A First Draft of Mythology
Ricks repeats fashionable bunk about the Iraq war.


Mario Loyola

In Iraq, by contrast, the principal Shiite religious authority is the quietist Najaf Madrassa under the Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered figure of Shiite Islam. Sistani specifically rejects the vilayet e fakih for temporal political authority and advocates instead the separation of religion and politics. Given the prestige that al-Sistani commands among Iraqis, along with the fierce nationalism and widespread anti-Iranian sentiment among Iraqis generally, not one political party of Iraq recognizes the political authority of the mullahs in Teheran. Not even Muqtada al-Sadr, who has spent much time studying at the Qum Madrassa in Iran, would put his face next to a likeness of Khomeini on a political poster. In fact, Shiite factions in Iraq commonly accuse each other of being under Iranian influence.

General Keane recalls, “I was in the south before March 2008, and there was a definable anti-Iranian feeling in the south. Then comes Maliki and militarily defeats the Iranian-backed and Iranian-trained proxies. We call them ‘special groups’ but they don’t call them that. The Iranians just hired a bunch of thugs and armed and trained them, but they had no character, and were very abusive, and everyone just wanted them gone.” The Iraqi security forces defeated the Iranian proxies, first in Basra and then in Baghdad’s Sadr City. The Maliki government has openly rejected an alliance with Iran in favor of a long-term alliance with the Islamic Revolution’s mortal enemy, the United States, a stance popularly endorsed in the recent election. Moreover, says Keane, “the Sunni Arab states are ecstatic that the Iraqi Shiites stood with them and stopped the Iranians cold. . . . Anyone who says the Iranians are winners just doesn’t know what’s happening.”

If most of the themes of The Gamble are standard media-narrative fare, there is one exception, namely the idea that Obama’s war in Iraq will last longer than Bush’s. “The first year of Obama’s war promises to be tougher for America’s leaders and military than was the last year of Bush’s war,” writes Ricks.

There’s one problem with this. “We don’t have a counterinsurgency war right now,” notes General Keane. “The insurgency has been defeated. Al-Qaeda has been defeated. The Iranian-backed militias have been defeated. We are in a peacekeeping mode. When the commanders analyze this, they want troops there for stability, for political reconciliation. And that reconciliation is happening.”

Ricks told David Gregory on Meet the Press that his favorite line in the book is the very last: “Ambassador Crocker, a very thoughtful diplomat, says that the events for which the Iraq war will be remembered have not yet happened.” But those aren’t Crocker’s words. That’s Ricks’s paraphrase, which loses a critical element of Crocker’s meaning and puts in its place an opinion that is purely the author’s. The actual ending of the book deserves a careful read:

The heart of the Iraq matter still lies before us, Crocker maintained in both my interviews with him in Baghdad in 2008, and he is likely correct. “What the world ultimately thinks about us and what we think about ourselves,” he said, “I think is going to be determined much more by what happens from now on that what’s happened up to now.”

In other words, the events for which the Iraq war will be remembered probably have not happened yet.

But nowhere does Crocker make any reference to a continuing “war,” which is the proposition for which Ricks implicitly quotes him for the finale of the book. Compare that to the finale of Ambassador Crocker’s testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last April:

Mr. Chairman, as monumental as the events of the last five years have been in Iraq, Iraqis, Americans and the world ultimately will judge us far more on the basis of what will happen than what has happened. In the end, how we leave and what we leave behind will be more important than how we came. Our current course is hard, but it is working. Progress is real although still fragile. We need to stay with it.

In the months ahead, we will continue to assist Iraq as it pursues further steps toward reconciliation and economic development. Over time, this will become increasingly an Iraqi process, as it should be. Our efforts will focus on increasing Iraq’s integration regionally and internationally; assisting Iraqi institutions locally and nationally to strengthen the political process and promote economic activity; and supporting United Nations efforts as Iraq carries out local elections toward the end of the year. These efforts will require an enhanced civilian commitment and continued support from the Congress and the American people.

Crocker was not referring to a war at all, but rather to the task of building a stable, strong, and representative democracy in an increasingly favorable climate.

The Gamble has some light moments, usually when Ricks is projecting his own opinions onto others. Toward the end of the book, in a chapter titled “Domestic Opposition Collapses,” Ricks offers this explanation of why the American public stopped paying attention to Iraq after Petraeus testified before Congress in September 2007:

The American public had heard all it needed to hear. The people might not have liked what Petraeus was offering, but it was better than anyone else was proposing. They understood that the United States was stuck in Iraq. But that didn’t mean they had to like it. So they would let him continue — but they also would tune it out.

The best evidence for this new hands-off attitude was the sharp decline in news coverage of the war in the weeks and months after the September hearings. In the first half of 2007, the Iraq war was the top running story almost every week on television networks’ evening news broadcasts. After the September hearings, its ranking declined rapidly, from taking up 25 percent of coverage at the time of the hearings to just 3 percent in mid-2008.

Of course, the reason the Iraq war suddenly became uninteresting had nothing to do with anybody’s testimony, but rather with the sudden emergence of a steady stream of good news. In fairness, bad news is event-specific, and is therefore easier to report than good news, which is often process-oriented. But for most people in the media (and more than one senator) good news also seemed to require a difficult, and perhaps painful, suspension of disbelief.

What I find difficult to believe is that Ricks fails to make any connection between the vertiginous drop in media coverage of Iraq from mid-2007 to mid-2008 and the vertiginous drop in violence during the same period. An even more remarkable trend, which also escapes his notice, was in domestic public-opinion polls, where most people would think to look for that “best evidence” about public opinion. What Ricks reports as the moment “the public” got sick of Iraq is precisely the moment that polls began to reveal a steady rise in the number of Americans who thought that Iraq was finally on the right track. By mid-2008, the right-track/wrong-track polls had flipped from the fall of 2006, with “right track” optimists outnumbering the pessimists.

Of course polls do not measure depth of feeling, and ambivalence has replaced a lot of passionate intensity. But this only stands to reason: U.S. forces have gone largely into peacekeeping mode, while casualties have dropped to levels commensurate with peacetime training accidents. For the moment, at least, the possibility of defeat and the horror of wartime casualties have receded. Americans are starting to turn their attention to other things.

As the trauma of the war begins to recede, historians can set about reconstructing what actually happened — and the equally fascinating story of what people thought of it at the time. Though America’s “adventure” in Iraq no longer looks quite so bad, and there are mounting reasons to think that future generations will see it more positively, Ricks remains steadfast. “Fiasco” is still his story, and he’s sticking to it.

– Mario Loyola, a former adviser in the U.S. Senate and at the Pentagon, has been a frequent contributor to National Review.