Tom Ricks on the Gamble in Iraq

1594201978.01.200 Tom Ricks's Fiasco quickly became, almost from the day of its publication, the defining account of the first part of the war in Iraq, with its story of a U.S. military and administration unprepared for, and slow to recognize, the insurgency that followed the American invasion. Today, his second book on the war comes out, The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008, and it seems to me likely that it will define the second part of the war as much as Fiasco did the first. That part has already gotten its name--"the surge"--in the media, and aspects of it have been covered in Bob Woodward's The War Within, Linda Robinson's Tell Me How This Ends, and Bing West's The Strongest Tribe, but The Gamble combines on-the-ground reporting in Iraq with inside-the-Pentagon access and a perspective on the larger prospects for the war to tell a riveting story that manages to be both uplifting and sobering at the same time. It's already gotten flat-out raves from the New York Times and L.A. Times, as I quoted in Old Media Monday this morning, and we made it our Spotlight editors' pick on our Best of February page.

As attention in the U.S. has turned away from Iraq, the surge has been either ignored or taken for granted by many. But The Gamble shows both how unlikely the surge was (almost no one in either the military or political leadership--on either side of the political spectrum--supported the idea at first), and how difficult it was to achieve on the ground (counterinsurgency is day-in, day-out work requiring patience, savvy, and constant exposure in hostile territory). The book will obviously be of interest to anyone interested in current events and the military, but it's also an excellent management study as well. The book it reminded me of most strongly, in fact, was Paul Tough's Whatever It Takes, his book last fall on Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone. Both tell complicated stories of patient but massively ambitious on-the-ground work that emphasizes what counterinsurgency strategy calls "protecting the population" and requires a great deal of what my social-worker wife calls "cultural competence." For all the successes of the surge, though, Ricks argues that the basic conditions of the country are unchanged and, as he puts it, while it "worked" militarily, it has failed so far politically.

The Washington Post, Ricks's longtime employers, have an extensive feature based on the book up this week, including excerpts, an excellent online discussion, videos, and archival documents (which are included in the book too). Ricks is blogging daily now at The Best Defense, and, as he explains below, he has stepped back from his front-line reporting at the Post to become a special military correspondent and taken a position as a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He has a note on how he came to write the new book up at the Daily Beast, and tonight, you can watch him on the Daily Show. And you can see our earlier Q&As for the hardcover and paperback editions of Fiasco

The Q&A below was conducted via email through much of January and February, while, among other things, a new Commander in Chief was sworn in and regional elections took place in Iraq.

Ricks_Thomas_150_left The Gamble is the history of what has become known as "the surge." What do you think the public understands about the surge, and how does that compare with what you've seen from up close?

Tom Ricks: I think there are two big misunderstandings about the surge. The first is that the surge "worked." Yes, it did, in that it improved security. But it was meant to do more than that. It was supposed to create a breathing space in which Iraqi political leaders could move forward. In fact, as General Odierno says in the book, some used the elbow room to move backward. The bottom line is that none of the basic problems facing Iraq have been addressed--the relationship between Shia, Sunni and Kurds, or who leads the Shias, or the status of the disputed city of Kirkuk, or the sharing of oil revenue.

The second misunderstanding is just how difficult the surge was. People back here seem to think that 30,000 troops were added and everything calmed down. In fact, the first six months of the surge, from January through early July 2007, were the toughest months of the war. When troops moved out of their big bases and into little outposts across Baghdad, they got hammered by bombs and rockets. It took some time before being among the people began to lead to improved security, and during that time, a lot of top American officials in Iraq weren't sure the new approach was working. General Petraeus says in the book that he looks back on that time as a "horrific nightmare."

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Comments (4)

It comes as no surprise to this observer that Tom Ricks, author of what would more honestly be titled "OK, Bush Got Finally It Right, But I'll Be DAMNED Before I Admit It!", continues in the discussion above to deny all credit to the one man who made success in Iraq possible:

the Commander in Chief who picked the generals who gave the orders and approved the strategy.

As I noted elsewhere, this makes about as much sense as it would for Charles Bracelen Flood to have written "1864" about the brilliant military moves of Grant, Sherman, etc., while denying all credit to the President who kept picking generals until he found winners and then approved and more importantly strongly advocated the strategy that would finally work over the objections of that generation's defeatists.

The only difference is that if you argue this about Lincoln, you'll be called a "lunatic" while for arguing this about Bush, you get called a "journalist", but even granting how those terms have now become equivalent, it is quite revealing.

What I find more interesting is Ricks's seemingly genuine puzzlement at the apparent disdain with which both he and President Obama are held by the generals he believes he was praising.

Let me clear up the mystery with a dispatch from the alien to him world of Reality: with few exceptions even the harshest military critics of Bush, Rumsfeld, et al, (and these exceptions mostly outed themselves during the recent election campaign) were patriots first who wanted to win the war though disagreeing greatly on how to go about it.

In contrast Tom Ricks and Barack Obama both clearly wanted to LOSE the war, at least temporarily, for the purpose of gaining short term political advantage.

That is something no member of the military, from private to five star general, could ever condone...

or forgive.

Posted by: FredTownWard | Wednesday February 11, 2009 at 11:53 AM

As a member of the military, I'd just like to say that Fred Town Ward is insane.
Is there some reason his comments don't get booted by the editors?

Posted by: Coin Flip | Friday February 13, 2009 at 8:39 PM

See Ricks interviewed Mon Feb 16 noon on PBS TV by Charlie Rose, known for his great guest roster. Cut some slack for Charlie...he thinks he has to butt in to make the show lively....drives me nuts. But this interview made me rush out to buy the book.....a tiny ray of hope in the Iraq mess.

Posted by: none | Monday February 16, 2009 at 10:35 AM

Great article - thank you!

Posted by: BookWormz | Tuesday February 17, 2009 at 5:18 PM

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