Reflections from the Right

Reflections from the Right

Mini Teaser: The conservative movement is cracking up—just look at three memoirs of former administration officials. These new books may engage in justification and self-aggrandizement, but they do prescribe salves for fixing the conservative experiment.

by Author(s): Jacob Heilbrunn

Douglas J. Feith, War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War On Terrorism (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), 688 pp., $27.95.

Michael Gerson, Heroic Conservatism: Why Republicans Need to Embrace America's Ideals (And Why They Deserve to Fail If They Don't) (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 320 pp., $15.95.

George Tenet with Bill Harlow, At The Center of the Storm: The CIA During America's Time of Crisis, (New York: Harper Perennial, 2008), 608 pp., $16.95.


FOR MUCH of the past eight years, the memoirs of former Bush administration officials have served as a battleground for debates over the true nature of conservatism. Ever since David Frum, one of the most astute observers of conservatism, aired some of his reservations about the Bush administration after serving as a speechwriter, numerous advisers have followed in his path. As they promise a bird's-eye view into the workings of a White House enmeshed in two wars and entangled in various internal power struggles, their books have seldom failed to garner a good deal of publicity. They represent a school of thought that might be called the tragedians. They see an administration that squandered its potential and tarnished its record by engaging in blatant and systematic deception.

Their efforts include The Price of Loyalty, Ron Suskind's chronicle of Paul O'Neill's tenure as treasury secretary, in which O'Neill indicated that planning for the Iraq War had commenced almost as soon as Bush became president; Richard Clarke's Against All Enemies, which exposed then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice's failure to respond to warnings about an al-Qaeda attack; and David Kuo's Tempting Faith, which suggested that the administration was, in fact, simply paying lip service to evangelical concerns rather than seeking to promote them. More often than not, these books have become vital parts of partisan political warfare in Washington, deployed to show that the administration is as perfidious or inept as its adversaries have always claimed. The most sensational example of this phenomenon, of course, has been Scott McClellan's What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception.

Even as the tragedians have bemoaned the administration's course, however, a second school of disgruntled and more bellicose officials has emerged to offer a different version of history. They too believe that Bush has gone badly off course. But while their assessments are similar to those of the tragedians', their reasons are not. Their argument is not that Bush has been too conservative. It's that he has not been conservative enough. In crumpling before the onslaught of the liberal media and CIA and State Department officials, they suggest, Bush has betrayed his own early promise. Gone is the tough-talking unilateralism of the first term, replaced by feckless kowtowing to Iran and North Korea, while a resurgent Russia invades Georgia with impunity and democratization rhetoric goes by the wayside. This is, essentially, the argument that a cadre of neoconservatives have been making, and it is at the intellectual heart of new books emanating from that camp. The neoconservatives, you might say, have gone to war again-this time against the Bush administration.

So, with the changing of the White House guard, it's an opportune moment to take stock. New memoirs by Douglas J. Feith, who was undersecretary of defense for policy, and Michael Gerson, who was Bush's chief speechwriter, provide that opportunity, as does George Tenet's account of his tenure as director of the CIA.


PERHAPS NO neoconservative has endured more obloquy than Feith, who was memorably dismissed by General Tommy Franks with a vulgarity that left one with the clear impression that the general was not overly impressed with Feith's abilities. Similarly, speaking at the New America Foundation in October 2005, Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as an aide to former-Secretary of State Colin Powell, too, dismissed Feith's intellectual abilities. But these comments never felt quite right. Feith can be dogmatic and zealous-an expert at splitting hairs-but a lack of candlepower has never seemed prominent among his deficiencies. Rather, what is most striking about Feith is the consistency of his chiliastic views and beliefs from a young age.

