The War Over the War

Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Associate Editor
Tuesday, July 10, 2007; 12:00 PM

Readers joined Post reporter Thomas E. Ricks on Tuesday, July 10 at noon ET to discuss the debate in Washington among government, military and intelligence officials over what course to follow in Iraq as the war enters its fifth year.

The transcript follows.

More coverage of The War Over the War | War Over the War discussion transcripts

Tom Ricks' Inbox

Ricks has covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post since 2000. Until the end of 1999 he had the same beat at the Wall Street Journal, where he was a reporter for 17 years. His book, " Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq", was published in July 2006.


Thomas E. Ricks: Hi, everybody. Let's get going.


North Haven, Conn.: Tom, you reported in your recent article that according to some officials the benchmarks set just six months ago by the Bush administration not only have not been met but even have become "irrelevant to changing the conditions in Iraq." I take this to mean that if our goals are shifting every few months, the bottom line is that our predictions continually must be way out of whack with reality on the group. Because the surge is based on that very crucial prediction that the Iraqi government can and will take control, doesn't this report prove that the surge can't work?

Thomas E. Ricks: This is a good question, and one I have been discussing and thinking a lot about this week.

The argument I heard yesterday from the former regime elements and dead-enders at the American Enterprise Institute was that the benchmarks laid down by President Bush in January when he announced the new U.S. approach are irrelevant. But, I thought, the benchmarks were the selling point for the new approach. It is as if a salesman sold you a car by telling you it would get 150 miles to the gallon and also go 150 mph--but that you need to wait six or nine months for that to start happening. When you wait that amount of time, find it doesn't happen, and go back and tell him, he says, "Well, you really don't need to go that fast, do you? And also you might start getting that mileage next year--you just need to show more patience."

The bottom line is that security is apparently improving in parts of Baghdad, but that more U.S. troops are getting killed, and that the strategic purpose of the troop increase was to create a breathing space in which Iraqi leaders could find their way to political reconciliation--and there is little if any sign of that goal being realized.


Richmond, Va.: I have heard several times that "tactics" and "strategies" are not the same thing, but often mistakenly are conflated or used interchangeably. Could you please explain the difference? Many thanks.

Thomas E. Ricks: Sure. This is an subject that lay people confuse frequently--and even newspaper copyeditors.

I discussed this frequently in my book "Fiasco." Tactics are what you do at the moment, or day to day, to achieve a larger goal. Strategy is about determining what that larger goal is, and what resources and means you will use to achieve it.

Essentially, as T.E. Lawrence said, tactics are the steps on the stairway; strategy is the stairway itself.

Keep in mind also this rule: Good strategy will fix bad (or inappropriate) tactics. But good tactics can't fix a bad strategy--which is where we were in Iraq for a few years after 2003.


Washington: I think the story on the 27 men who had to walk four miles in the blazing sun wearing 80 pounds of gear to honor a fallen comrade is about the saddest thing I've ever read, and I'm 92 years old! Surely the man who died would not have wanted or expected this. Is it too much to ask if they all made it back safely? In my opinion we have to get out now. There will be a bloodbath whenever we leave. Why postpone the inevitable? And can't someone please put an end to such misguided ventures? Unit's Mission: Survive 4 Miles To Remember Fallen Comrade (Post, July 9)

Thomas E. Ricks: Wasn't that a great story? I sent the author, David Finkel, a note about it. (And not just because he lent me his lawnmower when it died -- he is a neighbor of mine.)

I thought Finkel really captured the feel of this war in the summer of 2007. If you haven't read it, please do. Link is in the question above.

Your question about postponing the inevitable is a good one. I have heard some officers ask the same question.

But we don't know what is inevitable. Some military planners argue that we'll leave Iraq eventually, but we should try to do it more intelligently--and carefully--than we entered.


Boston: The dollar costs for our adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan are just staggering. What is going on? How can spending be so high? And finally, how many problems ever have been solved by throwing money at them?

