Philip Graham, who published the Washington Post before his better half, Katharine, took over in the early 1960s, is credited with the aphorism, “Journalism is the first draft of history.” But that first draft is never detached from the events it relates. It becomes part of our history — preserving, among other things, a sometimes priceless record of what George Orwell called “the fashionable bunk of the moment.”
If there were a Pulitzer Prize for outstanding susceptibility to “fashionable bunk.” it would go hands-down to Bob Woodward of the Washington Post for his four trendy (mostly non-fiction) novels about the administration of George W. Bush. But his Post colleague Thomas Ricks, author of the Iraq war classic Fiasco, would deserve an honorable mention. His latest book — The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006–2008 — is better than the typical Woodward book in several ways. First, he does not try to color his narrative with the novelist’s omniscience of the inner feelings and motives of the characters, the most cloying and silly aspect of Woodward’s books. Second, he usually offers some indication of where he got his information. And third, he often presents his own opinions as his own opinions, a refreshing departure from today’s journalism.
Following the Woodward method, Ricks interviewed enough people that he can quote somebody saying pretty much whatever he wants said in support of his narrative, and he puts those who gave him the greatest access in the most favorable light. Ricks had surprising access to a lot of senior people. Gen. Jack Keane, one of the signal proponents of the surge, reports being surprised at how much information Ricks already had by the time of their interview.
But in the absence of archival research, this mountain of quotations fails to communicate so many critical aspects of what happened – and of how decisions were made — that it would risk incoherence if it had to stand on its own as history. Ricks solves that problem by weaving his reportage around the most familiar propositions of the conventional media narrative: 1) Rumsfeld and his senior generals stubbornly refused to implement a proper counterinsurgency strategy and nearly caused a disaster; 2) the surge has succeeded militarily but failed politically; 3) democracy is a pipe dream in Iraq, where “lots of little Saddams” have replaced the one we toppled; 4) the Iraq war has been most of all a victory for Iran; and 5) Obama will be fighting the Iraq war long into the future, with an uncertain outcome. Each of these propositions is seriously flawed if not completely wrong.
TIMING THE SURGE
One of the principal myths of the Iraq war rests on the tendency, which Americans have shown in all their wars, to believe that a flawlessly executed war is a reasonable thing to expect and that anything short of perfection is evidence of incompetence or malfeasance. Donald Rumsfeld and the senior military command during the 2003–06 period (mainly Gens. Dick Meyers, Peter Pace, John Abizaid, Mike Sanchez, and John Casey) are commonly criticized for stubbornly ignoring the evidence that their strategy was failing, compounding the initial error of invading with too few troops. By the end of 2006, according to such critics as General Keane, the prevailing strategy of a light footprint, targeted counter-terror operations, and gradual transition to Iraqi control was leading America toward defeat in Iraq.
With characteristic hyperbole, Ricks claims that “in the fall of 2006, Jack Keane effectively became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.” Keane sees his role more modestly, of course, but he and the American Enterprise Institute’s Fred Kagan certainly had an important part in pushing for a new strategy. The Gamble’s disjointed narrative elides the fact that the National Security Council staff was already well advanced in its own review of strategy options, committed to rescuing the situation in Iraq.
As former assistant secretary of defense Bing West recounts in The Strongest Tribe — a much more serious, well-written, and interesting book than The Gamble, in case you’re interested — the NSC staff developed a consensus for shifting to “population security,” particularly in Baghdad. This was to be achieved with a major troop surge and followed by accelerated transition to Iraqi control. Toward the end of those deliberations, the White House invited a few key supporters over to brief the NSC: “Keane added the stature of a four-star general and Kagan contributed concrete specifics,” writes West. They were to become invaluable public advocates of the surge at a time when it was not clear that the administration would be able to stave off a disaster in Congress.
