Shadow Government

Responding to Tom Ricks’s critique: Who decided the strategic shift that led to the Iraq Surge?

A number of folks have pressed me to respond to Tom Ricks’ critique) of my civil-military surge article with some variant of the joke: with friends like that, who needs enemies? They were struck, I gather, by the dollops of snark that Ricks ladled onto his hit-piece. For my part, I am struck by how ...


A number of folks have pressed me to respond to Tom Ricks’ critique) of my civil-military surge article with some variant of the joke: with friends like that, who needs enemies? They were struck, I gather, by the dollops of snark that Ricks ladled onto his hit-piece.

For my part, I am struck by how little there is really in terms of fundamental disagreement. I know the etiquette of blogwars calls for a blistering response, but I think my friend has simply misunderstood what my piece argues. So my reply will not live up (or down) to the standard he has set.

The core of my article concerned some key civil-military relations matters, which Ricks completely ignores: "What is the proper division of labor for strategic supreme command decisions during war?" I describe a debate between "professional supremacists" and "civilian supremacists" and argue that the surge case undercuts the former without fully vindicating the latter.

Ricks disregards all of that, and focuses on one claim I make on pp 113-114: I note "…the extent to which the new strategy was conceived in Washington as opposed to in theater" and "The strategic-level decisions…were pushed and made in the White house." Here is how I summed up the point: "President Bush, who for years had emphasized that he was relying on the advice of his senior military leaders to determine the way forward in Iraq, had decided that his military leaders were recommending the wrong course. The president shifted, and persuaded his military leader to endorse the strategic shift."

Ricks dismisses my account — "…yep, I am sure this is what he thinks happened"– and insists I am wrongly crediting Bush at the expense of Petraeus and Odierno. But since I already credit Petraeus and Odierno with playing decisive roles, the disagreement with Ricks, if there is one, is surely only on what Bush’s role was.

Consider what I explicitly credit Petraeus and Odierno with:

  • Petraeus was "author of the new U.S. Army manual on counter-insurgency" which gave the philosophical foundation for the surge.
  • Odierno "conducted a separate review prior to assuming command of ground forces in Iraq in November 2006, and this convinced him that a surge strategy should be tried."
  • Both "determined the operational and tactical implementation of the strategy and thus deserve the lion’s share of credit for the surge’s operational features."
  • Existence of pro-surge military voices like Petraeus and Odierno were "a necessary but insufficient condition to bolster the confidence of the civilian leaders to overrule other military advisors."
  • Moreover, I credit military pro-surge advocates with effectively working the informal advisory process that helped move skeptical civilians into the pro-surge camp. In particular, I note "Subsequent off-line exchanges with senior military officers who backed the surge gave Secretary Rice more confidence that new, plausible military ideas were being developed to use the "surge" forces effectively. "

That ain’t beanbag. Indeed, I am willing to go further and say that what Odierno and Petraeus implemented largely consisted of what they hoped to implement when Bush was deciding what to do. In fact, the only way in which I draw a limit to their role is this:

Neither Odierno nor Petraeus, however, devised a strategic shift and then convinced reluctant civilians and the president to adopt it. Rather, their views were leveraged by pro-surge civilians already determined to try another strategy and dissatisfied with the one being advocated by the top military leadership."

This is the heart of the matter: while the surge may have been what Odierno was hoping to implement, as Ricks reports, Ricks fails to realize that it was not what Odierno was going to implement in 2007, if Bush hadn’t made the decision for the surge. The Iraq strategy was on one trajectory, even with Odierno in place as MNC-I. It took a big strategic shift to move it to a different trajectory. Neither Odierno (nor Petraeus) made that strategic shift, nor could they have without the President.

Ricks limits the President’s role to this: picking the right people Petraeus and Odierno, encouraging those people, and perhaps on the margins having some influence over the strategy.

I say that the big elements of the strategic shift — such as the decision to make population security central and the decision to send reinforcements and so on — were made by the President, not by Petraeus and Odierno. Without those elements, you wouldn’t have the surge strategy, even though Odierno was already in place and even if the president had picked Petraeus (however, the second counterfactual is implausible because Petraeus was picked so as to do the surge).

