Iraq: Rethinking 'What Happened'

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With reports of the situation on the ground improving in Iraq, the reasons America went to war is back in the news two behind-the-scenes books by former top Bush advisors.

As the Presidents White House Press Secretary for three years, Scott McClellan publicly defended the war, telling White House press corps on record,

"It was the right decision to confront what was a grave and growing threat in Saddam Hussein," he once said. Since leaving the White House, McClellan has changed his mind and now calls it a strategic blunder.

In his memoir "What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception," McClellan joins critics who say that Bush was bent on war.

"The President is someone who just got caught up in the way the game is played in Washington," McClellan said. Stopping short of calling the President a liar, McClellan says Bush signed off on a "less-than-honest strategy" to manipulate public opinion and politicize pre-war intelligence in a reckless rush to war.

"Instead of looking at the hard truths and explaining it to the American people about what to expect with war, we got caught up in this whole mentality in selling the war to the American people," McClellan told ABC News. "And, yes, in itself it becomes a game played on spin, a game played on obfuscation and secrecy."

A Different, Inside Story

But one of the Pentagon's architects of the Iraq war calls McClellan's charges "fluff. based on unsubstantiated opinion."

"A lot of what the public thinks it knows, based on all of the books and major articles that have come out on the Iraq war, are mainly wrong," Former Undersecretary of Defense Doug Feith says.

From 2001-2005, Feith served under Defense Secrectary Donald Rumsfeld, advising him on policy and war strategy. Feith disputes conventional wisdom about the rationale for going to war, which as many believe, was to establish democracy or just find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

"The reason to go to war was to remove the threat," Feith argues. "And I think it would have been much better had the President remained clear on that point, so that critics of the war could not say you've accomplished nothing if you failed to reach extremely high standards of a stable democracy, which I don't believe will be achieved for some time yet."

In his book 'War and Decision," Feith uses previously unpublished documents and notes of meetings he attended with the Bush national security the to lay out his insider account of the Administration's decision to remove Saddam Hussein.

From before 9/11 and throughout the war, Feith attended strategy meetings with all the key players -- President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Rumsfeld, National Security Advisor Condi Rice, General Richard Myers, and CIA Director George Tenet.

In his book, McClellan writes that those players -- with the exception of Secretary of State Powell -- failed to advise Bush on the the costs of war. He says that had the President known, he would not have invaded Iraq.

Deciding the Greater Risk

Feith believes the President made the right decision on Iraq. And from his former view as the Pentagon's Number 3, he insists Bush did weigh the risks. He says it was Rumsfeld, not Powell, who warned Bush of possible worst case scenarios of war in an October 2002 memo called the "Parade of Horribles."

The memo warned "that the war could be costlier and bloodier and more protracted than anybody had hoped. That if we get bogged down there, it could hurt our efforts in other areas. That our enemies would take advantage of our pre-occupation."

Feith says Rumsfeld even warned "we might not find WMD and our credibility would be destroyed."

Once Rumsfeld put the memo together with his team, Feith says Rumsfeld "carried it over the to the White House, sat down with the President and the National Security Council, and walked them thru every item."

Feith says Bush decided the risk of inaction and of leaving Saddam in power posed a greater threat to the country.

He says the rationale for the war was WMD in addition to a number of other factors - it was not WMD alone.

"The nature of the threat was weapons of mass destruction. It was the record of Saddam in supporting terrorism," Feith says. "It was the record of Sadaam in launching aggressions like the Iran-Iraq war. The invasion of Kuwait. And it was the general way that he operated in hostility to us, in defiance of the 16 UN Security Council resolutions that had been developed since the Gulf War."

"He was a very dangerous aggressive and hostile guy," he said. "If we had left him in power, and the things we were worried about had materialized, how would the government be able to explain to the American people why it had sat back and allowed those threats to materialize?"

Feith says the President faced difficult tradeoffs in making the decision for war.

"I do believe the President made the right decision. Based on everything we knew then, and everything we know now, it would have been extremely hard for the President to leave Saddam Hussein in power, given what we knew about Sadaam's background, his hostility to us, his record of aggression, his record of support for various terrorist groups, and his pursuit and even use of WMD," Feith says.

"So the president faced a very difficult decision, and I think he made the right decision. Now the war in Iraq has not gone as well and anyone had hoped, but the President has to look at this from the point of view of which set of risks did he want to subject the country to -- the risks of leaving Saddam in power, and then having to confront him later down the road under what he believed would be even less advantageous circumstances."

In Good Faith

"I had concerns, like a lot of people," McClellan told ABC News, "that we're rushing into this. But, uh, that wasn't my focus area, and I gave it the benefit of the doubt because I have great affection for the President, I trusted in his judgment. And in that instance, I think that my trust was misplaced."

As do many who cite the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Feith takes issue with a prevailing perception that "Bush lied,and people died." He says the White House acted in good faith while relying on bad intelligence about WMD, and says another mistake was not doing more to convince Americans that the war in Iraq was worthwhile.

"We did not find the WMD stockpiles the CIA said we would. We did find that Saddam had chemical and biological weapons programs, that he had the facilities, that he had the intention to have WMD, that he maintained the personnel. He maintained materiel, and he maintained the capability to produce chemical and biological weapons stockpiles in three to five weeks," Feith said.

Feith has also been the focus of critics who blame the Administration for bungling post-war planning in Iraq, resulting in a protracted U.S. occupation, many say, damaged U.S. credibility worldwide.

Feith blames internal Administration disputes for that, saying it was the State Department that blocked the Pentagon's push for a rapid transition of power.

"A plan that was actually well-conceived," Feith says, "that was based on the idea that we'd put Iraqis in charge of their own country quickly after the removal of Saddam, wound up getting undone through a series of miscommunications, and misunderstandings, and interagency debates."

Feith says there were debates among departments about the proper way to proceed.

"I think that people in the State Department and CIA had one view," he said. "People in the Defense Department and the leadership tended to have a different view. I think that our view was better."

*Orignal broadcast June 17, 2008.

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Melissa Charbonneau

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