The United States went to war in Iraq to remove the range of threats to our national interest that were posed by the Saddam Hussein regime: the threat of aggression, of support for terrorists and of development and use of weapons of mass destruction. President Bush and his National Security Council understood that if we removed Saddam from power, we’d have to help the Iraqis put another government in place. We could promote democratic institutions and, if the Iraqis succeeded in creating them, that could bring benefits to them and perhaps encourage political reform throughout the Middle East and Muslim world.
We did not go to war against Japan and Germany in World War II in order to promote democracy there, but U.S. officials saw that victory would give them the useful opportunity to do so. Similarly, we did not go to war in Iraq in order to promote democracy there, but it was an opportunity that Saddam’s overthrow would open up.
President Bush was clear on this point in the speeches he gave before the war. But six months or so after Saddam’s overthrow - when it became clear that we were not going to find the chemical and biological weapons stockpiles that the CIA had said we’d find in Iraq - the President changed his rhetoric drastically.
Whichever officials were in charge of strategic communications seem to have been traumatized by the CIA’s errors on Iraqi WMD. They decided that the President should no longer talk about the threats from the Saddam Hussein regime - should no longer talk about the history that gave rise to the U.S. decision to go to war. Rather, the President should talk from this point forward only about the future and about the promotion of democracy in Iraq.
There were three main consequences of the President’s shift in rhetoric:
1. He undermined his own credibility, for he appeared to be changing the rationale for the war in the middle of it all.
2. By deciding that he would talk only about the future, he ensured that his critics would talk almost exclusively about the past. The critics understood that if they attacked the administration about the run up to the war - focusing on pre-war intelligence and pre-war planning and asserting that “Bush lied” - they would not be contradicted.
3. Most importantly, the President’s change in rhetoric changed the definition of success in Iraq. It was no longer removing the threat of the Saddam Hussein regime. Rather, it became achieving stable democracy.
The President had, in effect, moved the goal line farther away to a place that most Americans came to believe could not be reached. In the summer of 2007, when the Congress came extremely close to cutting off funding, this almost cost us the war.
This shows the importance of strategic communications. A government in a democracy can lose a war by what its leaders say just as surely as it can lose it by failures of its generals in the field.
Strategic communications are not just politics or public relations; they are the essence of strategy in a democracy.
I want to end by making a comment about the quality of the public debate these days about national security issues. My comment applies to journalists, to government officials and to ordinary citizens. The debate in the United States has been remarkably vitriolic.
I wrote a book called War and Decision, which is a memoir of my work as Under Secretary of Defense. It recounts the deliberations that produced the strategy for the U.S. response to 9/11 and for the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. I’ve intended my book to demonstrate how a controversial topic can be debated sharply and vigorously without the kind of personal and reckless attacks that are common in political discussions now. I devote a lot of space in the book to interagency differences and quarrels. I present the positions I advocated and those I opposed. When I set out rival views, I did so with the thought that those who held them should be able to say that those views were presented fairly—and in context. Too many former government officials write books that declare that their rivals were all foolish or lazy or dishonest. Such books do no good for the country and are worthless as history.
Mr. Feith is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for National Security Strategies at the Hudson Institute. He served as Under Secretary of Defense for Policy from 2001 to 2005. His memoir, War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terrorism, was published in 2008 by HarperCollins.