The War Over the War

Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 21, 2007; 12:00 PM

Readers Joined Washington Post reporter Thomas E. Ricks on Tuesday, August 21 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.


Thomas E. Ricks: Hi. It's late August. Is there anybody out there?


Franklin, Tenn.: I'm just down the road from Fort Campbell, home of the 101st, the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, and the 5th Special Forces Group, among others. While the colonels and above may voice public support for Bush, junior field- and company-grade officers, noncommissioned officers and enlisted personnel seem to be pretty disaffected -- and some downright angry -- about the failure of the government to provide adequate forces and adequate equipment (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, blast resistant armor) while the rest of the country appears to be more concerned about their wallets. Do you sense a real change to civil-military relations in the U.S., or is it mostly focused on the Bush administration?

Thomas E. Ricks: I have the same sense that the level of disaffection is increasing, but I don't think it is directed just at the Bush administration. I hear a lot of unhappiness with Congress, with the media and (to my surprise) with the American people. These three usually are blamed in this form: "We in the military did what we were asked to do, but the politicians betrayed us, the media undercut us and the American people lack the patience to see it through."

I worry about this emerging stab-in-the-back narrative, partly because I think it will hurt civil-military relations, but mainly because I don't think it is accurate. I think that the U.S. military took four years in Iraq before it starting taking the first, basic steps toward the right strategy -- that is, protecting the people.


Tampa, Fla.: I have two related questions I hope you might answer: Firstly, what is the relationship of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the Iranian regular army? Are they one and the same? Secondly, does Iran have the capability to close the Strait of Hormuz? Given how it would affect the price of oil and our economy, I think this would Iran's best defense against our attacking them. By the way, I finally read "Fiasco." Great book, and well-written. You obviously put a lot of effort into making it clear and readable, and it clearly paid off.

Thomas E. Ricks: I am no expert on the Iranian military, so I will take a pass on the first one.

The second one is easier: Sure, any mildly competent government could move a few rockets and issue threats that could shut down tanker traffic pretty quickly.

Thanks for reading "Fiasco."


Rockville, Md.: "No good choices in Iraq." You say that at nearly every discussion. What do you hope to accomplish? Is it possible that someone else could do better? Could you talk to them? Or just that we should all give up hope for the future? If so, you are not alone. I was a WWII child, and all of this gloom just confuses me. Certainly this is not a personal attack -- I am just confused.

Thomas E. Ricks: This is a tough question, but a fair one. I hit this point repeatedly because I think the beginning of wisdom is to understand that we are in a very difficult position in Iraq, and that there are no good answers left. Once that is understood, it provides a basis for discussing policy options.

These are the four basic options: Staying the course, falling back to containment, pulling out completely, or dividing up the country somehow. My point is that all four carry huge risks, and have downsides that outweigh the potential benefits.


Malvern, Pa.: Mr. Ricks, did the group of sergeants break any Army rules by writing the recent New York Times op-ed? What was your reaction to their piece? What do you sense is the reaction of senior military officers? The War as We Saw It (New York Times, Aug. 19)

Thomas E. Ricks: That was a very unusual piece. I read it closely. I don't think it broke any rules, but it certainly raised my eyebrows. We are seeing an increasing number of commentaries published by soldiers on active duty. That trend is a sharp contrast to Gen. Omar Bradley's philosophy, mentioned in his memoirs, of striving to do his duty and keep his name out of the newspapers.


Indianapolis: I'm not a big fan of the so-called think tanks, but I've been following the commentary of Anthony Cordesman for many years. I only wish his comments and writings would get more attention from the general public. Of course he'd need to appear on more TV news shows in order for that to happen, and as he does not discuss Iraq in sound bites that's not likely to happen. How familiar are you with his writings? Have you ever met him? If so, what was your impression?

Thomas E. Ricks: I think Cordesman is very good -- I try to read everything he writes. He reminds me of a good baseball umpire: Calling the balls and strikes as he sees them, and not trying to call attention to himself in the process.


Apple Grove, Md.: If you had to predict what the situation in Iraq will be two years from now, what would you see? Fewer American troops, more regional cooperation, or chaos?

