No yuks as Stewart presses Iraq War architect on honesty
Former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J. Feith, who was at the heart of the Bush administration's selective cherry-picking of intelligence to make its case for the invasion of Iraq, appeared on The Daily Show on Monday to promote his new book about the run-up to the war.
The central premise of Feith's book, which he repeated over and over to Jon Stewart, is that although there were errors in some of the administration's claims about the dangers posed by Saddam Hussein, the people making those statements were not being intentionally dishonest and did not set out to mislead the American public.
"The administration had an honest belief in the things that it said," Feith insisted. "Some of the things that it said about the war that were part of the rationale for the war were wrong. But errors are not lies and I think much of what the administration said was correct and provided an important argument that leaving Saddam Hussein in power would have been extremely risky -- even though the president's decision to remove him was extremely risky."
Stewart pointed out in response that painting a rosy picture of how quick and easy the war would be while downplaying the risks was itself a form of dishonesty. "You said something that I thought was interesting," he noted to Feith. "'The common refrain that the postwar has been a disaster is only true if you had completely unrealistic expectations.' Where would we have gotten those expectations?"
"If you knew the perils but the conversation that you had with the public painted a rosier picture, how is that not deception?" Stewart asked.
Feith attempted to counter this by suggesting that because "the recent history has been very unhappy in a lot of ways ... people look back and I think they misremember a lot," but he finally resorted to claiming once more that "there were statements ... that in looking back you wish you would have made differently ... I don't think any of them were deception. I think they were errors."
"You don't think it was a purposeful strategy?" Stewart asked. "This is an administration very sophisticated in the arts of propaganda and public relations."
Feith insisted that far from being sophisticated, the administration was actually very bad at propaganda. He then went on to summarize his version of what led up to the war:
"What the president decided after 9/11 was we should not focus only on the group that hit us, we should be trying to prevent the next attack. ... The administration ... became persuaded by the facts that Saddam Hussein was an extremely serious danger. ... There was a moment when the president wanted to focus on diplomacy. ... Ultimately the diplomacy failed. ... The administration grossly mishandled the public explanation."
"You removed the ability for the American public to make an informed decision," responded Stewart. "Once you have removed that, then you no longer have, I think, the authority."
This video is from Comedy Central's The Daily Show, broadcast May 12, 2008.
Transcript via closed captions
:: jon: welcome back to the show, everybody. my guest tonight was the undersecretary of defense for policy from 2001-2005. his new book is called "war and decision: inside the pentagon at the dawn of the war on terrorism." please welcome to the show doug feith. sir. welcome. i appreciate you being here. i know you and i disagree somewhat on the war, but we may agree. what's your favorite baseball team.
:: the philadelphia phillies.
:: jon: oh, man. we really disagree. mets. "war: indecision." what if it boils down to that, i like the mets, you like the phillies. the whole thing falls apart. it seem like in reading it sort of the basic idea of the book-- and tell me if i'm wrong-- that a lot of what we know about the run-up to the iraq war, a low of the conventional wisdom is wrong. this idea that, i think it's something that you might take offense to that we were misled into war somehow. (one person applauding).
:: jon: settle down. it will be a long ten minutes, lady. the idea we're misled in a war is wrong. now, from this side of it, i always felt like we were misled. so, let's bridge that gap in ten minutes. what makes you say we were not misled? what was so honest about....
:: i think the administration had an honest belief in the things that it said. some of the things that it said about the war that were part of the rationale for the war were wrong. errors are not lies. i think much of what the administration said was correct and provided an important argument that leaving saddam hussein in power would have been extremely risky even though the president's decision to remove him was extremely risky.
:: jon: let me stop you there because the president's decision to remove him was extremely risky. that's not the sense, i think, that the american people got in the run-up. ( applause ) the sense that you got from people was not... the sense was, we'll be greeted as liberators. it will last maybe six weeks, maybe six months. it will pay for itself. all these scenarios that were publicly proffered never happened. you said something that i thought was interesting. the common refrain that the post war has been a disaster is only true if you had completely unrealistic expectations. where would we have gotten those expectations? (laughing)
:: well, there were a lot of things that did not go according to expectations. we know that the war has been bloodier and costlyier and lengthyier than anybody hoped. but the president had an extremely difficult task. after 9/11, there was a great sensitivity to our vulnerability. and the president had to weigh-- and what i do in the book is i look at the actual documents where secretary rumsfeld was writing to the president and powell and rice and the vice president and general myers and others. i talk about what they said to each other and what they were saying back to secretary rumsfeld. what you see is there was a serious consideration of the very great risks of war. i think that many of them were actually discussed with the public. but to tell you the truth, looking back one thing is absolutely clear. this administration made grocerors in the way it talked about the war. some of them are very obvious like the....
:: jon: that was all we had to go on. you know, that was... i guess the difference in my mind is if you knew the perils but the conversation that you had with the public painted a rosier picture, how is that not deception? that sounds like... when you're sell ago product.... ( applause ) what it sounds like for me. sorry. the fact that you seem to know all the risks takes this from manslaughter to homicide. it almost takes it from like with the cigarette companies. if they come out and say, no, our products i think are going to be delicious. you go back and you look and they go, well, they actually did talk about addictiveness and cancer. isn't that deception?
