith's favor, because he was the most senior Administration official who granted my request for an interview about postwar Iraq. Like Donald Rumsfeld, Feith acts and sounds younger than many others of his age (fifty). But distinctly unlike Rumsfeld at a press conference, Feith in this interview did not seem at all arrogant or testy. His replies were relatively candid and unforced, in contrast to the angry or relentlessly on-message responses that have become standard from senior Administration officials. He acknowledged what was "becoming the conventional wisdom" about the Administration's failure to plan adequately for events after the fall of Baghdad, and then explained—with animation, dramatic pauses, and gestures—why he thought it was wrong.

Feith offered a number of specific illustrations of what he considered underappreciated successes. Some were familiar —the oil wells weren't on fire, Iraqis didn't starve or flee—but others were less so. For instance, he described the Administration's careful effort to replace old Iraqi dinars, which carried Saddam Hussein's image ("It's interesting how important that is, and it ties into the whole issue of whether people think that Saddam might be coming back"), with a new form of currency, without causing a run on the currency.

But mainly he challenged the premise of most critics: that the Administration could have done a better job of preparing for the consequences of victory. When I asked what had gone better than expected, and what had gone worse, he said, "We don't exactly deal in 'expectations.' Expectations are too close to 'predictions.' We're not comfortable with predictions. It is one of the big strategic premises of the work that we do."

The limits of future knowledge, Feith said, were of special importance to Rumsfeld, "who is death to predictions." "His big strategic theme is uncertainty," Feith said. "The need to deal strategically with uncertainty. The inability to predict the future. The limits on our knowledge and the limits on our intelligence."

In practice, Feith said, this meant being ready for whatever proved to be the situation in postwar Iraq. "You will not find a single piece of paper ... If anybody ever went through all of our records—and someday some people will, presumably—nobody will find a single piece of paper that says, 'Mr. Secretary or Mr. President, let us tell you what postwar Iraq is going to look like, and here is what we need plans for.' If you tried that, you would get thrown out of Rumsfeld's office so fast—if you ever went in there and said, 'Let me tell you what something's going to look like in the future,' you wouldn't get to your next sentence!"

"This is an important point," he said, "because of this issue of What did we believe? ... The common line is, nobody planned for security because Ahmed Chalabi told us that everything was going to be swell." Chalabi, the exiled leader of the Iraqi National Congress, has often been blamed for making rosy predictions about the ease of governing postwar Iraq. "So we predicted that everything was going to be swell, and we didn't plan for things not being swell." Here Feith paused for a few seconds, raised his hands with both palms up, and put on a "Can you believe it?" expression. "I mean—one would really have to be a simpleton. And whatever people think of me, how can anybody think that Don Rumsfeld is that dumb? He's so evidently not that dumb, that how can people write things like that?" He sounded amazed rather than angry.

No one contends that Donald Rumsfeld, or Paul Wolfowitz, or Douglas Feith, or the Administration as a whole is dumb. The wisdom of their preparations for the aftermath of military victory in Iraq is the question. Feith's argument was a less defensive-sounding version of the Administration's general response to criticisms of its postwar policy: Life is uncertain, especially when the lid comes off a long-tyrannized society. American planners did about as well as anyone could in preparing for the unforeseeable. Anyone who says otherwise is indulging in lazy, unfair second-guessing. "The notion that there was a memo that was once written, that if we had only listened to that memo, all would be well in Iraq, is so preposterous," Feith told me.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. His Atlantic cover story "The Fifty-first State?" (November 2002), about postwar Iraq, won the National Magazine Award for Public Interest. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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