Thomas E. Ricks: Well, we have an expensive approach to war. We have a very professional military, but it is also a relatively small one. So we are trying to substitute money for people. We do that in two ways, by buying technology and by giving many tasks to contractors. And contractors tend to be expensive.

Speaking of war costs, I am always surprised at the lack of interest in this war on college campuses. The one thing that seems to get the attention of college students when I speak to them is when I thank them for picking up the tab for this war, because we appear to be financing it by borrowing (i.e. selling government bonds overseas).


The 18 Benchmarks: I read the 18 benchmarks and they do not seem unreasonable to me. What gets lost in this debate between July or September is two months. Does the administration thinks that those benchmarks can be met within the next two months? That's the "real" question, and their actions tell me "no."

Thomas E. Ricks: Re: Your dateline: You are living in the 18 Benchmarks?

Just to clarify the story we did on Sunday: As I understand it, the Bush Administration was concluding that the benchmarks wouldn't be met according to the deadlines attached to each. For example, one of the benchmarks--I think provincial elections, but don't hold me to that--was supposed to be by November.

But the biggie here is political reconciliation. Everything else was supposed to drive toward that goal, and it is tough to make the case that national reconciliation is occurring.


Wilmington, N.C.: "But good tactics can't fix a bad strategy -- which is where we were in Iraq for a few years after 2003." Why the past tense? Are we in a good strategy now?

Thomas E. Ricks: I used the past tense because I think there is general agreement now that the strategy we had in 2003-04 was really a lack of strategy. And that the strategy for a year or two after that, of pushing the job of security on Iraqi forces, failed also, ending in chaos in the fall of 2006.

Now some people think the new approach may be working. I certainly heard that argument at AEI yesterday. Others say it has failed, or is doomed to fail.


Princeton, N.J.: But surely the "surge" is tactics, not strategy. Our strategy is still the same, trying to impose a stable democratic government by military force. And it has failed.

Thomas E. Ricks: Following up neatly on the last one, here is someone who argues just that:

1. Yes, the surge is more tactical than strategic. (The military would say it is "operational," at the level between the first two, but let's not go down that confusing and unproductive road -- I am not sure there really is an operational level of war.)

2. Has it failed? Some say so. Like a reader in Princeton, N.J.


Washington: For every day that the American military remains in Iraq, does it neutralize more enemies in the region than it creates?

Thomas E. Ricks: This might be the wrong question. The right one may be, is the United States making more friends than enemies? I recall what Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, a smart officer who was in the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment until recently, said about one of his tours of duty: Don't try to find your enemies in Iraq--that's too hard. Try to find your friends, and they will lead you to your enemies.


New York: Thomas Ricks, I have read "Fiasco" and seen you on Charlie Rose. You are the best. My question: It certainly seems as if the War in Iraq has been handled deplorably, negligently. No real homework was done before the war and, as you have documented, good work that was done was ignored. That is all in the pot. But ... aren't we confronted with the iron question of whether to fight al-Qaeda there rather than here and that we are fighting them there?

If we were to look at the Civil War after Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, would not a "thoughtful person" have concluded that Lincoln had simply bitten off more than he could chew? That the Confederacy was just too strong and too large ever to be defeated? But history shows that those who "stuck with Lincoln" were on the right side in spite of the evidence. Aren't we confronted with the same issue here and, in spite of all the fecklessness, that the "right" thing to do is to stick with Bush and press on? How do you come out on that?

Thomas E. Ricks: I actually think Iraq may have solved more problems for al-Qaeda than it created.

That said, I don't worry about fighting them here as much as I do having to fight them there again. I do worry about Iraq becoming a safe haven for terrorists. (Sad thought: When we went into Afghanistan we took one away from them. When we went into Iraq we gave one back to them.)I also worry about genocide occurring if we left tomorrow morning.

And yeah, it may occur anyway.


