The War Over the War

Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Military Reporter
Tuesday, September 18, 2007; 12:00 PM

Join Washington Post military reporter Thomas E. Ricks on Tuesday, Sept. 18 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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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.


New York: In view of the relative success of our alliances in Anbar province with Sunni tribal leaders in rooting out al-Qaeda, do you think a similar deal with Moqtada el-Sadr has a chance? Secondly, what -- if anything -- do you read into the fact that there has been no explosion of fighting between Shia factions following the British withdrawal from Basra?

Thomas E. Ricks: Hello everyone.

These are two interesting questions. Both contain some assumptions.

On a deal with Moqtada al-Sadr, I actually asked American officials about this last week, and they said they didn't see it happening anytime soon. But I think it is possible at some point.

On the south, I am not sure what you mean by "explosion," but there sure has been fighting. Don't take my word for it -- the Pentagon's new report on Iraq, issued yesterday, says the security situation in the south is deteriorating.


Peaks Island, Maine: Re: Ann Scott Tyson in today's Washington Post -- "Security is deteriorating in southern Iraq as rival Shiite militias vying for power have stepped up their attacks after moving out of Baghdad to avoid U.S.-led military operations, according to the latest quarterly Pentagon report on Iraq released yesterday."

Is Tyson's depiction consistent with what Petraeus and Crocker said last week with respect to security, militias etc. in southern Iraq? How long will it be before Christian Iraqis feel sufficiently secure to attend churches of their choice in Basra? If it is not in the foreseeable future, what does this say about the neocon vision of Iraq as a beacon of democracy? Security Took 'Turn for Worse' In Southern Iraq, Report Says (Post, Sept. 18)

Thomas E. Ricks: And Peaks Island, Maine -- hello! -- goes right to the point I was making in my previous answer. I think the Pentagon report is more negative about southern Iraq than Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker were in their testimony.

As for the specifics of what is happening in the south, that's one of the problems with reporting in Iraq these days: It is hard to get out and move around in some areas -- especially for someone who looks like a gringo, which most of the Western reporters in Iraq do.


Beaumont, Calif.: I am just finishing your perceptive book, "Fiasco"; for those who have not read this book, get it now! The arrogance and denial of the top members of this current administration is breathtaking. Why do you think they continued their tunnel-vision course when so many in the military tried to warn them otherwise?

Thomas E. Ricks: This is a question for the ages. I think the basic answer is Sept. 11. It didn't have anything to do with Iraq, but it knocked the country off-balance. It enabled the Bush administration to argue that the experts were all wrong and that everything had changed. It also led Congress to hide in the basement and abdicate its role as an equal branch of government. Only now, I think, are we regaining our equilibrium as a nation. And we are kind of wondering what we did, and how we got in this mess.

The irony is that the Bush administration has turned to the people it once disdained -- the area experts, including Ambassador Crocker, and the military experts, including Gen. Petraeus, who operated as a kind of dissident during his first tour in Iraq, in 2003-04, charting a very different course than Ambassador Bremer did in Baghdad.

By the way, thanks for reading "Fiasco."


Oviedo, Fla.: Loved your book -- stellar work. It seems the Bush insiders and the military paint the "withdraw now or really soon" crowd as unpatriotic. I am patriotic, I just don't agree with them and despair at the mounting loss of life and limb. What can "regular" people do to be heard with their protests and not dismissed as outliers?

Thomas E. Ricks: This sense of despair worries me. I was on tour last month for the publication of the paperback edition of "Fiasco" and as I gave talks and readings from Massachusetts to Texas to California I was struck by how many expressed this sense that they hate this situation but feel they can't do anything about it.

I would say that however you feel about the war, you can have an effect. Talk to your member of Congress. Write letters to the editor of your newspaper. Speak up. Iraq isn't going to go away anytime soon, so the participation of American citizens could help the situation.


Indianapolis: How does the military feel about the Bush administration making the military the face of their Iraq policy? Do they feel like they are being setup to take the fall if things go south?

Thomas E. Ricks: Actually I think the U.S. military has begun looking over the shoulder of the Bush administration. Look at what Defense Secretary Gates was saying last week: The plan is to have 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq on Jan. 1, 2009. At the end of that month, George W. Bush no longer will be president.


