What Doug Feith Taught Me About Decision Making

Decisions, Decisions

I’ll be the first to admit it. I am pretty lousy decision maker. Even the most mundane decisions sometimes become tortuous.

Should I opt for the chicken noodle soup or get a salad for lunch? “It’s quite cold out today,” I say to myself, “and so, it would seem that the chicken soup would provide a much needed source of warmth.” And, I am fighting off a pretty nasty cold. Isn’t there some old motherly cliché about chicken soup as the cure for the common cold? On the other hand, isn’t there also an aphorism about finishing all of one’s vegetables? And, this saying must be based on promoting good health as well, right?

Ok, so if I get wrapped up in such banal decisions, perhaps I wouldn’t be a prime candidate for planning a war.

Nonetheless, perhaps arising from my own self-imperfections, I find the process by which high-level public decisions are made to be fascinating matter. And was it ever my lucky day! It just so happened the Iraq War’s #3 architect, former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, Douglas Feith, that man who once stood behind only Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld and his right-hand-man, Paul Wolfowitz, was giving a preview of his soon-to-be-released memoirs just around the corner from my own office. Further, his memoirs are to be aptly entitled War and Decision.

Perfect! Maybe I could learn a thing or two from Feith’s public choices that might cure my own personal indecisiveness!

As an aside, one shouldn’t expect to hear any secrets about war decision making when the said “war planner’s” two former bosses, former Bush II Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz, and a former Reagan Assistant Secretary of Defense, Richard Perle, are sitting in the front row in what both Tom Ricks and Maureen Dowd referred to as a reunion party of the Iraq Hawks.

However, sometimes it is that which goes unsaid that teaches us the most.

Admitting Mistakes, Pointing Fingers

To Feith’s credit, his much-anticipated talk did demonstrate a willingness to admit that major mistakes were made in Iraq War policy planning. “The lengthy U.S. occupation of Iraq,” Feith stated very early in his talk, “was the biggest mistake of the war.” For Feith to say that he himself was partially responsible for this apparent screw-up, well, that would be pushing one’s luck.

But Feith did press forward in admitting gaffes, offering other failures of U.S. judgment, such as being inadequately prepared for “civil disorder” in a post-Saddam Iraq. Yet, was this a mistake that originated in Feith’s Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy? Nope. The failure in this regard had an identifiable face: that of an intelligence community (ok, the “face” is a bit obfuscated) which both he, as the #3 civilian in charge of defense policy, and top military officers at Central Command, were relying upon heavily. Parenthetically, The Washington Post, discussing former Director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet’s own memoirs, released earlier this year, reported that it was Tenet who pointed the finger at Feith as the one who was “eager to manipulate intelligence to push the country to war.”

Who is the one to believe in this convoluted mess? And was I learning anything about making tough decisions or more about the art of deflecting blame when those decisions are implemented poorly?

Different Methods to the Same Madness

Feith’s analysis of blunders in judgment spanned beyond particular war decisions, as both Feith and moderator Richard Perle attempted to put the Bush II administration’s methods of decision-making in a historical context. Maybe through a comparison between Bush II and Perle’s old boss, President Reagan, the failures of the Iraq War could be adequately explained?

“Great,” I thought to myself, “maybe the real key to good decision-making is having the correct methodology!” In weighing my lunch options of chicken soup or the salad bar, maybe what I needed was a different procedure for gathering “data” about my potential choices? Perhaps Feith, (and Perle), would show me that I just needed to follow my gut (err, stomach) to its logical end of hunger satisfaction. Or maybe, these two decision-makers would tell me what I really had to do was to discuss a variety of options over with some co-workers before walking next door to make my purchase. Through a little vocal dialogue a decision with positive results would certainly be made, right?

As Feith explained, the Bush II methodology for decision-making looked more like this latter procedure, at least during Feith’s time in the administration. Lots of meetings of the National Security Council, lots of discussions among top defense policymakers, and when serious disagreement arose over relatively basic policy issues regarding how the war would be waged in Iraq, consensus was quickly built up again by getting a compromise on the “next steps to be taken,” as Feith put it (the achievement of harmony by pretending there was no disagreement to begin with). Perle and Feith contrasted this with the ostensible decisiveness of President Reagan, who, upon receiving comprehensive position papers from his various national security managers, “rolled up his sleeves,” looked at his options, and placed a neat check mark next to the position paper his gut told him was best.

