by Jim Lobe
(IPS) WASHINGTON --
gonna happen with Feith?"
That, in a nutshell, is the question of the month for the Washington cognoscenti trying to figure out whether a major shift in the Bush administration's unilateralist and ultra-hawkish foreign policy is or is not underway.
The reference is to Douglas Feith, the administration's rather obscure but nonetheless strategically placed undersecretary of defense for policy, who reports directly to deputy secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld.
If the administration is looking for scapegoats for the situation it faces in Iraq, Feith is a most likely candidate both because of his relative obscurity compared to other administration hawks and the fact that, of virtually all of them, his ideas -- particularly on the Middle East -- might be the most hard-line.
A protege of Richard Perle, the former chairman of Rumsfeld's Defense Policy Board (DPB) who stands at the centre of the neo-conservative foreign-policy network in Washington, Feith has long opposed territorial compromise by Israel.
He was an outspoken foe of the Oslo process and even the Camp David peace agreement mediated by former President Jimmy Carter between Egypt and Israel. His former law partner, L. Marc Zell, is a spokesman for the Jewish settlers' movement on the occupied West Bank.
But, more to the point, virtually everything that has gone wrong in Iraq -- especially those matters that Congress is either investigating or is poised to probe -- is linked directly to his office. "All roads lead to Feith," noted one knowledgeable administration official this week.
His now-defunct Office of Special Plans (OSP) is alleged to have collected -- often with the help of the neo-conservatives' favorite Iraqi exile, Ahmed Chalabi -- and "cooked" the most alarmist pre-war intelligence against Saddam Hussein and then "stovepiped" it to the White House via Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, unvetted by the intelligence agencies.
It was also his office that was in charge of post-war planning, and rejected the product of months of work by dozens of Iraqi exiles and Mideast experts in the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) who anticipated the growing resistance that has bedeviled the occupation.
The OSP also excluded many top Mideast experts from the State Department from playing any role in the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq.
And it is Feith's office that, with the CPA, recommended companies for huge, and in some cases no-bid, contracts in Iraq that have amounted, in the eyes of some critical lawmakers, to flagrant profiteering.
Among the firms that have profited most are those whose consultants or officers also serve on the Pentagon's DPB, members of which are chosen by Feith.
In a particularly provocative move that raises a host of conflict-of-interest questions, Feith's former partner Zell has set up shop with Chalabi's nephew in Baghdad to help interested companies win contracts for reconstruction projects.
"Until they get rid of Feith, no one is going to believe that the administration is seriously reassessing its policies," one congressional aide whose boss has been a strong critic of Bush's policy in Iraq, told IPS.
There are hints that Feith has seen his authority dwindle since the first half of October, when National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice announced that she would head a new interagency Iraq Stabilisation Group (ISG).
The move appeared designed not only to give the appearance that the White House was taking control of a situation that had contributed to a precipitous decline in Bush's approval ratings but also to ensure that the Pentagon could no longer simply ignore other bureaucracies, Rice's included, as it had for much of the past year.
Creation of the ISG followed growing public criticism, even by otherwise loyal Republican lawmakers, of the administration's failure to anticipate a post-war insurgency. It came soon after the appointment of former U.S. ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill -- who was Rice's boss on the National Security Council (NSC) in the first Bush administration -- to a special, high-ranking NSC post.
Other hints that Feith's and other hawks' grip on policy has been loosened came in the form of a distinct softening of the rhetoric against the other two members of the "axis of evil" -- Iran and North Korea.
Then, last week a top Feith aide, former assistant defense secretary for international security policy J.D. Crouch II, abruptly resigned his position without explanation.
There have been unconfirmed reports that top White House officials decided two months ago that Feith had to go but were then dissuaded by Rumsfeld who argued that his departure would be seen as an admission that things had gone seriously wrong in Iraq.
It was in that context, according to these reports, that the administration moved to quietly reduce Feith's authority, in part by creating the ISG.
Like his mentor Perle, Feith has long been a hard-liner on foreign policy and arms control. He was an outspoken opponent of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the Chemical and Biological Weapons conventions, which he criticised as ineffective and dangerous to U.S. interests.
Among other clients, his law firm represented arms giants Lockheed-Martin and Northrop Grumman.
Also like Perle, Feith has long taken a strong interest in Israel. His father, Dalck Feith, a philanthropist and major Republican contributor from Philadelphia, was active in the militantly Zionist youth movement Betar, the predecessor of Israel's rightist Likud Party, in Poland before World War II. Millions of Polish Jews were massacred by the Nazis during the war.
Both father and son have been honoured by the Zionist Organisation of America (ZOA), which, unlike other mainstream Jewish groups in the United States, has consistently supported Likud positions and the settlement movement in the occupied territories and actively courted the Christian Right.
Feith also served with Perle on the board of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), a think tank that promotes military and strategic ties between the United States and Israel.
Feith first entered government as a Middle East specialist on the National Security Council (NSC) under Ronald Reagan in 1981, but was abruptly fired after only one year. Perle, who was then serving in the Pentagon as assistant secretary of defense for international security, hired him as his deputy, a post he retained until leaving in 1986 to found Feith & Zell.
Three years later, Feith was retained as a lobbyist by the Turkish government and, in that capacity, worked with Perle to build military ties between Turkey and Israel.
In 1996, he participated in a study group chaired by Perle and sponsored by a right-wing Jerusalem-based think tank that produced a report calling for incoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to build a strategic alliance with Turkey, Jordan, and a new government in Iraq that would transform the balance of power in the Middle East in such a way that Israel could decisively resist pressure to trade "land for peace" with the Palestinians or Syria.
In 1997, he published a lengthy article, 'A Strategy for Israel,' published in 'Commentary' magazine, Feith argued that Israel should repudiate the Oslo accords and move to re-occupy those parts of the West Bank and Gaza that had been transferred to the Palestinian Authority.
Two years later, he and Perle signed an open letter to President Bill Clinton calling for Washington to work with Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress (INC) to oust Saddam Hussein.
In May 2000, they signed a report calling for the United States to be prepared to attack Syria militarily unless Damascus failed to withdraw its troops from Lebanon.
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