Like many neocons, Feith, as he recounts early on in his memoir, was decisively shaped by his family history. Feith's father, Dalck, grew up in Koenigsberg before being captured and tortured by the Nazis. His father escaped and fled to America, where he served in the United States Merchant Marine. Like many Holocaust survivors, Feith's father was tight-lipped about his experiences. According to Feith,

Trying to make sense of them, I read books on war, diplomacy, politics, and government. What came to interest me especially were the efforts of British leaders to manage the rise of Adolf Hitler. . . . it was obvious . . . to me, with hindsight, that nothing short of war could have stopped, let alone reversed, Nazi aggression. This lesson lodged itself in my thoughts when I was a teenager during the debate over the Vietnam War, leading me to question the slogans of the time proclaiming that war is never necessary.

Feith's parents were both Democrats, but at Harvard, which was dominated by liberals and radicals opposed to the Vietnam War, he began to turn toward the Right. Feith recollects that he was also suspicious of Richard M. Nixon's efforts to create détente with the Soviet Union: "I took no pleasure in watching my downbeat analysis confirmed throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, as the Soviets violated their arms-control obligations, offered support to terrorists, and devastated Afghanistan."

Feith earned a law degree at Georgetown, but his true interest was always politics. He wrote speeches for Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, who failed to win a seat in the Senate, and landed an internship at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, where he met Fred Iklé, John Lehman and Paul Wolfowitz. "When my internship ended," Feith recounts, "Wolfowitz wrote me a generous letter of recommendation. The letter was like a long pass he threw and then caught himself twenty-five years down the road." By the time he was twenty-three years old, Feith was a member of the board of directors of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.

Feith notes that he also worked for Richard Perle, who was Senator Henry M. Jackson's key aide on foreign affairs. Always keen to show that there was nothing unusual about the web of relationships that made up the neoconservative world, Feith blandly observes, "Perle befriended talented political allies and helped them in their careers. He showed them attention and loyalty, which bred much loyalty in return. In time, Perle became the hub of an extensive network of successful people." The connection with Perle paid off years later when Feith went on to serve in the Reagan administration as an assistant to Perle after having flamed out at the National Security Council. His description of the Reagan administration captures the difference between neocons and traditional conservatives. According to Feith, "the Reagan Administration's outlook was not stodgy, do-nothing, muddle-through, status-quo conservatism. Reagan and his political appointees were ambitious, bordering on radical." But Reagan himself was not a radical. On the contrary, he wound down the cold war and signed arms-control treaties with Mikhail Gorbachev. Neocons such as Norman Podhoretz denounced Reagan for doing so at the time. But the perception, or fantasy, that he was one of them nonetheless became the credo of the neocons, who kept searching for a new Reagan, and believed they had found one in George W. Bush.

His account of the Bush years, you might say, is the best and worst of Feith. Consistent with his desire to downplay the conspiratorial character of the neocon movement ascribed to it by its adversaries, Feith seeks to depict Bush as someone who reluctantly and independently came to the conclusion that Iraq had to be confronted: "Ultimately, President Bush concluded that he had to remove Saddam's regime from power by war." Did he? Or was he intent on it long before? Feith is presenting speculation as fact. No one knows for certain when or why Bush decided that war was in the offing-perhaps the most basic mystery surrounding a mysterious war of choice.

The best case that Feith can make for the war in the end is simply to engage in scare scenarios. He claims that containment was on the ropes-in fact, we now know that it was quite effective-and speculates that the continuation of no-fly zones over Iraq would have inevitably led to renewed conflict, thereby giving "Saddam a chance to intimidate and hurt the United States-perhaps through cooperation with terrorists, and possibly through the brandishing, use, or transfer of biological or other catastrophic weapons." Sure. But the fact is that in retrospect Saddam appears to have been extremely cautious about striking any alliances with terrorists and the last thing he would have done was to try to attack the United States. Instead, he was simply intent on maintaining power and fending off Iraq's mortal enemy, Iran, by pretending that he possessed weapons of mass destruction. Finally, the no-fly zones appear to have worked very well, emasculating Saddam's military. It is far from clear that he would have been in a position to menace the United States and its allies. Quite the contrary.

Essay Types: Book Review