Thomas E. Ricks: All of the above, I'd say. But who really knows? The people I distrust most on Iraq are the people who sound most certain, no matter what they are advocating. I keep on thinking of a comment made in Baghdad by my Post colleague Anthony Shadid. Anthony, who speaks Arabic and knocked around Iraq both before and after the invasion, once said: "The more I know about Iraq, the less I understand it."


Merritt Island, Fla.: Gen Petraeus will present his Iraq War progress report in the next several weeks. What effect do you think the report will have on the troops in the field? What effect do you think it will have on the insurgents?

Thomas E. Ricks: I doubt the report will affect either very much. The American soldiers I know tend to focus on the tough business of going out every day, sweating, bleeding, surviving and then doing it again the next day.


Fairfax, Va.: I have also been wondering why the military took so long to adopt the current strategy and to send more troops which that strategy essentially is predicated on. Who is responsible: "the military" or the president?

Thomas E. Ricks: I'd say both, and more. My view is that the American system was knocked off-balance by 9/11 and didn't work as the Founding Fathers intended. In war planning, the president and his advisors focused on the easier problem of how to get to Baghdad, rather than on the more important question of what to do once our troops go there. (This would be like someone thinking that 90 percent of their job was the commute.)

The Bush administration also saddled the U.S. effort in Iraq with a bifurcated command structure, with different lines of authority for civilian and military operations -- a violation of the principle of the unity of command. David Galula, the great theorist of counterinsurgency, says that this principle is even more important in counterinsurgency campaigns than in conventional operations. Most of our senior generals failed in their basic task of recognizing the nature of the conflict in which they were engaged. This meant that their tactics often were inappropriate and even counterproductive, and that the troops weren't given the training they needed.

Congress also contributed by failing to ask the tough questions that the generals weren't asking themselves -- like why there was such a disparity between our strategy and the resources devoted to it, or why the training and advisory effort was dumped on reservists. Had Congress fulfilled its oversight responsibilities, our military might well have been more effective.


Fairfax, Va.: Your comment on the op-ed by the active duty soldiers assiduously did not mention any of the things they said, including that we are "occupiers," that the surge -- contrary to the party line -- is not working, and that the Iraqi people will continue to hate us as we continue to bleed them dry by continuing to arm all sides. Why do you and your mainstream media colleagues refuse to give ink to words like "occupation" and "civil war" in the Iraq context?

Thomas E. Ricks: Well, judged on the terms in which the president presented the surge back in January -- that its purpose was to create a political breathing space in which national political reconciliation could occur -- it is hard to argue that the surge has worked.


Los Angeles: How stupid to think more violence will solve anything. The blowback just escalates. It should be clear to even the mentally deficient by now that the Iraqis are mad as hell and aren't going to quit killing us until we're all gone. What are we staying for, just to guarantee Bush his oil supply? Why has no one mentioned the obvious solution? Call a cease-fire for three to six months, giving us time to move all our troops out and the Iraqis time to decide what to do about their government. Nothing we do militarily is going to work. We are in the wrong, so we lose. Period. End of story.

Thomas E. Ricks: I haven't seen this cease-fire notion before. I guess the first question would be whether anyone would comply with it. When you look at other withdrawals, such as the Soviets out of Afghanistan or the British out of Aden, there tends to be an "avalanche" effect in which the retreating forces are harassed by locals trying to prove their post-occupation street cred.


Anonymous: Mr. Ricks, great book! Another good book, seems to me, is the revamped Marine and Army handbook on fighting insurgencies, a project overseen by Gen. Petraeus. Yet it strikes me that it's simply too late to try to follow Petraeus' recipe -- sort of like calling in a master chef to try to make eggs benedict after four years during which the previous chefs scrambled all the available eggs.

I fought in Vietnam, and it was very clear that we completely screwed up in the first several years when we were clueless about fighting an insurgency, instead trying to fight a conventional war. But we did, finally, start to learn some lessons about counterinsurgency, and while it was too late for Vietnam those lessons might have helped this time. Yet it's my understanding that the military tried systematically to forget any such insights and expunge all traces of that understanding. Why?

Thomas E. Ricks: I actually discussed this in "Fiasco," but the best place to learn about the Army (and to a lesser extend, the Marine Corps) losing the lessons of Vietnam is in two books: Lt. Col. John Nagl's "Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife" and Andrew Krepinevich's "The Army and Vietnam."


