The War Over the War

Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Reporter
Tuesday, July 31, 2007; 12:00 PM

Join Post reporter Thomas E. Ricks on Tuesday, July 31 at noon ET to discuss the debate in Washington among government, military and intelligence officials over what course to follow in Iraq.

The transcript follows.

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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" (out in paperback today), was published in July 2006.

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Thomas E. Ricks: Good morning (my time) from Dallas, where I am on tour for the paperback edition of "Fiasco." (If you are in the area, please feel free to come by my book signing and discussion tonight at the Barnes & Noble at 770 West Northwest Highway.) Let's get to it!

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Fairfax, Va.: I read an encouraging piece in Sunday's New York Times from two strong critics of the Iraq War, suggesting that progress finally is being made. Do you see any reason for real encouragement here?

Thomas E. Ricks: This is a good place to start. I was a bit surprised by the piece. It made me wonder how often the authors have been to Iraq. (I don't know.)

It is very easy to confuse tactical progress with achieving strategic goals, and I think that may be what is happening here. There is no question that in many parts of Baghdad where U.S. troops are operating as part of the "surge," there is more security. But there also is almost no sign at all that the "surge" is achieving its stated strategic goal of leading to political reconciliation in Iraq.

The other trend in Iraq is the movement of tribes away from al-Qaeda and into the coalition camp. The questions there are: How sustainable is this? And while positive in the short term, in the long run is it a prelude to the full-blown civil war that many fear is Iraq's fate? So, as I said in an earlier chat, while we must be open to the possibility of a turning point, I have heard the phrase too often in this war so far, so I think we should be very cautious about seeing a turning point now.

As an aside: Funny how all the conservative bloggers start citing the dreaded mainstream media when they like what they read.

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Chicago: Why do so many journalists misuse historical analogies? Liberals love to quote Vietnam and war hawks compare it to WWII. If they feel need to use analogies, why don't they reference a recent Arab civil war in Lebanon? Numerous religious fractions fighting for control of the country, sounds familiar.

Thomas E. Ricks: Megadittoes on that comment. I would love to ban the analogies to World War II and Vietnam.

In addition to Lebanon, I would suggest the French war in Algeria in the 1950s (Alistair Horne's "Savage War of Peace" is a great history of that sad conflict), the Israelis in Lebanon and (on the more positive side) Brian Linn's history of the U.S. war in the Philippines.

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Fairfax, Va.: Tom, having returned earlier this year after 21 months in Kuwait and Iraq, I was always just amazed at just how poorly we -- the military, the administration and the Congress -- seemed to fumbling around in Iraq. I left just as the surge was getting well under way, but during my talks with the troops at both Camp Buehring and Up North, the notion I got was that they generally were mixed in what they hoped to be accomplished. My recent discussions with them seem to be that the change in strategy and tactics is being seen as "too little, too late" -- we finally are doing what should have been done in '03 and '04. Do you see any hope of sanity finally seeping into the administration and realizing that Plan B better be pretty good, given that Plan A only can be supported for a finite period of time? Those troops who got extended were -- and are -- not Happy Campers, and their families even less happy. Also, carrying around your book "Fiasco" while making my rounds did provoke more than a few comments -- most of the troops (officers included) agreeing with the title of the book, and often being quite vocal about it. In my 33 years in uniform, it was remarkable to have to endure something like Vietnam again, where I served as an NCO in a Ranger unit.

Thomas E. Ricks: Thanks for your service -- Vietnam and Kuwait. That's tough duty. I also am amazed that we have wound up in this fix. It makes me wonder whether each generation's hard-won wisdom simply dissipates...

Yeah, I heard the "too little, too late" comment a few times as well when I was last in Iraq, in May. But I also heard a lot of guys say something like "let's give it one last shot."

I do worry about morale this year. We are putting an awful burden on military families especially, watching their soldiers go off on third tours while the rest of the country hardly seems to notice the war.

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Fort Hood, Texas: Tom, do you believe the key issue that nobody is willing to talk about, in terms of doing what is necessary to win in Iraq (and the War on Terror more broadly) is to bring back the draft? There is no doubt that the United States has the manpower, money and resources to increase our military vastly. It seems the key issue is lack of public will, which President Bush has squandered.