Many leading proponents of the surge have been harshly critical of Rumsfeld for not implementing this strategy sooner, but General Keane is not quite as unforgiving. “Look,” he says, “I understand how difficult this is. It wasn’t until 2006 that I started advocating for a change in strategy. Before that, a lot of people were troubled by what we were seeing, but we didn’t have answers.” Inside the administration, the real obstacle to the surge was the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which reports directly to the president and which didn’t come around to supporting the new strategy until well after Rumsfeld had endorsed it.
It remains far from clear that what worked in 2007 could have worked in 2005. As Rumsfeld wrote in a New York Times op-ed last November, “By early 2007, several years of struggle had created the new conditions for a tipping point.” Those conditions included a tectonic shift of the Sunni tribes against al-Qaeda and toward an open alliance with the Americans, the emergence of a large and increasingly capable Iraqi security force, the withering losses inflicted on the insurgency in years of fighting, and the progressive weakening of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Shiite militia.
Without any of those factors present, dispatching foot patrols to protect Iraqi neighborhoods 24/7 might have only have gotten many more American soldiers killed — to little effect. In 2005, the insurgency still had a lot of public support, and senior Iraqi officials insisted on a smaller American footprint. In any case, there weren’t enough troops on the ground — particularly Iraqi troops — to implement such a strategy. From the right, Rumsfeld’s critics agitated that many more troops were needed. This was clearly correct, but the numbers needed — not three or four more brigades, but ten times that many — simply could not come from the United States: They could only come from Iraq. In fact, there were multiple-brigade surges of U.S. forces twice in 2005, reaching levels close to the 2007 surge, but they had little effect, chiefly because the Iraqi security forces were too small and ineffective.
The classical ratio of force-to-population called for in the counterinsurgency literature is 20 soldiers and police for every 1,000 souls, implying a force of about 500,000 troops for Iraq’s population of 25 million. In 2005, the entire coalition including Iraqi forces was not even half that. By contrast, in the spring of 2007, when the surge brought the combined total of Iraqi and U.S. forces to about 500,000, Gen. Ray Odierno went on the offensive and the insurgency was utterly defeated in just a few months. The pervasive presence of security forces that followed — especially of Iraqi police — soon allowed life to return to normal for most Iraqis.
MILITARY SUCCESS, POLITICAL FAILURE
“In retrospect,” writes Ricks, “the winter of 2007–8 appears to be a time of missed opportunity, when Iraqi leaders should have made great strides politically, but didn’t. It was at this point that the surge began to fracture: It was succeeding militarily but failing politically.” The principal evidence he cites in support of this proposition is a series of quotes by senior advisers, such as, “There is a chance of this breaking down,” and “We also have created a whole new load of risks,” and “I didn’t see us moving forward politically,” and “It hasn’t worked as well as I hoped.”
But if you search for particulars, you will search in vain. Ricks hardly takes account of the fact that sectarian violence has largely vanished in Iraq. He doesn’t address the once-famous congressionally mandated “benchmarks of political progress.” A convenient oversight: By early 2008, Iraq was assessed to have achieved 12 of the 18 benchmarks, with substantial progress in the remainder, even toward such Arcadian aspirations as “respect for minority rights.”
In the spring of 2008, the Maliki government conducted its first major offensive with its own forces against the very Iranian-backed organizations that critics (including many Iraqi Sunnis) had long claimed were actually in control of the government. When Muqtada al-Sadr took up arms, Iraq’s major political parties, representing all regions and sects, issued a joint statement threatening to disqualify the Sadrists from participating in future elections if they did not back down. Sadr promptly declared a cease-fire and receded. At the time, Hussein al-Falluji, a lawmaker from the largest Sunni bloc in the Iraqi parliament, which had earlier pulled out of the government to protest its policies, said, “I think the government is now enjoying the support of most political groups because it has adopted a correct approach to the militia problem.” Even a leading Sadrist, Hassan al-Rubaie, lamented that “we, the Sadrists, are in a predicament. Even the blocs that had in the past supported us are now against us and we cannot stop them from taking action against us in parliament.” It was a stunning reversal for the extremist groups, and a clear sign of strength in Iraq’s political institutions.