Kalamazoo, Mich.: Thoughts on Sen. Levin's call for a vote of no confidence in Maliki? It's doubtlessly possible we could get someone who is worse (e.g. more sectarian, openly hostile to the U.S., more inept). If the fall of the Iraqi government appeared to be orchestrated by the U.S., wouldn't that be the kiss of death for the next prime minister? How does Gen. Petraeus feel about these sorts of comments?

Thomas E. Ricks: I think the question we are facing now is whether no government would be worse than the Maliki government. (Remember that it took months to form Maliki's.)

It seems to me that in the long run the big winner is going to be Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical anti-American Shiite cleric. I think U.S. officials consistently have underestimated him.


Goodyear, Ariz.: Why don't we have a law that "kicks in" a draft whenever a war is started? How did we ever get bamboozled into an all-volunteer force?

Thomas E. Ricks: Well, it has been a very effective, well-trained force. Unfortunately it is also relatively small for the mission it has been given, and certainly is feeling the strain of fighting in Iraq for the past five years.


Washington: A very basic question. We have tried almost every strategy possible in the past four years in Iraq. We had three governments, poured billions of dollars in reconstruction, taken down a whole city (Fallujah), trained the Iraqi military and now launched a surge that I am sorry to say just is not working. Why don't we try the only strategy that is left open to us? Withdraw all the troops, and that way at least Americans will not be in the crossfire. We can at least save American lives.

Thomas E. Ricks: Okay -- let's call this the "grooving on the rubble" option. Game it out. What happens next?


Sewickley, Pa.: Thank you for taking questions today. The soldiers who wrote the NYT op-ed referred to a bomb that killed one soldier and critically wounded two others. They said Iraqi army and police participated in this attack. What is your view of this? Does it happed often? Also, why hasn't their assessment gotten as much attention as the piece by O'Hanlon/Pollack after their eight-day guided tour of Iraq?

Thomas E. Ricks: Yeah, these sorts of mixed loyalties are very common. I remember being told about an Iraqi caught by American soldiers in the act of placing a bomb -- when they searched him it turned out he was a sergeant in the Iraqi army.

These sorts of mixed loyalties are to be expected in a complex counterinsurgency/civil war. Who knows -- maybe that sergeant's family had been kidnapped and wouldn't be released unless he agreed to plan the bomb? On the other side of the equation, with the recent shifts of tribal loyalties, we almost certainly have former insurgents who have killed American soldiers now working alongside American soldiers.


Washington: What's the latest you've heard on the situation in southern Iraq, now that the British are in the middle of their withdrawal? Initially, I heard there was increased violence. I'm wondering if violence has now decreased -- perhaps the various gangs and militias have staked out turf, and there is less competition for territory? US Adviser: Britain Faces Ugly Pullout (AP, Aug. 18)

Thomas E. Ricks: Here's my best take on what is happening down in southern Iraq. Since we did this, two provincial governors have been assassinated.


Washington: Mr. Ricks: I just heard the President say that those who think our Iraq intervention was wise will see progress toward political reconciliations, and those who don't think our Iraq intervention was wise will not see any progress. In an infamous remark, one of the President's underlings once upbraided a reporter for being part of the reality-based community. But with this remark the President seems to be saying that nobody can see "just the facts, ma'am," but always and only will see the realities that support their own position. Given your familiarity with this president, can you comment on this, please?

Thomas E. Ricks: My gut feeling is that too much is being made of the September report. I don't think it will really change things much, either in Iraq or in the congressional debate. But one reason I like being a journalist is that life is constantly surprising.


Seattle: Tom, enjoyed your presentation at Seattle Library. Never got to ask my question. But first, you seemed to agree with Powell that if you break it, you have to pay for it, but you didn't go into moral dimensions of that question very deeply. My own feeling is that our responsibility goes to helping to rebuild infrastructure as we did in Europe with Marshall plan. But to get to question.

Will report that now sounds like it is White House-controlled from Petraeus tell us what is happening not only about military security but also about political and economic recovery? Is Petraeus getting support from the State Department and the aid workers to rebuild infrastructure of Iraq? Will Congress follow through on those issues? Thanks.

Thomas E. Ricks: Odd that you should mention the Marshall Plan -- while I was in Seattle, I was reading Tony Judt's terrific history of Europe after World War II, titled "Postwar." The big difference is that there was no fighting in Europe after World War II. It is very tough to reconstruct Iraq while fighting still is going on.