Thomas E. Ricks: The draft might be helpful in political terms, in getting the country to pay attention. But I don't believe I have ever heard an officer say he would like to see the draft resumed. Everyone in the U.S. military today asked to be there (at least originally, before they got stop-lossed or involuntarily recalled to duty).

Your address is Fort Hood. Have you ever heard anyone there support resuming the draft?

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Austin, Texas: In Anbar we are allying ourselves with the Sunni tribes to defeat the foreign insurgents. Aren't we also training a future Sunni militia to fight the Shia-majority militias, once they gain control of Anbar?

Thomas E. Ricks: Yes that is the worry. I was struck by a quote I saw the other day from a Shiite politician: "Crocodiles are cute when they are babies, but you can't keep them in the house when they grow up."

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Lisbon, Portugal/London: What do you make of the argument that the U.S. Armed Forces are, in terms of their organizational culture, just not good at peacekeeping or counterinsurgency? Are American troops just too focused on firepower and technology, and not enough on winning hearts and minds? If American forces are too focused on conventional warfare, have recent changes in training and tactics, or the appointment of Gen. Petraeus, signaled any kind of significant lasting change in this respect? Congratulations on the book.

Thomas E. Ricks: Well, where are you, Lisbon or London?

I think your comment certainly would apply to the U.S. Army in Iraq as of 2003-2004. It was less true of many units in 2005-2006. Now I think most units have made the adjustment and are implementing classical counterinsurgency theory -- that is, seeking to protect the people.

That said, it took a long time. It was really this year before that adjustment was really put into practice from the top with the force of an order. And by that time, the United States had been fighting in Iraq longer than it fought in World War II, and a lot of patience had been wasted, both in the U.S. and in Iraq.

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Baltimore: Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack have been all over TV (and I presume radio) talking up what great progress the surge has made. My question is simple: Do you agree with them, on balance, or are they cherry-picking small advances, as administration apologists have been wont to do for four years now?

washingtonpost.com: A War We Just Might Win (New York Times, July 30)

Thomas E. Ricks: Please see my first answer today.

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Tel Aviv, Israel: Dear Sir: How soon will the Iraqi armed forces be completely ready to assume full responsibility for security in Iraq? Do you think that splitting Iraq into three autonomous states that share oil revenues is still on the table?

Thomas E. Ricks: Wow, questions from all over today.

On question one: I have no idea. But I think a looonng time.

On question two: I think that partition is appealing on its face, but may just bring a bunch of long-term problems. What if it leads to three small civil wars, for control of each chunk? Also, who ensures that oil revenues are shared as agreed? (Does the U.S. have to be the enforcer, threatening to bomb the Shiite government in Baghdad if its doesn't turn over some money to the Sunni chunk?) And who patrols the no-man's-lands between each chunk? U.S. troops? That would be another long-term, ambiguous, difficult mission.

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Portland, Ore.: Hi Mr. Ricks -- I've read that you'll have the paperback version of your well-regarded book "Fiasco" out soon -- does it contain new/updated material? I've wanted to ask what it is that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda want? If the U.S. vacates Iraq and some sort of accommodation is reached between the Palestinians and Israel and there is peace in that troubled region, would that be enough for the terrorism to stop? Thanks.

Thomas E. Ricks: Yeah, actually the paperback of "Fiasco" went on sale today. It has a new afterword that discusses the last year of the war, from summer 2006 to this spring. I see you are from Portland -- I'll be there at Powell's, one of the world's great bookstores, on the evening of Thursday Aug. 9.

As for your question, What does al-Qaeda want? If you listen to them, they want a new caliphate. And they want Western influence in the Middle East to cease.

By the way, I just got a note from Brookings, in response to my first answer above: "Ken has been to Iraq 3 times and Mike twice." I love modern communications.

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Kicking the can down the road...: September 15 is roughly six weeks away. The Iraqi government will be on vacation for roughly four of those weeks. That basically leaves two weeks for the surge's stated goal to give the Iraqi government time to achieve their political benchmarks. Realistically speaking, how is our government going to show "progress" on the political benchmarks with only two weeks to work with? Also, won't this become another call of "give us more time" because "the government was on vacation for four weeks"?

