Fisking Feith’s
Faulty Case for War

Douglas Feith, an undersecretary of defense in the Bush administration from 2001 to 2005 and an early supporter of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, recently wrote a remarkable defense of the war. His article, “Why We Went to War in Iraq,” was published on the July 3 opinion page of the Wall Street Journal. I will highlight and examine some of his claims. The modern term for this is “fisking.”

Feith writes:

“As a participant in the confidential, top-level administration meetings about Iraq, it was clear to me at the time that, had there been a realistic alternative to war to counter the threat from Saddam, Mr. Bush would have chosen it.”

Notice how he stacks the deck by assuming that there was a threat and that the threat had to be countered. There were many realistic alternatives to war, but Feith insists that each alternative be one that counters “the threat from Saddam.” What was this threat?

“Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld worried particularly about the U.S. and British pilots enforcing the no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq. Iraqi forces were shooting at the U.S. and British aircraft virtually every day; if a plane went down, the pilot would likely be killed or captured.”

In other words, part of the threat came from Saddam Hussein having his military shoot at U.S. and British planes flying over Iraq. But there was an easy way to avoid this threat and one that Rumsfeld contemplated: stop flying planes over Iraq.

Feith tells his readers that on July 27, 2001, Mr. Rumsfeld sent a memo to Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Vice President Dick Cheney that stated that if the U.S. ended the no-fly zones:

“[W]e know he [Saddam] has crawled a good distance out of the box and is currently doing the things that will ultimately be harmful to his neighbors in the region and to U.S. interests – namely developing WMD and the means to deliver them and increasing his strength at home and in the region month-by-month. Within a few years the U.S. will undoubtedly have to confront a Saddam armed with nuclear weapons.”

Notice that the threat is not to the U.S. but to Saddam’s neighbors and to “U.S. interests.” But, then, wasn’t it up to the neighbors to deal with that threat? And, by the way, what are U.S. interests? Feith, and apparently Rumsfeld, did not say. Finally, take the worst case: that Saddam would have, in a few years, armed himself with nuclear weapons. Why would the U.S. government have had to confront him? The U.S. government has dealt with far more brutal – and far more armed – regimes during the nuclear era – think China – without going to war with them. Why would a Saddam Hussein with only a few nuclear weapons be sui generis?

Ultimately, writes Feith, President Bush decided to oust Saddam by force based on five factors.

“1. Saddam was a threat to U.S. interests before 9/11. The Iraqi dictator had started wars against Iran and Kuwait, and had fired missiles at Saudi Arabia and Israel.”

That Feith (and, if Feith is accurate, Bush) saw this as an important reason is stunning. Yes, Saddam had started a war against Iran, and the U.S. government under President Reagan supported him. Now, I happen to agree with Feith if he’s saying that Reagan shouldn’t have done so. But isn’t it strange to turn on an ally because he was once an ally? It’s also true that Saddam had started a war against Kuwait. But during the first Gulf War, the United States pushed Saddam out of Kuwait. The U.S. won that one, remember? What’s the point in fighting someone (and, more important, millions of innocent people in his country) over something where you have already won? Next, Saddam had fired missiles at Saudi Arabia and Israel. That was during the first Gulf War. The missiles fired at Israel were not a threat to the United States. The ones fired at Saudi Arabia were fired at a U.S. ally in the war. Countries at war with each other often fire missiles at each other. It’s not nice, and I wish both sides would stop. But to put the missiles fired at Saudi Arabia in a separate category is unconscionable on Feith’s part. Surely, he knew that these missiles were part of Saddam’s war effort. More of Feith’s, and allegedly Bush’s, reason #1:

“Unrepentant about the rape of Kuwait, he remained intensely hostile to the U.S.”

Saddam was unrepentant about a previous action. And the point is? Does it really make sense to invade a country, putting millions of people at risk, because the dictator of that country is “unrepentant?” And funny, isn’t it, how losing a war to the U.S. made him “hostile to the U.S.?” Again, so what? If I attacked everyone who was hostile to me, I would never get anything else done. Still more of Feith’s, and allegedly Bush’s, reason #1:

“He provided training, funds, safe haven and political support to various types of terrorists. He had developed WMD and used chemical weapons fatally against Iran and Iraqi Kurds. Iraq’s official press issued statements praising the 9/11 attacks on the U.S.”