Sewickley, Pa.: How do you assess the relative credibility of the soldiers who wrote the Times op-ed piece? Do they have a better handle on the situation than, say, O'Hanlon and Pollack?

Thomas E. Ricks: Well, I suspect you want me to say that the soldiers are more credible. Soldiers tend to get a very intense perspective -- but through a soda straw of one little corner of Iraq. Visiting analysts (and reporters) tend to get overviews that show them more areas but in far less depth.

I used to try to combine the two -- I had a great trip in Iraq in January and February 2006 in which I visited commanders I knew in several cities, and spent time with units on patrols. Since then my wife has asked me to take fewer risks in Iraq.


Princeton, N.J.: The question "What's next?" if we leave Iraq is hard to answer, as the "Domino Theory" shows. Anyway, it is the wrong question. Here are some better ones. Is there any evidence that we can affect the final outcome in Iraq? That we can avoid the coming catastrophe? Do we have the faintest idea of the effect our actions have? We forced a constitution that further divided the country. We forced election that elected a fundamentalist dysfunctional government. People are dying and we do not know why. Historians who study civil strife have pointed out that such conflicts are rarely resolved until a great many people are killed and one side is clearly winning. See our Civil War. A more recent example is Bosnia where 200,000 people died (equivalent to 3,000,000 in Iraq) and the Serbs were in control before NATO could step in. We should pull back and wait until after they are tired of killing themselves. History will judge guilt.

Thomas E. Ricks: I have heard some U.S. officers in Iraq make a similar argument: A civil war here is inevitable, so all we are doing in postponing the inevitable, and losing American lives in the process. But I do think we have a responsibility to estimate as best we can the likely consequences of any policy we advocate -- sure, it is hard to answer, but we will have to live with the consequences, so we should try.

So: Difficult though it may be, what do you think would happen if U.S. troops all left Iraq tomorrow morning?


Colorado Springs, Colo.: Back in June 2004, the only way forward -- where the U.S. could optimize U.S. national security -- was to follow the "Model Communities" approach, where we would select and empower authentic, indigenous local leaders to take control of and responsibility for their own communities. The approach would take money away from USAID contractors who were teaching the locals that their values and culture were backward, and put that money in the hands of local leaders.

In November 2006, Dave Petraeus cherry-picked pieces of the "Model Communities" approach, coming up with the current strategy in al-Anbar, which I call "if you can't beat the resistance movement, pay them to stop hurting us." We give them our lunch money. The Resistance fighters didn't flip; our forces did, but still we refuse to allow respect, honor or dignity for the authentic local leaders and their people. This retail acquisition of loyalty is not to be trusted. To folks even a little bit acquainted with Arab culture, we make ourselves a laughingstock. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

So here we are, it's almost September 2007, and the only way forward that optimizes U.S. national interests is, surprise, the "Model Communities" approach. In other words, give Iraq back to the Iraqis, but in a way that provides for security and stability at the village and neighborhood levels. Not cut-and-run, but necessitating drastic troop level reductions. Is the President still holding out for a MacArthur-esque surrender ceremony on an aircraft carrier deck? Would it be too much to admit that folks outside his administration understand the quagmire, and the way out, better than his partisan hacks?

Thomas E. Ricks: I don't think I understand your question. Gen. Petraeus didn't begin his current tour in Iraq until February of this year.


New York: What responsibility legally and morally does the United States have in resettling Iraqi refugees? I was reading an article in the New York Times about how a lot of refugees are running out of money in Jordan. What does the administration plan to do? With this current strain of anti-immigration sentiment sweeping the country I doubt the American people will stand for a mass immigration of Iraqis.

Thomas E. Ricks: Yes, I think this is a big problem. It also is one of the consequences that needs to be considered as we go forward. There already are an estimated 2 million Iraqi refugees in Jordan, Syria and other countries. How many more would there be if there were a full-blown civil war in Iraq, and what effect would those additional refugees have on neighboring countries?


Thomas E. Ricks: Thanks to everyone for chiming in. I was surprised today to see so few questions from overseas. I guess that is proof that Europeans really do take the month of August off. The rest of you, back to work!


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