Thomas E. Ricks: Yeah, I think they will say they want to continue the "surge" until next spring.

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Columbia Falls, Mont.: Tom, I know you're not a fan of the Vietnam analogies, but there are some strategic similarities (at least from my perspective). What do you make of the recent increase in the role of the Air Force (HRW states that American planes dropped something like 65,000 lbs of ordinance last year, but already more than 222,000 this year)? Is this just part-and-parcel with the surge, or is there something else?

Thomas E. Ricks: Well, the U.S. is conducting a counteroffensive, trying to take ground back from insurgents and militias -- not just in Baghdad but in a large area around it. As part of that, they are calling in a lot of air strikes. We saw something similar in Afghanistan last year.

That doesn't mean it is Vietnam, but it does go to the American way of war: We try to substitute technology and materiel for people. That's not necessarily bad, but it did put us in a poor posture to conduct a counterinsurgency campaign.

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New York: Clearly the president and vice-president have intentionally presented to the public simplistic rationales for the war in Iraq. Are these the reasons they express to their military and political advisors? If not, what do you think are their true reasons?

Thomas E. Ricks: Not to be too Rumsfeldian, but I disagree with the premise of your question. (The words "obviously" and "clearly" have become red flags to me.)

I think President Bush truly believes what he says. I doubt his discussions with the generals are very different from what he says in public.

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San Diego: Thank you again for writing "Making the Corps." I'm just back from Iraq and looking forward to buying "Fiasco." Will you be coming to Southern California on your book tour?

Thomas E. Ricks: Hey, you are welcome. Reporting "Making the Corps" was the most fun I ever had as a writer. I truly think it is a funny book. By the way, a new edition is being released today, with an update on what happened to members of Parris Island boot camp Platoon 3086 in the 10 years since the book first was published. Not surprisingly, they are all over the place on the Iraq war. But to my surprise, 3086's top graduate, Andrew Lee, a tough little guy from South Boston, wound up as an infantry platoon leader fighting at First Fallujah, in the spring of 2004.

Southern California isn't on my paperback book tour. Dunno why. I guess they are all busy surfing or something. Thanks for your service!

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Corvallis, Ore.: Mr. Ricks: If suddenly you were president, what steps would you take to bring this occupation to something resembling a successful conclusion?

Thomas E. Ricks: I almost didn't answer this question because I really don't want to sound presumptuous. So first I want to posit that I am not qualified in any way to be president of anything except my own house -- and even there my wife still would outrank me.

That said: I think the beginning of wisdom is to recognize that Iraq is a tragedy. There are no good answers left. The question is, what is the least bad answer?

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Tampa, Fla.: Your thoughts on U.S. arms deal with Arab nations?

Thomas E. Ricks: I thought it was a way of sending a message to Iran.

It made me think of all the money that will be spent on those weapons, and reminded me that the "burn rate" of our war in Iraq is supposedly now about $3 billion a week. Imagine if we gave just one week of that spending to, say, Pakistan, and said, "Spend it on education, no questions asked." I wonder if that might do more good.

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Seattle: I just finished "Fiasco" (which I consider the best of the books about the Iraq war that I have read). I am wondering if you have had any further thoughts, any reason to revise your predictions at the end of the book of quite dire consequences if/when the U.S. military leaves Iraq? Thanks.

Thomas E. Ricks: Thanks for reading it. I had to think about your question when I was writing a new afterword for the paperback edition. Basically, no, I still see pretty dire consequences. I think we will be dealing with the fallout of the Iraq war for the rest of our lives. And I fear that we are only in Act III of a five-act tragedy.

That said, I remain aware of the need to keep an eye on the possibility of the tide turning. But I'd like to see solid evidence.

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Boston: So, thanks for including the rest of the world in conversation with the "Big Brains" ... when I think of the Iraq situation, I also think of country/relationship issues ... is there any way our new course of actions simultaneously and directly could speak toward building stronger and improved relations with other countries in the Middle East and elsewhere? Aside from fixing problems and assisting the transition, are there specific ways to address the tensions that have been amplified in recent years? Thanks.

