Bet on Ricks’s version, not Obama’s

by Susan Glasser Back in 2003, I drove into southern Iraq in a rental car from the Kuwait airport. This was during the phase long since quaintly known as “major combat operations.” On the day Basra fell to the British, we drove through the gates of Saddam Hussein’s opulent but apparently unused summer palace there ...

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BACOUBA, IRAQ - JULY 07: (FRANCE OUT) Gen. David Petraeus looks over a neighborhood recently seized back from militant control by US forces from the roof of a rough US Army outpost July 7, 2007 in Bacouba, Iraq. General Petraeus got a briefing and tour of the Bacouba area July 7, as a push of "surge" troops begin a third week of an offensive against militants who had used Bacouba as a base. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

by Susan Glasser

Back in 2003, I drove into southern Iraq in a rental car from the Kuwait airport. This was during the phase long since quaintly known as "major combat operations." On the day Basra fell to the British, we drove through the gates of Saddam Hussein's opulent but apparently unused summer palace there and found a thoughtful major taking a break on the banks of the Shatt al Arab waterway. In the city streets, looters rampaged freely, unhindered by British tanks, as the rest of Basra seethed. "Ultimately, what we have to do is replace what they've been fighting to protect with something better," Maj. Kevin Oliver, whose company of British commandos first stormed the palace, told us.

by Susan Glasser

Back in 2003, I drove into southern Iraq in a rental car from the Kuwait airport. This was during the phase long since quaintly known as “major combat operations.” On the day Basra fell to the British, we drove through the gates of Saddam Hussein’s opulent but apparently unused summer palace there and found a thoughtful major taking a break on the banks of the Shatt al Arab waterway. In the city streets, looters rampaged freely, unhindered by British tanks, as the rest of Basra seethed. “Ultimately, what we have to do is replace what they’ve been fighting to protect with something better,” Maj. Kevin Oliver, whose company of British commandos first stormed the palace, told us.

Major Oliver, wherever he is now, was right of course — that was the task. Six years on, the war’s leaders — civilian and military — have done their best to redefine the goals. Forget “something better.” Never mind “democracy.” How about a war that tails off to a “reasonable” conclusion? Or one where 50,000 U.S. military personnel remain indefinitely — but we just won’t call them “combat” troops? Six years on, we’re all still asking Gen. David Petraeus’s pointed question, at just about that same time in 2003: “Tell me how this ends?”

Reading Tom Ricks’s powerful, and also powerfully depressing, new book The Gamble is one long exercise in remembering all over again that pointed, annoyingly relevant question. At first, you think, okay, this is the story of a success of an unlikely bureaucratic end run that rescues the U.S. military from the brink of disastrous military failure in Iraq. But really it’s not. Steve Walt is right: The Gamble is a very convincing book about the tactical achievements of the surge in Iraq; it does little to suggest a real strategic victory.

Which takes us right to this week: Barack Obama says the war is virtually over; he will, he promises, “responsibly end this war” by next year. Tom in his chilling last sentence of The Gamble tells us categorically: “The events for which the Iraq war will be remembered probably have not yet happened.” What gives?

My money’s on Tom here, not a little bit because he has a real track record of seeing ahead of this particular curve. I remember when he first told me the title of his previous book would be “Fiasco.” It was many months before the book came out, and very far from being the accepted view of the Iraq war at that point in 2005. But Tom was amazingly prescient: my only concern, he told me, is that by the time the book comes out this fall “fiasco” will already be the conventional wisdom…

Unlike our other book clubbers, I’m going to resist the temptation to go hypothetical here and play the “Iraq without the surge” game. But since we’re already at Thursday of our book week, I thought I’d excavate some of the more revealing passages in Tom’s book that seem to be crying out for further discussion:

  • Speaking truth to power. There are a number of extraordinary examples in this book of military career officers confronting failure – and their bosses — head on; it’s what makes Tom’s case, as in Fiasco. Consider retired Gen. Jack Keane, on page 89, meeting with Gen. Peter Pace. “Pace began that meeting by asking Keane with a smile what grade he would give him as chairman of the Joint Chiefs. ‘F,’ Keane replied. He wasn’t smiling.” Or Major Joel Rayburn, a few pages later, collaborating with the American Enterprise Institute’s hawks on the incipient surge idea even though he thought “all the assumptions were wrong.” He did it anyway, he told Ricks: “We were basically heading for a loss, and  I couldn’t see anything changing without something dramatic.”
  • It’s an open-source world. “Looking at the Army’s planned rotation schedule, which he had found posted on the Internet, [AEI’s Tom] Donnelly quickly figured out how many combat brigades the Army could send. …The calculations would prove to be so accurate that” the Army’s vice chief of staff “offered only one tweak, which was that they were three weeks off in their estimate of the availability of one of the surge brigades.”
  • Maybe “shock and awe” was the last gasp of the German “blitzkrieg.” Tom quotes several powerful military intellects, such as Andrew Krepinevich and retired Col. Bob Killebrew, on this. Krepinevich notes the Germans “were very good tacticians but they were terrible at the strategic level.” Sound familiar? And Tom: maybe the U.S. military’s thunder run into Baghdad was “not the harbinger of a new, more agile Army but rather a last blaze of glory for the heavy conventional force, a miniature version of its glory days of 1944-45 in Europe and 1991 in Kuwait.”
  • Who was/who is in charge? This seems particularly relevant at the opening of the Obama administration, when the new team has launched strategic reviews of just about everything (esp. Afghanistan) at the same time Gen. Petraeus is already pretty much setting in motion his own Afghan plan. Notes Tom: “One nagging question is whether Petraeus and Odierno had tried only to harmonize policy and strategy-or actually had overstepped their bounds by setting policy.” His answer: yes they did, but it was excusable due to the “strategy vacuum at the White House.”
  • Speaking of the White House, it’s insider-y and all that, but I still couldn’t help being amazed that General Odierno went on the record with Tom disputing the Bush administration’s account, as reflected in Bob Woodward’s latest book, of how the surge was born. “We thought we needed it [the new strategy] and we asked for it and we got it…. You know General Petraeus and I think… [that] I did it here, [and] he picked it up. That’s how we see it. And so it’s very interesting when people back there see it very differently… I mean, they had nothing to do with developing” the actual way the surge was done. “Where to go, what they [the soldiers] would do. I mean, I know I made all those decisions.”

Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Susan Glasser is a former editor in chief of Foreign Policy; former Moscow bureau chief of the Washington Post; and co-author, with Peter Baker, of Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the End of Revolution.

Tag: Iraq

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