Ricks recalls the foreboding assessment of one Petraeus adviser: “The test, he said, would be provincial elections, if and when they came — not only whether they would be held, but whether they would be fair enough to achieve balanced representation.” (There may be some sort of virus that causes people to self-identify as Petraeus advisers; if so, and if The Gamble is any guide, Baghdad and Washington may have to be quarantined.)
In any case, the provincial elections occurred two weeks ago, were widely reported to be fair, and resulted in a crushing defeat for the sectarian parties. The Sadrists were among the biggest losers. In a not-so-subtle dig at Ricks, Post columnist Charles Krauthammer observed: “All this barely pierced the consciousness of official Washington. After all, it fundamentally contradicts the general establishment/media narrative of Iraq as ‘fiasco.’ ”
As General Keane points out, “the facts don’t even come close to supporting the view that the surge has failed politically.” He explains:
Insurgencies end in two ways favorably. Either they just leave the battlefield, never to be seen again, or they come into the political process. The latter is the most favorable outcome, and that is what has happened here. The Shiite government has allowed provincial elections to take place which permitted the Sunnis to take control of four provinces. That is a huge political success for Iraq. Iranian-backed parties were defeated politically in the provincial elections, as were all the religious parties. To suggest that politically Iraq is going in the wrong direction misses the obvious facts. They are evolving into a more representative state, devolving power, with more power-sharing. It’s clearly political reconciliation.
The Shiite-dominated Iraqi government has now started paying the salaries of some 70,000 Sunnis of the Awakening militias, many of them former insurgents with the blood of Shiites on their hands. An amnesty law has led to the release of thousands of Sunni detainees, and a reformed de-Baathification law has opened the doors of government to Sunnis. After 35 years of suffering under Sunni oppression, and all the years since 2003 in which Sunni terrorists kidnapped, tortured, and murdered innocent Shiites by the tens of thousands, the Shiite government has responded by extending a hand of reconciliation, understandably grudging, perhaps, but also surprisingly generous.
During a recent episode of Meet the Press, host David Gregory asked Ricks to respond to President Bush’s repeated insistence that “the Middle East is better off without Saddam Hussein.” Ricks had this to say:
Let me tell you my worry about that. We have a bunch of Iraqi generals out there who are not in any way people who subscribe to our values. The fewer American troops we have there, the more they can behave the way they want to. And what you’re going to see is a lot of little new Saddams. [. . .] The difference is, we trained and armed them.
The atrocities of Saddam’s regime, no less than the unspeakable sectarian crimes committed after the U.S. toppled him, redound to the shame of the Iraqi people, just as Germans’ crimes in the Holocaust and on the Russian front would leave them burdened with war guilt for decades. But in the sort of breezy stereotype that comes so easily to Ricks, there is something more — a dehumanized view of the Iraqi people that takes the free will out of the most ghoulish crimes, that reduces those crimes almost to zoological predictability, hereditary rather than purchased. In effect, Ricks equates the long-suffering Iraqis with their worst oppressor — a tyrant of extraordinary criminality and sadism — as if they were all the same.
Open contempt for the Iraqi people has been perhaps the ugliest face of opposition to the Iraq war, motivated no doubt partly by a visceral refusal to acknowledge that anything positive has been born of America’s intervention in Iraq. But to those of us who have observed Iraqi and American soldiers living together in combat outposts, the palpable absorption of American military culture by Iraqi soldiers and the lasting bonds of friendship between Iraqis and Americans are profoundly moving and hopeful signs. And the practical consequences are not trivial. “One of the things that people don’t realize about the surge,” says Keane, “is that we did side-by-side operations as a matter of course. By osmosis, the performance of the Iraqis improved dramatically.”