Chicago: Why is there no discussion of the U.S. setting up a new Saddam? It seems to me that the best outcome the U.S. can hope for at this point is having a Sunni government that is as secular as possible to serve as check against Iran, while at the same time preventing terrorists from setting up in Iraq. Why is there no discussion of the U.S. picking the most secular Sunni elements and funding and supplying them with weapons to take over the governing of Iraq? Is it just because this option is morally distasteful?

Thomas E. Ricks: Well, wouldn't that just be a recipe for a new and more intense civil war?


New York: Tom, I'm still fuzzy on how Gen. Petraeus expects to sustain any security gains when the troop withdrawals begin, let alone when we're down to 100,000 or so, as Secretary Gates has implied we will be. Seems to me we're going back to whack-a-mole with a little Baker-Hamilton lite thrown in. Your thoughts? Thanks for the chat.

Thomas E. Ricks: Excellent question. You've put your finger on the big question: What happens when U.S. forces begin drawing down? That is, will Iraqi forces be able to "hold" areas. And how will they behave -- will they act as a national military, or will they simply be the biggest Shiite militia around?


Atlanta: Petraeus and Crocker look like they are on the same wavelength, but who is setting the strategy in Iraq? It appears that the goals of the al-Maliki government are different than those of Petraeus, and I'm not sure where Crocker fits in. Can this be turned around without having all the players cooperating? Haven't quite finished your terrific book, so I don't know if you already answered that!

Thomas E. Ricks: I can't answer it, because no one knows.

Again, thanks for reading the book.


Washington: Two questions about Iraq are puzzling me. Hunt's oil deal with the Kurds -- why isn't this a huge story? Looks like a huge deal-breaker re: the national oil legislation to me -- and Hunt is very close in many ways to the president. Also, regarding the surge's "success" in Anbar: Isn't this "success" based on local deals with Sunni leaders, and if so, doesn't that make it antithetical to the idea of national reconciliation? Dallas Oil Company Signs Deal With Kurds (AP, Sept. 8)

Thomas E. Ricks: Wow. This sounds like the news meeting I was just in.

I don't know about the first issue, that of the Hunt oil deal; I will ask my colleague Steve Mufson, who covers the energy business. (If I get an answer in the next 50 minutes, I'll post it.)

And yes, one of the worries of empowering local leaders (sheiks, militias, etc) is that it may have a centrifugal effect, especially as lots of these guys hate the central government in Baghdad.


Washington: Mr. Ricks, how do the departments of Defense and State, respectively, feel about Blackwater -- is either department backing the firm or happy to see them go? If Iraq doesn't quietly back down, could Blackwater just subcontract their work to other security organizations and have their staff put on shirts with different logos but continue to just keeping doing the same work?

Thomas E. Ricks: I think State and Defense look at Blackwater differently. State may not like them, but the Blackwater guys protect them. But military guys, especially on the front lines, feel a lot of friction with them. It isn't clear who the security contractors report to; also, their mission isn't to promote U.S. interests, it is simply to execute their contract. Finally, I heard some troops grumble about how the contractors can drink alcohol and import prostitutes.


Austin, Texas: Tom, good morning. Enjoyed both your book and appearances on the Charley Rose show -- most informative. Given the recent disbarment of Blackwater, it would be interesting to know if there was a surge in mercenaries (private contractors) along with the deployment of the five additional brigades. Also, given the statements from Blackwater, won't it be possible to replace troops with contractors, so the number of "warriors" on the ground is the same? It appears that the ratio of troops on the ground to contractors is 1:1.

Thomas E. Ricks: Thanks. I like going on the Charlie Rose show. I think he does a great job.

The last I heard, there were about 20,000 trigger-puller security contractors in Iraq. That's a lot -- perhaps equivalent to number of trigger-pullers in a couple of U.S. Army divisions. But it is far less than the 168,000 U.S. troops in the country.


Waltham, Mass.: Tom, which of the presidential candidates do you believe understands Iraq best and has brought the best policy ideas to the table?

Thomas E. Ricks: Oh, go ahead and get me in trouble! I am a reporter, and I am not supposed to have favorites. (Indeed, I don't vote in presidential elections, mainly because I don't want to have to think, "I voted for these guys" or "I voted against these guys.")

