Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

A Feaver-ish take on the surge in Iraq

As I read Duke poli. sci Prof. Peter Feaver’s article in the new issue of International Security, I thought, yep, I am sure this is what he thinks happened. Peter’s a friend, and a good man, but sometimes what a friend needs is an intervention. Here goes. First, I am a bit taken aback by ...

Andres Rueda/Flickr
Andres Rueda/Flickr
Andres Rueda/Flickr

As I read Duke poli. sci Prof. Peter Feaver's article in the new issue of International Security, I thought, yep, I am sure this is what he thinks happened.

Peter's a friend, and a good man, but sometimes what a friend needs is an intervention. Here goes.

First, I am a bit taken aback by his reliance in footnotes to something like, "background interview with some important guy involved." In journalism, an on-the-record quote trumps anything offered up on background. Surely academia could aspire to the same standard. Even political science.

As I read Duke poli. sci Prof. Peter Feaver’s article in the new issue of International Security, I thought, yep, I am sure this is what he thinks happened.

Peter’s a friend, and a good man, but sometimes what a friend needs is an intervention. Here goes.

First, I am a bit taken aback by his reliance in footnotes to something like, "background interview with some important guy involved." In journalism, an on-the-record quote trumps anything offered up on background. Surely academia could aspire to the same standard. Even political science.

Essentially, Feaver offers up a brief arguing that President Bush and his NSC, on which Feaver served, set the surge strategy and that Generals Petraeus and Odierno then refined and implemented it. I have no doubt that Bush and the NSC influenced the strategy — these sorts of conversations aren’t one-way streets, and officers in Baghdad told me about late-night calls they would get from NSC staffers writing talking points for principals. But I was told that the phone calls back in December 2006 were "what are you thinking about what to do?" rather than "here is strategic direction for what we want you to do." So I think that in fact what happened was that in December 2006, the White House, with the encouragement of outsiders, finally got the right people in place in Baghdad — that is, Petraeus and Odierno — and encouraged those people, who then cooked up the strategy. No more, no less. After all, it was Petraeus, not some White House staffers, who had just presided over the writing of the new counterinsurgency manual, which provided the tactical core of the new strategy. I think by picking the person they picked the strategy. But that doesn’t mean they cooked up that strategy.

Feaver’s account also ignores two major events:

The ouster of Rumsfeld. Gates took office in early December 2006 and almost immediately went to Iraq and met with Gen. Odierno. On the flight back he talked to Gen. Peter Pace — I watched them sit down together on the C-17 with a bottle of passable California cabernet. This was the event that, finally, enabled people like Pace to abandon Rumsfeld’s view and begin thinking about a surge. But I was told by those involved — not just in formulating strategy but the elves in the basement who had to write the plan to implement it — that rather than tepidly endorsing the surge in mid-December 2006, as Feaver claims, Pace actually opposed it strongly for another two weeks, until at least Christmas of that year, when he flew to Texas to suggest to Bush that there just be a mini-surge of two brigades (P. 118, The Gamble). There in Crawford the general was told no, there likely would be a full surge. It was only after this Christmas visit that the Joint Staff buckled down to work on the idea with any notion that the surge would happen. Note to researchers: It is usually a good idea to follow up the revisionist testimony of "important guys on background" by seeing what actually happened at the time in the military bureaucracy. This is called checking things out. Surely academia…

The continued resistance of Adm. Fallon as Centcom chief to the surge strategy well into 2007. If the strategy came out of the White House, as Feaver claims, why was the guy they picked to replace Gen. Abizaid a vigorous opponent of the surge for many more months, and in such a way that he was a big pain to Petraeus and Odierno and other people in Baghdad during the crucial spring of 2007? While they were trying to fight, he wanted to review their strategy. (On the other hand, if the surge came out of Iraq, that would explain why no one in D.C. told the admiral to get with the program — there was no such set program being expounded by the White House.)

Prof. Feaver also fails to address the on-the-record testimony of two key participants:

Petraeus’s decision to put the Sunni insurgency on the payroll. We have it on the record from him in The Gamble (p. 202) that he did not discuss this major decision with Bush before taking it. This might seem like refining or implementing to Prof. Feaver, but I think it was a major strategic turning point in the war. Why does Feaver ignore it? Perhaps because it undercuts his theory.

Finally, and most significantly, Odierno himself believes the surge strategy came out of the U.S. military in Baghdad, not from the White House. In dozens of hours of interviews I did on several trips to Iraq in 2007 and 2008 for a book about the surge, not a single official, civilian or military, cited anything coming from the White House staff as key to shaping the surge. That’s Petraeus, Crocker, Odierno, and several other dozen people. Rather the opposite — when I asked about a Luti paper, or whether there was a phone call that might have shaped their direction, I’d get a puzzled stare or a shake of the head. When I asked General Odierno about the theory that the surge came from Washington, he responded emphatically, "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. And so it’s very interesting when people back there see it differently." (p. 303, The Gamble) Maybe he’s wrong, but Feaver doesn’t try to persuade us because he doesn’t discuss this statement by Odierno. In any event, it is Odierno who should be accused of confusion, not me, as Feaver alleges in the footnote at the bottom of his p. 114. If we are to believe Feaver, General Odierno is mistaken that he was key in not just implementing the strategy but devising it.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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