:: i do not think-- and i think when people read this book, i think people will be surprised, to be reminded of what was actually said. i think a lot of people's perceptions of what were said are filtered through, you know, the recent history. and the recent history has been very unhappy in a lot of ways. we've had a very serious losses in iraq, more than anybody anticipated. people look back and i think they misremember aate lot. one of the reasons i wrote this book is that almost all the other books that are out there on iraq are based on anonymous sources or they're based on interviews with people who are pretending that they remember what happened years before. and what i wanted to do was bring forward the written record so that people can actually be reminded of what was said within the government and what was said publicly.
:: jon: maybe the disconnect is the written record within the government differs so greatly. all respect, i think i remember pretty clearly the general tenor of what the government was saying to the people in the run-up to the war. it was, the president specifically, the risk of going in, we have two choices: to do nothing. the risk of doing nothing is far greater than the risk of going in. but the risks of going in were never quantifyd publicly the way they were privately. in fact, the opposite. they undersold them. donald rumsfeld, your boss, consistently went out there and said, looting? it's one guy with a vase. i watch these reports. violence? henny-penny, the sky is falling. these are what we were getting over and over again. dick cheney saying the insurgency is in its last throes. a consistent drum beat, a willful, i think-- and you can tell me if i'm wrong-- selling of the positive and pushing back of the negative.
:: some of the criticisms you've made are valid. i criticized some of the... there were statements that everybody in the administration-- myself included-- made that in looking back you wish you would have made differently, you would have call fied differently. i don't think any of them were deception. i think they were errors.
:: jon: you don't think it was a purposeful strategy, andrew card said you don't want your new product in august. they had the white house iraq group that went through this is an administration very sophisticated in the art of propaganda and public relations.
:: i disagree with that.
:: jon: really?
:: i think this is an administration... i strongly disagree. i think that....
:: jon: being bad at it doesn't mean you're sophisticated. you know what i mean. ( applause )
:: i think that the administration thought through a lot of these problems reasonably well although there were errors in the thinking- through also. but they talked about them not at all well. i think the administration's strategy was in many ways better than it sounded. part of what....
:: jon: that's a good point. when we come back we'll talk about the reasoning behind that because that's actually a very interesting point. we'll be right back with doug feith. ( applause ) ,, .. ,, .. captioning sponsored by comedy central captioned by media access group at wgbh access.wgbh.org welcome back. we're talking to douglas feith undersecretary of defense to president bush. it's very difficult to get into sort of an argument of whether or not iraq was the right next move in the war on terror. that's another whole issue that i'll still come down on the bad news i think you guys decided it was a good move. the one thing i think we can look at is there was no momentum for a war in iraq. the momentum had to be generated somewhere. afghanistan had its own momentum. we were attacked from there. bin laden was taking refuge there with the taliban. to get the country to mobilize to war in iraq took effort.
:: i think you're looking at it differently from the way we looked at it.
:: jon: i believe that is correct.
:: i think that is correct.
:: you're looking at it from the point of view that the administration came in hell bept on going to war.
:: jon: no, no, no. i'm looking at it as iraq and a war didn't have its own momentum. it had to draft behind another... did you ever watch auto racing? you know when a guy sneaks in there and he starts to draft behind a lead car. afghanistan had its own momentum. the administration had to work very hard to create the case. it was a prosecution, if you will.
:: i really don't think you're talking about it the way any of us in the government thought about it.
:: jon: no?
:: the way we approached this was the main thought that the president had after 9/11 was that the standard approach that we had taken for years, the law enforcement approach-- find out who did it and go and arrest them and prosecute them-- was not adequate to the challenge after 9/11. what the president decided after 9/11 was we didn't have... we should not focus only on the group that hit us. we should be trying to prevent the next attack. it wasn't that the administration built the case. it's that the administration seriously considering what needed to be done to prevent the next attack became persuaded by the facts that saddam hussein was an extremely serious danger and that removing him was important to america's national security.
:: jon: i'm saying that the facts were not presented to the american people because in making the prosecution they seemed to downplay the negative side. anything that went towards not making the case was brushed aside. anything that would take away the momentum. why didn't you call your group... you called it the office of special plans. why didn't you call it what you had originally thought to call it, which was....
:: the office of northern gulf affairs.
:: jon: why didn't you call it that?
:: there was a moment when the president wanted to focus on diplomacy and he didn't... (laughing).
:: jon: i remember that moment.
:: it was more than a moment. it was a period of months.
:: jon: there was a reason you said why you didn't call it that.
:: the president didn't want to put out a signal that he had decided to go to war when he in fact had not decided to go to war. so he wanted to emphasize that he was trying to find a diplomatic resolution of the problem. now the diplomacy was backed up by a threat of force. then ultimately the dip diplomacy failed when hussein didn't make an honest declaration on his chemical and biological.
:: jon: the decisions made were based on the sales aspect of this war in the administration.
:: to tell you the truth, what i would say is the administration should really be criticized for the opposite which is that the administration grossly mishandled the public explanation.
:: jon: that's what i'm saying.
:: then we agree on that. it grossly mishandled it. i don't think it was dishonesty. i think it was... it was.
:: jon: just because your intentions are good and noble and you believe it to be the right move for the country doesn't make dishonesty. you remove the ability for the american public to make an informed decision. ( applause ) once you have removed that, then you no longer have, i think, the authority because what you've done is you've told us what part of the argument you think is appropriate for us to know about. but i do appreciate it. the book is very footnoted. it makes for slow reading. but it's interesting. thank you. ( cheers and applause ) douglas feith.