Washington: Haven't the AEI folks been saying the same thing year after year about whatever the latest administration strategy may be? When is it time to stop listening to those people?

Thomas E. Ricks: Yeah, I was kind of thinking that yesterday. For the past three or four years, I have gone to briefings where someone said, "We were screwed up last year but now we have it right."

The first time I heard this I thought, I hope so.

The second year I heard this I thought, Got any evidence?

This year I find myself thinking, Here we go again.

That said, it is possible for the tide to turn. And we have to be alive to that possibility, even if it seems remote. But we also have to think about what we do if the tide doesn't turn.


Washington: Mr. Ricks: Have events since the publication of "Fiasco" led you to re-evaluate the probabilities of the various outcomes of our adventure in Iraq that your set forth in your book, or do you still think they are about as likely as you did then?

Thomas E. Ricks: I actually had to think long and hard about this question for the postscript I wrote recently for the paperback edition of "Fiasco," which comes out at the end of this month.

In re-reading the book, I wished I had spent more time thinking and writing about Moqtada al-Sadr, who at this point strikes me as the big winner in post-Saddam Iraq. I also have had many people tell me that I portrayed only one side of now-Lt. Gen. Odierno, or that he was only doing what the Army wanted him to do, and that now the Army is telling him to do something different.

But on the larger question of whether the outcomes I laid out in the "Afterword" to the hardcover edition: Yeah, I pretty much think they stand as written.

Keep in mind that Shakespearean tragedies have five acts, and I suspect that we are only in Act III. (I know, I know -- I've said that before. But I still think it is true, and useful to mention.)


Longmont, Colo.: Why do Iraqi politicians raise the threat of civil war if we leave, but then do nothing (in terms of reconciliation among themselves) to reduce the threat of civil war? I'm tired of the scare tactics. Let's move to the sidelines and let them sort it out.

Thomas E. Ricks: Well, I think you will get your wish by next summer, because it would be very difficult to maintain current U.S. troop levels beyond March 2008. So one way or another we are going to watch them sort it out.


Los Angeles: Wondering about the domestic political implications of Iraq for the 2008 election. Let's say hypothetically that the President starts withdrawing troops this year. Would that defuse a lot of the public's animosity toward him and help Republicans in 2008? It seems that if he starts withdrawing next year that that will not be soon enough to help the 2008 Republican challenger, because the level of casualties still will be large and it will be in the public's mind. Seems to me the president isn't too worried about helping the 2008 Republican candidate. In that sense, he is not making political calculations about the War in Iraq. It seems very personal for him.

Thomas E. Ricks: Well, it is almost certainly true that we will start to draw down troops next year. But a drawdown ain't the same as a withdrawal.

I think the distinction between "politics" and fighting a war is a false one. In a democracy, politics should inform and shape the approach to war--and especially the decision to go to war. As Clemenceau (I think) said, war is too important to be left to the generals.


Baltimore: Say that the Congress managed to find the votes to override Bush's veto tomorrow, and mandated all troops out of Iraq as soon as possible. How fast could the U.S. military actually get out, without loss of soldier's lives?

Thomas E. Ricks: I think you probably mean without additional or unnecessary loss of U.S. lives.

I was talking to a smart guy about this yesterday. He worries that what might begin as an calm withdrawal might turn into a shooting one, as Iraqis look to demonstrate their post-American credibility. Also, our main withdrawal route is through the Shiite-dominated (and Iranian-influenced) south, and Tehran could make life very difficult for us if it wanted.

One of the many ironies here is that it probably would be easier for the US government to deal with Iran if we didn't have troops in Iraq.


Rochester, N.Y.: Tactics vs. strategy: the failure to understand the distinction was partly why so many soldiers were pissed off at Secretary of State Rice. She was asked if the U.S. had made mistakes in Iraq, and she said we had probably made tactical errors; to soldiers, this meant that she was saying they screwed up. Probably not what she intended.