So here is my weasely response: Tell me which president has the best sense of tragedy. I think that is the beginning of wisdom in thinking about Iraq.


Joliet, Ill.: I find the debate on the Iraq very frustrating in that I am no expert on war or diplomacy and it seems that all the people that do claim to know what is going on and what the best course of action is have a political ax to grind, while more politically neutral people such as yourself say there are no good choices in Iraq. How are the American people supposed to reach informed opinions on what the best course is in regard to Iraq if we only have politically motivated opinion on the one hand, and the more neutral parties on the other failing to give any concrete position? The only thing I can conclude about Iraq is that it is really messed up and nobody has any idea how to fix or what fixing it even means that this point.

Thomas E. Ricks: That's not a bad bottom line.


What about the Greenspan quote?: I read (and fumed all the way through) your fantastic book "Fiasco" -- thank you for your body of work. I haven't yet read the new Greenspan autobiography, which supposedly includes a throwaway line along the lines of "everybody knows the invasion of Iraq is about oil" or something to that effect -- at least that's what I heard two nights ago on one of the nightly cable shows you sometimes appear on (it's always great to see you on TV too). I personally don't doubt that is a major reason why we invaded Iraq, but what do you make of it? And what do you think/hear other military folks, pols, etc. are saying about it?

Thomas E. Ricks: Here is an interesting tidbit, previously unrevealed: The Greenspan book and "Fiasco" had the same editor, Scott Moyers. He is one of the world's great editors. (He also edited my first book, "Making the Corps." Not only did he make it much better, he also taught me how to write a book. And he paid me for it!)

I think the war is about oil in the sense that oil is what makes the Middle East so important to us. And that raises the question that Thomas Friedman of the New York Times has been asking for years: Why don't we have a serious program to reduce American dependence on Middle Eastern oil?


Anonymous: What concessions would it be necessary for the U.S. and Iraq to make for a successful peace initiative acceptable to Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt?

Thomas E. Ricks: I'm gonna punt on this one and suggest you ask my Post colleague Karen DeYoung when she does the discussion next week. She understands diplomacy far better than I do. To me it seems like a bunch of guys sitting around a table making false promises to each other and wrapping it all in words like "modalities."


Berkeley, Calif.: When asked by Sens. Webb and Warner (tough crowd from Virginia, it seems), Gen. Petraeus demurred on the issues of troop rotations and overall strategy in the war on terror -- essentially saying that the overall health of the military and the overall safety of the U.S. is outside of his bailiwick. That may be true, but if the president was going to do whatever Gen. Petraeus recommended, who was thinking about the big picture?

Thomas E. Ricks: Good question. By the way, I thought Sens. Webb and Warner did a very good job last week. It is no coincidence that both have spent time in the Marines and in the Pentagon. (Indeed, a reporter sitting at the press table near me during the Senate Armed Services hearing murmured "I'm moving to Virginia.")

The guys who are paid to think of the big picture beyond Iraq are Admiral Fallon (the chief of Central Command), the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Defense Secretary Gates and the president. That's why several of their answers were somewhat different from those offered by Petraeus. (We wrote about a lot of intense discussion they had about whether to continue the surge as long as Gen. Petraeus wanted to.)


Thomas E. Ricks: There are a bunch of questions that are really more comments, so I am just gonna post them.


Silver Spring, Md.: Re Chicago's question: Why is there no discussion of the U.S. picking the most secular Sunni elements and funding and supplying them with weapons to take over the governing of Iraq?

The most secular Sunni elements that can rally a following are the Baath Party and the former Iraqi army officers whom the U.S. kicked out of Iraqi politics at the start of all this. They are not very plausible future strategic allies of the U.S. Even an administration as incoherent about Iraq as the present one is likely to refrain from a "bring back the Baath" policy.

Thomas E. Ricks: Here's one.


San Francisco: Just curious who makes up the bulk of the Blackwater crew. Is it all ex-military, mainly from the South? Are there foreign nationals mixed in? Is there some reason for me to not think that most of them are just gun-happy rednecks who can, of course drink alcohol and import prostitutes. Hooray for the Freedom Agenda!

