There was a time when Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith seemed to
run a secret foreign policy from his office on the fourth floor of the Pentagon. As creator of the Office of Special Plans, Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith presided over a secretive intelligence unit that was briefed by Iraqi exile leader Ahmad Chalabi and sifted through CIA intelligence looking for evidence of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and connections between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. His underlings Harold Rhode and Larry Franklin jetted off to Rome in December 2001 for secret meetings with Iran-Contra figures Michael Ledeen and Manucher Ghorbanifar. Who knew where the revolution would spread after Iraq?
But now Feith's job security is far from certain. And when he gave a talk on "Winning Iraq" at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) on May 4, he found himself in the awkward position of trying to explain why we don't appear to be winning at all. He made a go of it, though, trying to put a positive spin on the disastrous recent events before an audience of about 100 diplomats and journalists.
"It's well-known that no prewar prediction will unfold perfectly, and that there will be setbacks that require adjustments," Feith said, sitting alone at a table in his dark gray suit and round wire-frame glasses. "In war, plans are, at best, the basis for future changes."
Feith may have been among friends, but even they were not going to let him and his co-workers at the Pentagon off easy. A panel of military analysts who preceded him at the AEI event blamed the Bush administration and unnamed Pentagon planners for failing to provide an adequate number of troops and resources for the United States to stabilize Iraq.
"I fault the [Iraq War planners] for forgetting the fundamental nature of war -- the inherent uncertainties," said Thomas Donnelly, an AEI military expert, a former staffer at the Project for the New American Century, and a member of the predecessor to the House Armed Services Committee. "President Bush asked for a plan for a regime change. And what he got was a plan for regime removal."
"Iraqis are asking themselves, ‘Who is more likely to bring stability, the Americans or the insurgents?'" Steve Metz, a military analyst at the U.S. Army War College, told the audience. "And it appears to a lot of Iraqis that the insurgents have the ability to turn off the instability, while the Americans have yet to demonstrate that they can turn off the instability."
In a question-and-answer session, the AEI's Danielle Pletka expressed dismay that the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) had recently reversed course and decided to allow low-level former Baath Party members to be considered for Iraqi government jobs. Pletka's question reflected the continued loyalty of many at the AEI to Chalabi.
But that neocon loyalty to him has been under siege in recent weeks. For months, news organizations have reported that the information from defectors provided by Chalabi to Feith and the U.S. government had turned out to be bogus. Then, earlier this month, a Newsweek article said U.S. intelligence had intercepted Chalabi passing sensitive U.S. information to Iran.
An article in Salon on May 3 then quoted Feith's own former law partner, L. Marc Zell, calling Chalabi a "treacherous, spineless turncoat." (In a follow-up letter letter to Salon on May 5, Zell denied consenting to the interview.) After the conference, Feith's deputy, Middle East expert Harold Rhode, furtively discussed Zell's reputed comments in a huddle in the corner. "What's up with Zell?" someone asked Rhode. "I have no idea," Rhode replied, shaking his head.
For his part, Feith said he hadn't seen the Salon article. Nevertheless, he may have taken a look after being told that the article, citing Iraqi Defense Minister (and Chalabi nephew) Ali Allawi, reported that he would be forced to resign his job at the Pentagon later this month.
When asked about this by a reporter after the conference, Feith let out a pained chuckle. "They are always saying that," he said, before being rescued by Pletka and ushered from the room.
Others, however, are less sanguine.
"He was very arrogant," Karen Kwiatkowski, Feith's former deputy, says, describing what it was like to work with him. "He doesn't utilize a wide variety of inputs. He seeks information that confirms what he already thinks. And he may go to jail for leaking classified information to The Weekly Standard." (As she explains, an article appeared in The Weekly Standard that included a leaked memo written by Feith alleging ties between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda.)
It seems unlikely that Feith will face time for the leaked memo. But he may well be forced to look for a new job soon. As he knows all too well, regime change isn't pretty.
Laura Rozen writes on national security and foreign policy from Washington, D.C.