Notice that Feith doesn’t claim that the terrorists Saddam supported were threats to the U.S. Also, Feith neglects to mention one particular country that supplied Saddam with chemical weapons. Of course, it was the United States. Gives a bit of a different picture, doesn’t it? I hadn’t known that Iraq’s official press had praised the 9/11 attacks. That’s horrible, but, really, does it justify an invasion? What if the Voice of America, which is the U.S. official press, praised a terrorist attack on, say, Iran? Would that justify the Iranian government invading the U.S.?

“2. The threat of renewed aggression by Saddam was more troubling and urgent after 9/11. Though Saddam’s regime was not implicated in the 9/11 operation, it was an important state supporter of terrorism. And President Bush’s strategy was not simply retaliation against the group responsible for 9/11. Rather it was to prevent the next major attack. This focused U.S. officials not just on al-Qaeda, but on all the terrorist groups and state supporters of terrorism who might be inspired by 9/11 – especially on those with the potential to use weapons of mass destruction.”

Notice that Feith admits that Saddam was not implicated in the 9/11 operation. That didn’t seem to matter much, though. For Feith and, apparently, for Bush, a government that supported terrorism against any country needed to be stopped. But that’s poor reasoning. A government’s main legitimate function is to protect its people, not other countries’ people.

Feith’s point #3 is that to contain the threat from Saddam, all reasonable means short of war had been tried unsuccessfully. But notice that Feith hasn’t yet established that Saddam was a threat.

“4. While there were large risks involved in a war, the risks of leaving Saddam in power were even larger. The U.S. and British pilots patrolling the no-fly zones were routinely under enemy fire, and a larger confrontation – over Kuwait again or some other issue – appeared virtually certain to arise once Saddam succeeded in getting out from under the UN’s crumbling economic sanctions.”

Here, Feith makes the point that if the U.S. government wanted to have a lot of influence and power in the Middle East, it would have to deal with a stronger Saddam. This might have been true, but it ignores a cleaner and safer option: have the U.S. government stop intervening in the Middle East.

“5. America after 9/11 had a lower tolerance for such dangers. It was reasonable – one might say obligatory – for the president to worry about a renewed confrontation with Saddam. Like many others, he feared Saddam might then use weapons of mass destruction again, perhaps deployed against us through a proxy such as one of the many terrorist groups Iraq supported.”

But what was this fear based on? Let’s say that Saddam Hussein had been able to get nuclear weapons. If he had given them to a terrorist group, then that terrorist group would have been able to threaten him. Was Saddam Hussein, a man who had survived in a dangerous job for over two decades, that stupid?

Feith does throw a parting bone to those of us who opposed the war before it began. He writes:

“Thoughtful, patriotic Americans differed then and now on whether the risk of leaving Saddam in power outweighed the risk of war.”

Somehow, I don’t remember the pro-war side saying that we were thoughtful and patriotic. What I remember is people calling us “appeasers.” Now, maybe Douglas Feith wasn’t one of these. I would like to think that he was sitting in the Pentagon chiding his fellow neoconservatives for questioning our patriotism. Was he?

Copyright © 2008 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to reprint should be directed to the author or

Author: David R. Henderson

David R. Henderson is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and an emeritus professor of economics in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is author of The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey and co-author, with Charles L. Hooper, of Making Great Decisions in Business and Life(Chicago Park Press). His latest book is The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (Liberty Fund, 2008). He has appeared on The O’Reilly Factor, the Jim Lehrer Newshour, CNN, MSNBC, RT, Fox Business Channel, and C-SPAN. He has had over 100 articles published in Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, Red Herring, Barron’s, National Review, Reason, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Hill, and the Christian Science Monitor. He has also testified before the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources. He blogs at