Thomas E. Ricks: And another.


Falls Church, Va.: Re: Chicago: "Why is there no discussion of the U.S. setting up a new Saddam? ... Why is there no discussion of the U.S. picking the most secular Sunni elements and funding and supplying them with weapons to take over the governing of Iraq? Is it just because this option is morally distasteful?"

Are you kidding me? Since when do we get the right/privilege/authority to invade other countries, topple their leaders and install new leaders who we think will work well with us? That's not exactly how the world works in 2007. Besides, it's also not a very democratic solution -- and we are there to spread democracy in the Middle East.

Thomas E. Ricks: And a third.


Raleigh, N.C.: Re: "Setting up a new Saddam," the British set up a Sunni leader and it worked. My guess is that this would generally result in a less coercive government because a Sunni leader would be most likely to understand that they couldn't impose their will on everyone by force (being a clear minority), so they would need to be reasonable and "buy Shiites out." A majority Shiite leader, on the other hand, might decide to follow Bush's lead and just try to impose his will on everyone.

Thomas E. Ricks: And a fourth.


New York: Tom, on one of the Sunday talk shows, Sec. Gates made light (it seemed to me) of the concern about stressing the military. He seemed to imply that the U.S. has lots of options when it comes to ramping up troop strength, for whatever reasons. Seems antithetical to what the military chiefs have been saying. Did you see the interview, or do you know what he was talking about? Thanks.

Thomas E. Ricks: I didn't watch Secretary Gates. (I have an excuse: I was on "Face the Nation.")

From what I have seen, he was just trying to give himself (and Gen. Petraeus) some wiggle room. Yes, you could make all the troops out there do their full 15-month tours, and that would extend the surge into maybe September of next year, instead of July. But to get beyond that there aren't a lot of options short of making troops do 18-month tours, or going to full mobilization of reserves.

Meanwhile, here is an answer from my colleague Steve Mufson about that Hunt oil deal in northern Iraq:

"It is an interesting story. But Hunt isn't one of the major international oil companies. When one of those major firms invests, with the potential for widespread development, that will be bigger news. But Hunt could be the nose under the camel's tent. We should do more on this."


Seattle: I want to follow up on this from earlier in the chat: "This is a question for the ages. I think the basic answer is Sept. 11. It didn't have anything to do with Iraq, but it knocked the country off balance. It enabled the Bush administration to argue that the experts were all wrong and that everything had changed."

Did/does the Bush administration believe that Sept. 11 changed everything, or did/does the Bush administration just use Sept. 11 to override objections?

Thomas E. Ricks: Jeez, I don't know. My guess is that they really did believe it changed everything.


Baltimore: Loved your book -- very thorough. We really need a Part 2 to take us through the next few years (then Part 3, etc., it seems). The recent incident with Blackwater raises some interesting questions about Iraq's sovereignty. How can laws left over from CPA days still be on the books? From my time in Iraq, I felt Blackwater was the most unprofessional security contractor I ran across. The U.S. would be smart to hire Erinys or Dyncorps or Aegis, and dump Blackwater.

Thomas E. Ricks: Thanks! This is an interesting opinion on Blackwater. My colleague Steve Fainaru has done a lot of work on the security contractors. I'll ping him and see if he has any comment. What did you do in Iraq?


Chicago: Quoting Thomas Ricks: "Well, wouldn't that just be a recipe for a new and more intense civil war?"

Isn't a civil war kind of inevitable? Shouldn't the U.S.'s main interest be in making sure who we want ends up in control, not limiting the number of Iraqis killed? Funding and supplying the most secular Sunni groups would have the advantage of keeping U.S. military out of the most intense fighting (U.S. forces could protect the border and supply air support) and would limit the possibility of Shia groups being in control of both Iran and Iraq and working against American interests in the region. The current strategy only seems to assure a slow-burn civil war that eventually will be Shia groups that could be allies with Iran, further destabilizing the region (Shia are also the majority in northern Saudi Arabia).

Thomas E. Ricks: I don't know whether a full-blown civil war is inevitable, but I do know that if it happens we are going to be sorry. I don't know if we can ensure who winds up in control -- Winston Churchill has a good observation about this, to the effect that once you embark on a war, you are tying your fortunes to chance -- but I do hope that we will do everything we can to limit the number of Iraqis killed.


