The passage last week in the U.S. House of Representatives of a nonbinding resolution opposing a troop buildup in Iraq was pure symbolism. But in modern war, such symbolism is often as powerful as an exploding car bomb.
Whatever its ultimate place in the account of the stunning decline in American public support for this war, it does serve as an adequate barometer of the fact that most politicians feel there is more danger in being labeled as a war supporter than one of its opponents.
But perhaps no one has a right to feel as exposed by this turn of events than one of the men labeled as the war's architects, former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith.
Feith, the son of a Holocaust survivor and Philadelphia community activist, left the administration in 2005 after four years of hard labor in a Pentagon tasked with fighting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the general post-9/11 conflict with Al Qaeda. But this Washington attorney, who also served in the Reagan-administration Pentagon, has not faded into the obscurity that is usually the reward of Cabinet undersecretaries.
Singling Out Feith
Instead, he is the subject of an ongoing media blitz led by The New York Times, in which he has been made to appear the chief culprit in the "Bush lied us into war" explanation for the invasion of Iraq.
While no one in the administration can be surprised that the public sees the failure to find "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq as a standing rebuke to much of what came out of Washington before the invasion, Feith is particularly vulnerable since he headed a Pentagon intelligence unit that supposedly circulated the idea that Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda were closely associated. Since, the story goes, most CIA analysts disagreed with that analysis, Feith and his cohorts are the among the chief "liars" who should be called to account.
Along these lines, a recent Pentagon investigation into the affair criticized Feith for disseminating "alternative intelligence assessments on the Iraq and Al Qaeda relationship that were inconsistent with the consensus of the intelligence community, to senior decision-makers."
The report was the basis for a scathing editorial in the Times on Feb. 10, in which the veteran analyst was derisively described as a "renegade intelligence buff" who did "dirty work" to deceive the nation. Yet for all of that, Feith's critics at the Times and in Congress had to concede that nothing he had done was remotely illegal. He had, in fact, been tasked with taking a skeptical view of an official intelligence community whose pre-9/11 failures were every bit as bad as its pre-Iraq work.
Everyone in the administration, Feith included, turned out to have been wrong in some, though not all, of their prewar assessments. But it should be pointed out that Feith never alleged, as some assert, that Saddam and Osama bin Laden coordinated the attacks.
Under current circumstances, it appears to be impossible for partisans to credit their opponents with good faith even when they turn out to be wrong. Thus, a dedicated public servant who, though he properly understood the gravity of the terrorist threat to the United States (something that cannot be said for many in the intelligence bureaucracy, Congress and the Times), may have drawn some wrong conclusions about conflicting evidence gets to be a piñata for those who cannot content themselves with darts thrown at former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld or President Bush.
A more insightful reading of the report came in a New York Sun editorial on Feb. 12, which saw nothing wrong in Feith's willingness to question a CIA that seemed to be involved in some oddly politicized "shenanigans" itself in those tumultuous days. Rather than the shame that the Times thinks Feith deserves, the Sun believes that in time his role will be vindicated by history because he risked all "to ask the tough questions."
Let's hope they are right about that, but it is no surprise that Feith has been singled out by those with a political axe to grind. His name was usually among the first listed when anti-Semitic jibes about neo-conservative Jews and Israel pushing America into war began to surface. It was a crude lie, but given that the war has dragged on longer than an impatient public can tolerate, it was to be expected that Feith would be among the first to be pilloried by far-left bloggers, as well as more established media.
But there is more at stake in the venomous nature of the current debate about the origins of the war than the reputation of an experienced Washington player like Feith, who knew what he was getting into when he returned to government service in 2001. Congressional and press inquisitions about the origins of the war are entirely appropriate. Yet if the result of all of these investigations is merely to heighten the sense of cynicism that pervades everything that is said about the war, then the poison will affect more than the future disposition of U.S. troops in Iraq.
If the point of the targeting of Douglas Feith seems to mean anything, it is that anyone who questions what the Pentagon investigators called the "consensus" of the intelligence community is in for trouble. But considering that the CIA failed so miserably in the last decade of war against a deadly Islamist enemy, that would be a terrible mistake.
The fact that the agency was riddled with leaders like Michael Scheuer, an analyst who was allowed to pen an anti-administration and anti-Israel diatribe titled Imperial Hubris while on duty speaks volumes about the odd nature of the contemporary CIA. Under these circumstances, it would seem that the next administration, be it Republican or Democratic, is going to need a Douglas Feith to provide its leaders with a skeptical look at what the spooks are feeding it.
That will be all the more important because the next president is likely going to have to confront the threat from an Iranian regime whose threats loom over us today even more heavily than those of Saddam Hussein did a few years ago.
This rogue nation is unlikely to be deterred from its nuclear ambitions by an America that is too divided and war-weary to call it to account for its intervention in Iraq or its nuclear threats against Israel and the West.
And if the only conclusion we can draw from the decision to go to war in Iraq is that we should never believe those who fear the worst about Middle Eastern jihadists and dictators, then we are heading for certain disaster.
Unfortunately, that is exactly what Feith's critics at the Times seem to be telling us. The tone and the context of their commentary on Feith seem to savor more of a new campaign to deter Americans from the necessary task of taking on Iran than to account for Iraq.
At a time when America's leaders need to be finding the courage to confront our enemies, it would be a pity if Feith's successors in this or future administrations will be worrying more about the politicized agenda of a cynical media than the peril that Iranian nukes will present us.