At a more basic level, the mission of bringing democracy to Iraq remains vital and keeps making progress. Keane reflects:
What you see when you go to political meetings in Iraq is young people who are incredibly passionate about the possibilities of democracy, and participating and running for office. They think they can base their society on meritocracy instead of patronage. And the engine for all of that is democracy. Iraqis think that the reason that Americans are so prosperous is that they’ve had democracy for 300 years, and they think that they can achieve the same, and they are extraordinarily passionate about it. So when you listen to their idealism and their passion about democracy, it strikes a chord and it gives you a sense of their character.
Ricks portrays General Petraeus as uninterested in the democracy mission, embracing the more realist, “minimalist” goal of stabilizing Iraq and mitigating the fiasco. Though one suspects that Ricks is again projecting his own view, it must be said that Petraeus’s brief is military — security, reconstruction, local governance, etc. National political issues such as long-range democracy-promotion are the province of the ambassador, and Amb. Ryan Crocker has not been a “minimalist.” In a briefing last June, Crocker described “what you might almost call a virtuous circle going on.” He talked about the Sunni Awakening reaching Baghdad. “As al-Qaeda was run out of Sunni neighborhoods, by Sunnis in many cases, Shia started asking questions about exactly why they needed Shia militias around running their affairs,” he said. That’s when support for the militias began to erode:
That kind of shift in opinion broadly among Iraqis against a backdrop of diminishing violence changed the political climate. And it’s — you know, it’s no coincidence that you finally begin to see movement toward the end of the year and carrying on into the winter and spring of this year legislative achievements in the Council of Representatives that they just could not get to in the previous climate. There — the diminishment of violence led to an improved climate across sectarian lines, which led to an ability of Council of Representatives members to start to make the tradeoffs that produced the kinds of legislative achievements that we saw January, February, and March with the amnesty, provincial powers, the budget. These were classic political deals and it was that changed climate that made it possible. The other development that we saw, of course, was an increasing capability of the Iraqi Government and Iraqi security forces.
Crocker went on to describe the long-term strategic-framework agreement with the U.S., and the coming provincial elections, noting that they “are going to be extremely important in Iraq’s development as a stable representative democracy.”
IRAN’S BIG WIN?
Another pillar of the Iraq war media narrative that is prominently showcased in The Gamble is the idea that Iran has been the biggest winner in America’s “adventure” in Iraq. In fairness, a strategic opening for Iran was one of the foreseeable risks of invading Iraq. Saddam saw the Islamic revolution in Iran as a mortal threat and was desperate to prevent the extension of that revolution into Iraq’s Shiite population, fighting a brutal eight-year war to prevent it. Toppling the Sunni dictatorship meant removing a virulently anti-Iranian force from leadership in Iraq and replacing it with majority rule by Iran’s fellow Shiites.
But five years on, examples of where Iran has been able to turn this opening to its advantage are difficult to find. If you press proponents of the “Iran wins” theory, you get only vague assertions such as one finds in The Gamble: Iran has extended its influence throughout the Iraqi government, is nebulously bankrolling a host of Shiite factions, etc.
A few facts suffice to dispel the theory. The only place in the world where Iran has been able to export its revolution is Lebanon, where the Shiite Hezbollah explicitly adheres to the principle of vilayet e fakih, the “Mandate of the Wise.” This principle, which calls for the centralization of all political and religious authority in the hands of religious leaders, is a cardinal doctrine of the Qum Madrassa in Iran, where the Ayatollah Khomeini centered his revolution. Lebanon’s Hezbollah recognizes the ultimate political authority of the mullahs in Teheran, who have armed Hezbollah to the teeth with weapons more powerful than those available to the Lebanese army. Lebanon is littered from end to end with yellow posters that depict Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah floating next to a likeness of Khomeini.
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.”
OBAMA’S LONG WAR
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.
A VERY ROUGH FIRST DRAFT
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.