Sun Prairie, Wis.: Good day, Mr. Ricks, and thanks for taking this question. It's about private security contractors in Iraq and the whole question of accountability. What does "accountability" mean in this context? Security contractors like Blackwater appear to operate in a legal gray area, not fully covered by either Iraqi or American law. People seem to agree that this is bad, but does anyone have a good idea as to what should replace it? And seeing that formal military procedures for ensuring accountability yielded pretty limited returns after the Abu Ghraib scandal and the Haditha massacre, how much good would establishing clear rules for private contractors do us in Iraq now?

Thomas E. Ricks: I think historians will look back on the heavy use of security contractors as one of the defining characteristics of this war. It gets us into all sorts of long-term questions: Is this another manifestation of the post-modern decline of state power? Is it (not contradictorily) a throwback to the medieval use of mercenary bands by kings?

I do think it has a confusing effect on the battlefield, to have guys -- out of uniform or in odd, unrecognizable uniforms -- who are not subject to military discipline, have a hazy chain of command and unclear rules of engagement. But the short-term answer is, we are doing it because we don't have enough troops.


Boston: Just curious, what's a trigger-puller? My son's with the 82nd airborne in FOB Summerall. Would he be considered a trigger puller? And if there's about 30,000 in Iraq, what do the other 130,000 do (besides cooking and mechanical work)? Must be an awful big marching band!

Thomas E. Ricks: I would say a trigger puller is someone who routinely "goes outside the wire." So if he is a mechanic or clerk, no he is not. If he is a infantryman, he is. I think you misread my numbers a bit. I was saying that last I heard, there were 20,000 private security contractors in Iraq, on top of 168,000 troops.


Thomas E. Ricks: The pattern of questions on these chats always intrigues me. For example, why aren't there questions from overseas today?


To Chicago: If having the Shia in charge in Iraq and working in tandem with Iran is a bad thing for U.S. interests, the time to address it would have been March 2003, before we invaded. Saying "oops!" now is not a strategy. Once we loosed the hounds of war, we loosed the ethnoreligious divides in Iraq. I'm kind of with you Tom -- I hope we do all we can to limit the number of Iraqis that are killed. But I don't want us there for the rest of this century.

Thomas E. Ricks: Interesting comment. I am hearing similar stuff from guys in Iraq -- why didn't we do this tribal strategy back in 2003-2004? A big part of the answer is that back then we were taking an ideological approach. Ambassador Bremer was going to transform Iraq into a free-market democracy. Now we have scaled back our ambitions, and Petraeus and Crocker are trying to work with tribal sheiks, former insurgents and so on -- guys generally not seen as beacons of democracy.


Waunakee, Wis.: Mr. Ricks, what would it take to kill or capture the leadership of al-Qaeda? What do you think would be a winning strategy?

Thomas E. Ricks: I don't know what it would take. But I doubt that just doing that would be a winning strategy.


Silver Spring, Md.: Why does the media always concentrate on the bad news from Iraq? From what I hear, we are doing great things there, and everybody just wants America to look bad.

Thomas E. Ricks: Are you serious?


Chongqing, China: Why does the government always do something to hurt people? And never minds the peoples's feelings.

Thomas E. Ricks: I am not sure which government you are talking about...


Thomas E. Ricks: I am also surprised we haven't had more questions about Iran this week, given the worries expressed in Western governments.

And also Afghanistan (and western Pakistan). I am hearing concern in Washington that the situation in Pakistan is the biggest single threat facing the security of Europe and the United States right now.


Waunakee, Wis.: I lived in Sweden and France for 10 years, but that's not really the same. If Bush is the best America has to offer, why should America lead?

Thomas E. Ricks: Another question that is more a comment.


Dublin, Ireland: Why do you think there is no mention in this newspaper of the credible report by the British polling organization ORB (who, incidentally, have conducted studies for the U.K. Conservative Party) that indicates that 1.2 million Iraqis have died violently since the U.S./U.K. invasion of 2003?

Thomas E. Ricks: There is a reporter here working on that.


Thomas E. Ricks: Thanks for all your questions. I am going to get some lunch.


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