Thomas E. Ricks: Yeah, I think the next president of the United States will have a window of opportunity, maybe about six to eight months, as other nations seek to show that they were anti-Bush, rather than anti-American.

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Austin, Texas: Any thoughts on whether the arms upgrade we're offering the Saudis will result in them transferring their older weapons to their Sunni colleagues in Iraq to preserve a balance of terror when we egress?

Thomas E. Ricks: Interesting thought, but I don't think so. The weapons the Saudis are buying are high-tech things like smart bombs and air-to-air missiles. The insurgent and militia war in Iraq, by contrast, essentially is being fought with the weaponry of World War II: rocket-propelled grenades, AK-47s, explosives and torture.

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Rochester, Minn.: Mr. Ricks, I am too old to serve actively and too young to have kids old enough to serve. I honestly don't have a single friend or relative who is either serving actively or in the reserves. My question is whether someone like me can be faulted for feeling disconnected from the war. I feel discouraged about this whole fiasco and also discouraged that there seems to be absolutely nothing I can do about it. Therefore, perhaps I tune it out to a certain extent. What should people like me be doing?

Thomas E. Ricks: Good question. I would remember that this war is being fought in your name. And I also would ask, how old are your kids? Keep in mind the military rule of thumb that putting down an insurgency can take a decade or more. As a lesser matter, remember also that you are paying for this war.

Also, whatever you think of the war, have you contacted your member of Congress to express your view?

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The Pentagon: Having just returned from recruiting duty in two areas of the country, it's not that we are putting an awful burden on military families especially, watching their soldiers go off on third tours "while the rest of the country hardly seems to notice the war" -- it's that the rest of the country doesn't notice except for the fact it interrupts the newscasts. There is no war going on because there's no obligation or responsibility required, no asking for bonds to bought, no call for sacrifice of any kind other than the president, with no military background, calling on our families to understand the reasons for our deployments. Until there is a call for sacrifice, the military will depend on a small group of military-associated people -- a group getting smaller each year.

Thomas E. Ricks: 'Nuff said. I am puzzled why, in the fifth year of this war, more hasn't been done to lessen U.S. reliance on Middle Eastern oil. That would be one of the best long-term solutions to pursue, it seems to me. I don't always agree with Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, but I think he has been eloquent on this point.

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Reston, Va.: I am currently reading "Are We Rome?" and there are some parallels between ancient Rome's reliance on mercenaries and our own reliance (and the author postulated that reliance as being one of Rome's downfalls). What are your thoughts? Also, if the companies are paying their contractors $10,000 a month to be in Iraq -- what are we paying the contracting company for that privilege? This is why we are hemorrhaging money for this war effort!

Thomas E. Ricks: I read "Are We Rome?" and loved it. (Cullen Murphy, the author, is an old friend of mine.) Even before I got it, I had been reading a lot of ancient history, in part to better understand the conflict between the West and the Middle East.

One reason we are relying so much on private security contractors (mercenaries) is to make up for a lack of troops. The security companies effectively are the second-largest member of the international coalition in Iraq, after the U.S. and before the British.

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Vienna, Va.: Mr. Ricks: What is your take on the Petraeus-Crocker Joint Campaign plan that was reported on in The Washington Post back in May? The tone of the plan in the article seemed to fly in the face of rosy scenarios for reducing troop strength in Iraq. Thanks.

Thomas E. Ricks: Here is the bottom line on troop numbers in Iraq. There are two paths:

--If things go unexpectedly well and some sort of political reconciliation is achieved, then about April or May of next year troop numbers will start to come down, with about one brigade or more a month being pulled out.

Or

--If things continue to go pretty badly, with a full-blown civil war a live possibility, then about April or May of next year, troop numbers will start to come down, with about one brigade or more a month being pulled out.

The reason is that we don't have replacement troops. So the real questions are these three: How many troops will we take out? How fast will we take them out? And what will be the mission of the residual force?

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Thomas E. Ricks: Thanks very much! I've got to run to do an interview on the local NPR station here in Dallas. (Did you know that NPR is allowed in Texas?)

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