Thomas E. Ricks: Yes, I had the same thought.


Bridgewater, Mass.: I am always surprised at the lack of interest in this war on college campuses -- meaning that at least one tactic of the Bush administration is working: avoid making individuals sacrifice and they'll never notice what is happening, until the inevitable victory parade, of course. What segments of the population do you find yourself following and agonizing over this war? People I know who remember WWII don't seem to think much of a "mere" 3,500 dead through five years -- we lost thousands in most battles in that war, they tell me. Who is paying attention beyond the families of the troops actually carrying the burden?

Thomas E. Ricks: I think military families get a lot of media attention, and rightly so.

But -- alas -- that MSM attention doesn't seem to have much effect. I am always struck that American society doesn't seem much aware of the war as it goes about its daily business.

One example: I am a big baseball fan so I read the sports pages pretty carefully from February to October. The other day, I nearly fell off my breakfast stool when I read Sharon Hargrove's explanation of why her husband Mike suddenly quit as manager of the Seattle Mariners:

"He's slept in his own bed four days in eight months. I don't know too many people who would sign up for that. And he's done that for 35 years."

My thought was: Well, Mrs. Hargrove, I know of 160,000 Americans who signed up for a lot worse, on the other side of the planet. What's more, unlike your husband, they are getting mortared, bombed and machine-gunned all too often. And they aren't overpaid whiners like so many baseball players are nowadays.


Philadelphia: Thanks for taking questions; your chats and articles are really top-notch. My question: I keep thinking that we're being played for fools by all of the Iraqi factions, who want to hide behind our security shield while they divvy up the spoils and settle old sectarian scores. Have you heard this theory? Is it a credible one?

Thomas E. Ricks: I don't have a good answer to this, but I've had the same worry, which is that no one in Iraq really seems to share our goals.


Washington: Would the international community or the Arab League step into Iraq to mitigate the humanitarian crisis during a civil war if American forces left?

Thomas E. Ricks: Why would they? The U.N. more or less left after its Baghdad headquarters got bombed in the summer of 2003.

And right now I see little interest in the international community bailing us out in Iraq. Those who intervened might be neighboring countries with their own agendas. Iran already seems to be pretty active. If we left, I'd expect Turkey, Syria and perhaps Jordan and Saudi Arabia to join them in various forms.

I heard one smart British analyst predict a post-American regional war played out in the streets of Baghdad that pitted Saudi funding against Shiite bodies. He predicted that the Shiites would win, extending Iranian influence to the west bank of the Euphrates.


Stafford, Va.: Your Inbox from this past Sunday makes it clear that retention of officers and NCOs is proving to be very difficult. How bad is the retention problem in the Army and Marines? Will these two great institutions be able to carry on in the future? In your opinion, will the Iraq War leave the nation with a military depleted of its "best and the brightest"? Tom Ricks's Inbox (Post, July 8)

Thomas E. Ricks: This is a big worry. The Iraq war is the first time we've fought a sustained ground war overseas with an all-volunteer force.

In Baghdad in May I was talking to a bright young captain who plans to leave. As I walked away I thought of that line of William Butler Yeats about the best lacking all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.


Wellesley, Mass.: Mr. Ricks -- You may think that we are in Act III but we are going to skip Act IV and go straight to Act V. The support for the war is gone and it is not coming back -- regardless if we have the best strategy and supporting tactics in place. The American public is fed-up with this mess and it is simply too late to recover. We continue to talk about how the war is being executed, but the political will be gone after September.

Thomas E. Ricks: Could be, but it doesn't mean the war is over.


Thomas E. Ricks: I see we are out of time, and I am hungry.

Thanks for all your questions. And if you feel hot and sorry for yourself this week during the summer heat, just put on a parka and wool cap and have a neighbor shoot at your while you jog around the block for a few hours. And maybe blow up your car while you're at it. Then you will have a sense of what Baghdad is like for U.S. soldiers right now.


Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company