"America is a strange country. All of its best generals are journalists," quipped Defense Undersecretary Douglas J. Feith in the middle of an interview Thursday.
Touche, as fencers say. I never served in the military, haven't been to Iraq and don't know if criticism that the Bush administration has not put enough troops in Iraq is accurate or not -- although I pay attention when veterans who return from Iraq say as much.
So I'll pass on what Feith said to me, and you can decide.
Columnist Tom Friedman wrote in The New York Times Thursday that more troops are needed, while a front-page story reported on a classified memo that warned that expected troop reductions in Fallujah could lead to a rebirth of the insurgency. Are there enough troops in Iraq?
Feith's answer: "So Tom Friedman says that there are not enough troops and (U.S. Army Gen. John) Abizaid and Gen. (George W.) Casey say that there are."
Send too many U.S. troops, Feith added, and that feeds into the enemies' argument "that we want to control the country. We want to have the right number of forces to do the military mission, one of the missions being the training of Iraqi forces." Feith said he wants to see more troops in Iraq -- but he wants them to be Iraqi troops.
What about soldiers who say there haven't been enough troops?
Feith admitted it may not be the perfect analogy, but if you go to any corporation or government office, staffers don't think there are enough people. "The fact that somebody in an office says, 'We'd all like more people,' the fact that somebody in a particular town in Iraq says we need more people, that does not mean that Gen. Casey or Gen. Abizaid is wrong."
I've not seen much of a point in asking the Bushies what mistakes they've made, because in this political climate, they aren't going to enumerate where they went wrong. So I asked Feith this, in light of the Bushies' reputation for not wanting to know when they've done wrong: Do Pentagon decision makers at least know what mistakes they've made or might have made?
"The answer is yes," said Feith. And later: "We are continually recognizing errors and doing things differently." Feith mentioned an October 2003 memo written by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- and leaked to the media -- that reported "mixed results" in the war on terrorism and predicted "a long, hard slog ahead."
As for a change in how they operate, Feith noted that Bush created a new office in the State Department -- he said it didn't belong in the Pentagon -- dedicated to stabilizing countries under reconstruction.
Feith also had some digs for those who believed that "anytime anything goes wrong it is a sign of bad planning."
I've been disappointed that President Bush's new appointments haven't brought in new blood -- new people with new ideas who can mix it up with the old guard. Should the administration bring in some new blood?
There is silence, then: "There's some benefit in continuity, and there's some benefit in fresh blood." (Methinks he came down in the continuity column.)
For the record, some news accounts have reported that Feith is leaving the Pentagon, as if his departure is a fait accompli, while other papers report that he will stay. Feith laughed at the inaccurate reportage and said his future will be determined in the next week or so.
Is the administration too insular, as many critics claim?
"I don't think we're insular, let alone too insular," Feith answered. "We develop some ideas, we reach out and draw in other ideas, and then, other ideas get thrust upon us. It's much harder to be insular than you might think. And nobody that I know of aspires to be insular. You really have to work at it to be insular in a country like ours, where people are free with their advice."