Everything that Ricks says about Odierno and Petraeus may be correct, and I am willing to stipulate for the sake of this debate that it is, and yet I would still be right that the strategic shift was decided in Washington in a decision-making process that was driven by civilians who had to overcome military reluctance at levels that outranked Odierno and Petraeus.

Perhaps our disagreement reduces to this. Ricks says he did dozens of hours of interviews with Odierno and came away from those with a clear grasp of what Odierno thought his role was. I am willing to say Ricks has described Odierno’s role accurately. I logged lots of time (more than dozens of hours actually) looking at a different level in the process, the one in dispute here: what was going on at the White House and interagency. Why is Ricks so sure that I have mischaracterized the interagency and White House deliberations?

Ricks tells us (relying on unattributed military sources based in Baghdad talking about unidentified White House staffers) that he thinks the White House staff were writing "talking points for principals." I saw and reported something more significant than that.

If Ricks did the same reporting I did, and came away with a very different take, then I guess we really do disagree. But I think we are two people who grabbed different parts of the elephant and he is angry because my description of the ear is different from his description of the trunk.  No, it is more than that. He is angry because he is telling me that the elephant is only a trunk, and I am saying that the trunk may look like a trunk, but based on what I discovered, the ear part looks more like an ear.

Our other disputes are minor and I think are largely the result of the fact that I had the benefit of Ricks’ book and could do research and reporting beyond it:

  • Ricks describes Pete Pace’s role very differently than I do. I had to go with what my reporting produced.
  • Ricks wrongly thinks I ignore the ouster of Rumsfeld. On the contrary, I note that the resignation of Rumsfeld brought the various reviews together. What Ricks forgets is that Rumsfeld actually remained in place — indeed, his close confidants represented the Defense department in the early strategy review sessions — and so was a player well into the middle of December. Since Gates does not get sworn in until 18 December 2006, there is a long and awkward interregnum when he is involved but not officially the Secretary of Defense.
  • Odierno’s strategy was never briefed to the interagency group nor, to my knowledge to the president or to White House principals. Back channel, the White House and some in the interagency learned that Odierno thought something like the surge would work, but what the president decided on was not a proposal developed by Odierno.
  • Petraeus putting the Sunni militia on the payroll was an important refinement, perhaps even a necessary ingredient to whatever success the new strategy produced. Without the strategic shift the President authorized (new mission, reinforcements, diversified approach within Iraq, bottom-up reconciliation, etc.), it either wouldn’t have happened or would not have had as strategic an effect.
  • I respect Odierno greatly, but I do not think that his statement to Ricks about what he believes was decisive in the president’s decision-making should trump what others closer to the president have said actually happened in the interagency bureaucracy — nor what the president himself has said in his own on the record account. The President’s account dovetails more closely with mine than with Ricks’.

Ricks does make two fair points. He is right that sticking with Admiral Fallon as long as the administration did was not consistent with support for the surge. Secretary Gates ultimately let Fallon go, but Ricks is right that it should have come sooner, especially if Bush were hewing to a civilian supremacy playbook. Perhaps Bush was instead sticking to the hybrid approach I described, which sought to minimize confrontations with the military. Perhaps the President believed that since he met weekly by VTC with Petraeus he was circumventing the CENTCOM chain of command and any problems it might be introducing. Or perhaps Secretary Gates was simply slow on the trigger. Whatever the explanation, the problems with Fallon in the spring of 2007 hardly show that Bush played a trivial role in deciding on the strategic shift months earlier.

And he is right that it would be better to have more of the account on the record. As new accounts come to light, more of the picture emerges. This is less of a problem for me than it is for Ricks. Ricks’ attack on me is a claim that his book is the final word and that additional reporting and discoveries will not require him to change his view.

My perspective is different: Even though I was a full participant in the interagency process that led to the surge, my own thinking evolved as I did the research for my article. I expect it to evolve further as new books in the coming year flesh out the picture. I am willing to learn that new reporting covering things I have not seen has shed new light on what I thought I knew. That is really the heart of the truth-seeking academic enterprise. Why is Tom Ricks unwilling to let new reporting of new facts revise his judgments?

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.
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