The Gamble made me sick all over again

by Christian Brose 2006 was a year that I’m not keen to relive. It was the year that everything finally fell apart for the Bush administration, a year from which it never fully recovered. And what’s worse, 2006 really began in late summer 2005. That was when Iraq truly started to unravel, slowly at first, ...

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BAGHDAD, IRAQ - NOVEMBER 24: A U.S. soldier stands on a boulevard during a daytime curfew that's emptied the streets of traffic November 24, 2006 in the Khadamiyah neighborhood of Baghdad, Iraq. Tensions remained high in the capital after a series of massive explosions November 21 killed over 200 people in nearby Sadr City. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

by Christian Brose

2006 was a year that I'm not keen to relive. It was the year that everything finally fell apart for the Bush administration, a year from which it never fully recovered. And what's worse, 2006 really began in late summer 2005. That was when Iraq truly started to unravel, slowly at first, then with accelerating speed and ferocity in the early months of 2006 after al-Qaeda bombed the Golden Mosque in Samara.

by Christian Brose

2006 was a year that I’m not keen to relive. It was the year that everything finally fell apart for the Bush administration, a year from which it never fully recovered. And what’s worse, 2006 really began in late summer 2005. That was when Iraq truly started to unravel, slowly at first, then with accelerating speed and ferocity in the early months of 2006 after al-Qaeda bombed the Golden Mosque in Samara.

The time after that seemed like an eternity, as Iraqi politicians dithered for months trying to form a government while their country imploded all around them. Everyday I would drag into the State Department, where I worked for Condoleezza Rice, to read the latest intel and press reports about U.S. troop losses and Iraqi civilians kidnapped, ethnically cleansed, blown apart, decapitated, and worse. Until that point, I never deluded myself that things in Iraq were good, but I always thought we’d pull out of it somehow. 2006 was when I first really started to think that we would literally be driven out in defeat.

It’s hard to recapture the sense of hopelessness and horror that hung over that time. But thanks to Tom Ricks, much of those feelings came rushing back while reading his superb new book, The Gamble. Thankfully, so too did the improbable other feelings I associate with the surge, which in the interest of full disclosure I supported at the time as the least bad option we had. These are feelings not of triumph or victory per se, but of pulling out of the nosedive and knowing that the Iraq story was not over yet, for better or for worse.

Many reporters have put in the legwork, often at risk to their own lives, to help us understand events in Iraq, but few have done so with such thoroughness, thoughtfulness, and sympathy as Tom. The Gamble is the latest expression of this.

From its subtitle, one would think this is a book solely about General David Petraeus, but it is so much more than that. Through Tom’s reporting, we are introduced to characters who did just as much to conceive and execute the surge, but who have mostly remained obscure — the intrepid commanders who learned counterinsurgency the hard way before the surge ever happened, the think tank scholars who helped to change the policy in Washington, the brilliant warrior-intellectuals in Petraeus’s inner circle, the oddball collection of foreigners who advised him, and the younger officers who made the whole thing work in Iraq’s neighborhoods. Tom helpfully reminds us that the surge was not the work of one man.

From this, a few points stand out to me that might help to kick off our discussion:

1. General Jack Keane and the chain of command.

One of the remarkable subplots of The Gamble is how a retired general wakes up one day in fall 2006 and decides he’s going to change U.S. policy in Iraq – and does. This story is amazing because it happened, but arguably more amazing because it had to happen. I don’t know what exactly it says about the institutional U.S. military that the most important national security policy of the past 30 years had to be rescued from defeat by a retired general, some think tank scholars, and several dissident officers — all operating largely outside and often in complete violation of the chain of command — but whatever it is, it’s not good. How could the biggest institution in America fail in this way? To me, there seem to be two explanations: one, the institutional military didn’t believe it was failing in Iraq; or two, it recognized it was failing but there was no accountability to change. I don’t know which is worse.

But this story is more problematic still. The policy for which Keane, Petraeus, Odierno, and others executed their flanking maneuver was a long shot, and it could have easily turned out the other way. And if it had, wouldn’t the narrative of the surge, and likely the theme of Tom’s book, be that this bucking of the sacred chain of command by a cabal of folks in and outside the military, including those neo-cons at AEI, is perhaps the most egregious example yet of the Bush administration’s disregard for law and principle?

This is not to say they shouldn’t have done it. And Tom allows that this whole enterprise was bordering on or even outright insubordination. It is just to ask whether we should be a bit more circumspect in our praise of the surge’s origins — and whether, in solving this problem by extreme measures, it made the larger problem of institutional failure worse. As Tom writes in another context, every victory has within it the seeds of new problems.