So, it is Reagan who should be emulated in his methodology for decision-making, particularly around the issues of war and peace? I wasn’t yet convinced that following Reagan’s methodology would necessarily lead to more humane policy results.

Remedies?

So Feith could admit mistakes. He was human, as opposed to the half-human, half-heartless automaton image that some prefer to depict when writing on the subject of Bush II’s war cabinet. Maybe Feith wouldn’t accept any blame for the war’s mistakes, but I was willing to grant him that admitting a mistake was one step in the right direction. At least it was better than the denial of missteps that continues from Bush II and Vice President Cheney. And Feith even was willing to offer some remedies for the mistakes identified.

Being the true planner he is, Feith returned to the mistake of an occupation, which he had mapped out in his policy papers as being only momentary. But, as Feith half-joked, “nothing ever goes according to plan, least of all war.” According to Feith, the U.S. occupation of Iraq came about because of an ill-prepared United States strategy for “reconstruction and stabilization.” Unlike the military, which captures the lessons of wars past inside its institutional structures, embedding such lessons of military history into the curriculum of its military academies and in each branch’s training manuals, reconstruction and stabilization is continually managed on an ad-hoc basis. There is simply no continuity from one war to the next, Feith intimated, and this was a major problem.

The Feith Solution: the creation of a permanent office to coordinate a “civilian response corps,” fully trained and ready at a moment’s notice to rebuild those nations coming out of conflict or war. A noble mission, indeed, but would the parasitic growth of the military apparatus, exemplified by ever-increasing defense spending, be addressed to reduce the need for such an office to be utilized in the first place?

Changing the Direction of One’s Gaze

One of the most satisfying feelings is the “Ah Hah!” moment, that instance when the small, invisible light-bulb planted deep inside one’s brain miraculously lights up! You, the researcher, have gotten so wrapped up in the intricacies of the research question at hand, which has nearly consumed you. Then, often unconsciously, you step out of your state of absorption. It is there that it hits you!

I was waiting for Undersecretary Feith to be hit with such an epiphany as he spoke. He had laid out his position regarding the failures of decision that had occurred around Iraq War planning. But wait just one second, Mr. Feith. Why is this analysis of decisions made during the war even occurring? Although your discussion has been interesting, aren’t you forgetting the million-dollar question: Who made theAnd why? All the other “decisions” that Feith preferred to discuss in his book preview seem to disappear if a different choice came out of this initial deliberation. The real judgment should not have been: 1. Do we invade Iraq, overthrow Saddam Hussein and have the Coalition Provisional Authority govern and occupy Iraq or 2. Invade, overthrow, and quickly set up elections so an Afghanistan-like democracy could be organized? But rather the choice was between adhering to existent boundaries, codified in international law, OR ignoring such boundaries in an act of bellicose defiance.

It seemed to me that the gaze of United States’ top foreign policy judgment makers was directed down the wrong path. To change this, it would not be new institutions, which would necessarily be needed, institutions that might make picking up the pieces of war making’s destruction easier and more efficient. Such a position assumes the United States will continue in its state of permanent war.

Indeed, the choice of entering a war should not be the cold, detached, and inevitable choice that Feith sought to formally portray it as in his talk, as one of many “rational” choices. It is not a question of “intelligent people simply evaluating risk differently”—Feith’s description of the post-invasion policy differences among top administration officials. Rather, war, particularly of the pre-emptive nature, begins with the choices of individuals in positions of great power, who have come to identify threats by looking through a lens of war strategizing, bloated defense budgets, and destructive military technology. Feith and the other Iraq Hawks in attendance at the American Enterprise Institute earlier this month would like us to believe the decision to start the next war has already been decided—the only choice that needs to be made, they would argue, is: How is the war to be waged?

I think I had learned something about my lunchtime quandary in digesting this all (no pun intended). I shouldn’t assume that just because its noon, I must therefore be hungry.

Joshua String is a Research Associate for the Paths for the 21st Century Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.