Ex-Bush Defense Official Reacts To Obama's Speech

For reaction to the president's speech, Robert Siegel talks to Douglas Feith, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy under former President George W. Bush, and author of War and Decision, Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terrorism.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm joined now by Douglas Feith, who was undersecretary of Defense for Policy from July 2001 until August 2005 during the Bush presidency. He's also written a memoir called "War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War and Terrorism."

Welcome.

Mr. DOUGLAS FEITH (Former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy): Good to be with you.

SIEGEL: In this speech by President Obama, first, was there anything said that you wished had not been said?

Mr. FEITH: No, I think the speech was reasonably okay as far as it went. I was...

SIEGEL: You know, sins of omission that you'd like to talk about.

Mr. FEITH: Right. I was struck by the president's statement that we have - that we're going to sustain and strengthen our leadership, that we're going to be persevering in helping the Iraqis in the future, and then I was eager to hear him explain why. And what was interesting was he offered no explanation whatsoever about why we should be moving in the direction that we're moving, why the United States should continue to commit resources and people, you know, for this effort.

And what particularly struck me was, earlier today, the president spoke at Fort Bliss to a group of soldiers. And he said that because of their sacrifice, he said two things resulted. One, he said Iraq has an opportunity to create a better future for itself and America is more secure.

And when he delivered the counterpart paragraph in tonight's speech...

SIEGEL: The last clause was missing.

Mr. FEITH: The last part was missing.

SIEGEL: Yeah.

Mr. FEITH: He didn't say America is more secure. And that's the kind of statement that could help explain to the American people why we need to persevere and do all the things that he's pledging to do in the future.

SIEGEL: This is a man who, in 2002, when he was warning against the war in Iraq, said, don't do this. He said, I'm not against all wars. I'm against a rash war. I'm against a dumb war. His treatment - his description of what's happened since was certainly much more kind than that, and there was no finger pointing here.

Mr. FEITH: That's true. But he also said in - before he was president - that this war is making the United States less secure.

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FEITH: And then he also, in January of 2007, just when the surge was getting under way, proposed legislation that would have ended the war in March of 2008. And had that legislation succeeded, it would have prevented the success that he celebrated in his speech tonight.

SIEGEL: At that time, there was an argument: Should the U.S. get out of Iraq or not? During the 2008 election campaign, there was an argument: Should the U.S. start pulling out of Iraq or not? Is there an argument left? Does anyone really think that the U.S. should be keeping more than 50,000 troops in Iraq today?

Mr. FEITH: I don't hear anybody making a case for a much larger U.S. presence. The issue in part, though - the issue that is raised by the president not providing the rationale for continued commitment is that our commitment is a factor in Iraq. And the things that we want to see the Iraqis do, the kind of responsibility we want to see them assume for themselves - which the president calls for in his speech, I think wisely calls for in his speech - that is affected by their view of whether the United States really has staying power for this next phase.

And the president has a crucial role in building up popular support in the United States if we're going to have that kind of staying power.

SIEGEL: But given the number of commentators who have remarked that, official end of the combat role or not, the U.S. still has tens of thousands of troops there, the idea that all of them will be out by the end of next year seems very unlikely to many if the Iraqis were to ask for some to stay. U.S. troops are still out there working with Iraqi troops. Doesn't that suggest that the U.S. is not, you know, cutting out on the Iraqis? It's not running out on them prematurely?

Mr. FEITH: Well, I hope that we're not. And the president seemed to be quite strong in saying that we don't intend to cut out, and I praise him for that. I think the president has been, as president, much more responsible in his statements and his actions than he was before he was president when he talks about Iraq. I think he said a number of things that were not responsible and not careful and not accurate. But he's been much more careful since.

SIEGEL: Douglas Feith, thank you very much for talking with us.

Former undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, talking with us about President Obama's speech from the Oval Office this evening on the end of the U.S. combat role in Iraq.

SIEGEL: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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