2. The transformation of General Odierno.

Tom addresses this question somewhat in the book and has elaborated on it further in his interviews, but it’s worth raising here. After all, Tom portrayed Odierno as the villain in Fiasco, the personification of the U.S. military’s worst heavy-handed tactics in support of a failed strategy in Iraq. Now Odierno reemerges as the hero, who has learned the lessons of counterinsurgency, who has as a key member of his staff a female British pacifist Middle East expert, and who arguably deserves pride of authorship for the surge as much as anyone else, Petraeus included.

Full disclosure, again: I know Odierno — not well, but we traveled the world together when he was Condoleezza Rice’s military advisor and I her chief speechwriter. I think highly of him. I’m comfortable with the simple, straightforward explanation — that Odierno, being a smart commander and critical thinker, saw the flaws of the old approach and came around to the wisdom of counterinsurgency. It’s probably true as well that the fact that his son was wounded fighting in Iraq strengthened Odierno’s resolve to find a way to succeed and make all that sacrifice worth it in the end. What I’m still wondering, though, is how much Odierno learned counterinsurgency on his own as opposed to having these ideas fed to him by others, seeing their merit, and then implementing them.

3. The whole democracy thing.

Tom makes a lot of the fact that Petraeus and his crew lowered our goals in Iraq from democracy to “sustainable security,” even while Bush and others continued to proclaim the former. Tom sees this “minimalist” approach as a higher realism that stands in stark and flattering contrast to Bush’s messianic, faith-based policy. That the bulk of Petraeus’ efforts focused on preventing the worst outcome in Iraq is undeniable, but I wonder whether the security vs. democracy dichotomy is a false one.

Perhaps a better way to think about the trade off, as Peter Feaver has suggested, is in terms of short-term and long-term goals. In fall 2006, the need to restore security was immediate and paramount. Without it, nothing else was possible. Thus the Bush administration and U.S. commanders focused their limited resources on merely stabilizing Iraq, and they ran some high but necessary risks to do so that didn’t always support the cause of Iraqi democracy or its elected government in Baghdad. Foremost among these decisions was putting the Sunni insurgency on the U.S. payroll, a strategy that Tom’s book makes clear took shape before the surge, was enabled and expanded by it, and was really the key event around which everything else fell in place.

But the emphasis on short-term security is not inconsistent with the long-term goal of supporting a democratic Iraq. Indeed, the surge salvaged that goal and kept it alive as a possibility. It created conditions for this story’s other amazing transformation — that of Iraq’s Prime Minister Maliki — from a risk-averse ruler totally beholden to sectarian interests to one increasingly serving national interests, expanding the writ of Iraq’s democratic state, and taking on extremists of all stripes. It is largely because of this that Maliki’s list did best of all in Iraq’s recent provincial elections – a messy, fractious affair to be sure, but considering where Iraq was two years ago, a triumph, and another important benchmark that signals the slow emergence of democratic politics in Iraq.

4. Was it worth it?

Tom paints a pretty grim picture at the end of the book about the future of Iraq. Among the options he lays out are a return to authoritarianism (possibly with Maliki as its head), a military coup, civil war, and Iranian domination — all the while with U.S. troops mired in the middle, in Tom’s estimation, for many years to come. Still, he maintains throughout that the surge was the right policy. But believing what Tom does about Iraq’s future, I’d think the logic of his argument would lead him to a different position — that the surge just wasn’t worth it.

Yes, it would have been bad to start leaving Iraq in 2007, especially with al-Qaeda still largely intact, but if all we’ll get for our trouble is another Saddam or another civil war, wouldn’t it have been better to pull the plug earlier? In short, if Iraq is largely doomed anyway — if, as Tom says, “the surge worked militarily but failed politically,” which is to say it failed, since war is just politics by other means — why maintain that the surge was the right call?

These are all questions or quibbles with a gripping, outstanding book. But there is one deeper criticism I would make. In many ways, Tom has taken on an impossible task: He must recreate the sense of uncertainty that pervaded a policy, an enormous “gamble” as it were, that most people now accept has worked. When people know how the story ends, at least this chapter of it anyway, it’s kind of hard to maintain the suspense.

And this is one thing that didn’t feel quite right to me — the sense of inevitability about it. The situation in Iraq too often feels like it is crying out for a counterinsurgency strategy with more troops, and the champions of the surge come off too neatly throughout as wise men battling political foolishness or military foot-dragging. Now, both are right — in retrospect. And it is probably impossible to recover that absolute, terrifying uncertainty of what the United States was getting itself into with the surge — how back then, there were serious and entirely legitimate debates over whether it was simply too late even to do the right thing, or whether to dump Maliki for an undemocratic solution led by someone like Ayad Allawi, or whether to consider something truly awful like the “80 percent solution.”

Even in the hands of one of our best war correspondents, I think it is nearly impossible to recreate the psychology of the leap in the dark that was made in 2007. And that only makes this story, and the many people who brought it about, all the more remarkable.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Christian Brose is a senior editor at Foreign Policy. He served as chief speechwriter and policy advisor for U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice from 2005 to 2008, and as speechwriter for former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2004 to 2005.

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