The War Over the War

Tom Ricks
Tom Ricks
Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Military Reporter
Tuesday, December 11, 2007; 12:00 PM

Readers joined Washington Post military reporter Thomas E. Ricks on Tuesday, Dec. 11 at noon ET to discuss the debate in Washington among government, military and intelligence officials about 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.

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Thomas E. Ricks: Hello, and welcome again.

Last night I covered a speech at the American Enterprise Institute by Douglas Feith, a former under secretary of Defense for policy, and someone widely seen as one of the key Bush Administration officials in the drive to war in Iraq. Interestingly, I wound up sitting between Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, two other leading Iraq hawks.

Here is the article I wrote last night, after making a quick phone call to L. Paul Bremer to get his response to Feith's comments.

One smart blogger noticed something I didn't about the last paragraph I wrote, which is that Wolfowitz's assessment of Feith's speech echoes his 2003 comment about General Shinseki's assessment of the U.S. troop requirement for occupying Iraq as being "wildly off the mark."

"The speech reunited Iraq hawks, with former Pentagon official Richard Perle introducing Feith, as former deputy defense secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz sat in the front. After Feith's talk, Wolfowitz commented that he thought it was 'pretty much on the mark.' "

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Westwood, Mass.: Which group will reach a consensus first on Iraq issues (or at least a grudging single working stance): U.S. congressional Democrats, or Iraqi Shiites? Will Shiite consensus only come through force (an internal Shiite civil war)? Can any national reconciliation be legitimate and stick without Shiite reconciliation first?

Thomas E. Ricks: This is an interesting question. I hadn't quite seen it this way. That is, do the Shiites need to sort out their internal differences before they can reach out? Frankly, I don't know. But I doubt it, especially as no political deals are permanent. So more likely, cut a deal with the far enemy in order to deal with the near enemy.

That said, I actually think there is a consensus in the Democratic Party, which is to appear to do something about Iraq without getting blamed for how the thing ends.

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Minneapolis: I saw that you got a quote from Paul Wolfowitz in the front row at the Doug Feith talk yesterday, and I gather that Wolfowitz is about to return to government in the State Department, where he will have access to highly classified information. Is there any chance that the fact -- revealed in Scooter Libby's grand jury testimony -- that in July 2003 Wolfowitz leaked the October 2002 NIE (which he believed was classified at the time) to the Wall Street Journal editorial board for its July 17 editorial could prove a problem for him?

washingtonpost.com: Ex-Pentagon Aide Says U.S. Abandoned Quick Iraq Transition (Post, Dec. 11)

Thomas E. Ricks: Yes, I noted earlier that Wolfowitz sat down next to me at the speech.

As for your question, are you sure of this? Given that the NIE was publicly released in its unclassified form, why would he think that it was classified nine months later.

More broadly, you remind me that in the summer of 2003, some Bush Administration officials were still asserting that their view that Iraq possessed stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons would be proven correct.

I actually was at a lunch with Wolfowitz in the summer of 2003, in the Green Zone. But I can't remember right now whether WMD was discussed. I do remember that he insisted that "pretty amazing" progress was being made and that he dissed experts on the Middle East as being "astonishingly pessimistic" about the situation. I wrote about this lunch in my book 'Fiasco.'

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Raleigh, N.C.: Good afternoon! What is the "state of play" with regards to military contractors like Blackwater and KBR in Iraq? What impact has the recent gang rape story had on opinion in Congress?

Thomas E. Ricks: I think that "gang rape" story is going to gather steam. I haven't seen any impact yet, but I think that likely will change.

Here's a link.

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San Clemente, Calif.: I for one have been very grateful for the spate of relative good news coming out of Iraq. Do you think any of it might be because the various warring factions are laying low to see if we'll declare victory and go away? If so, are we throwing cold water on this idea? The president and even some in the military have started talking about the "long war," permanent bases and and multi-generational security arrangements. The presence of such bases in Saudi Arabia seems to have been used as justification by Osama bin Laden to convince 15 Saudis to fly planes into the World Trade Center.

Thomas E. Ricks:

Yes.

No.

Yep.

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Madison, Wis.: Mr. Ricks, thanks for taking questions today. Perhaps I'm naive, but it seems that Congress eventually will find a way to put the president's back to the wall on continual funding for the Iraq occupation. Are you aware of any planning in the military to hand Congress some concessions, like a significant reduction in troop levels, or an actual plan for withdrawal? It's great for the military to state that they're having some success, but without a goal that they can point to, any actual "success" in the region seems illusory. Your thoughts?

Thomas E. Ricks: Well, yes, General Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, has been pretty clear that he intends to cut troop levels by about 5,000 a month from April through July of next year. That means by mid-summer we should be about down to the pre-surge level of about 130,000 troops. The question is, where do we go from there?

Will Congress cut off funding? I don't think so.

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Arlington, Va.: On the topic of Sunni men being able to link with U.S. forces to battle al-Qaeda, isn't the issue similar to bringing former Confederate soldiers who killed Union officers back into our society? How long did it take for the United States to forgive their own citizens who killing others during our own Civil War? Or do you think the hatred of Saddam's henchmen is so deep that the Shiites and Kurds never will forgive or get along with the Sunni?

Thomas E. Ricks: Well, our own Civil War is a complex subject to use as an analogy. On the one hand, one of the leading Confederate generals, James Longstreet, endorsed his old foe Ulysses S. Grant for president in 1868. On the other hand, Phase IV (reconstruction and stability) of our Civil War arguably lasted until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 (interestingly, just two years after Longstreet's widow died).

I don't think the biggest obstacle in Iraq is hatred of Saddam's old henchmen as much as the Iraqi sense that politics is a winner-take-all game. The Shiites are in control, and Uncle Sam is providing security -- so what incentive do they have to compromise?

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San Francisco: Wouldn't invading the country on false pretenses in the first place be "the single biggest mistake the United States made in Iraq"?

Thomas E. Ricks: Good point. But then Douglas Feith has never struck me as having a well-developed sense of irony. Rather, the sense I got from his speech was a tone of "if you were only as smart as me, you'd understand I am right."

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Minneapolis: You ask "as for your question, are you sure of this?" Yes, I am sure about this. It was disclosed in Scooter Libby's grand jury testimony. At the behest of Libby -- and, apparently, Cheney -- Wolfowitz leaked the classified version of the October 2002 NIE to the Wall Street Journal, which duly published portions of it on July 17, 2003. Here's the article. It's a little complicated, because Libby testified that President Bush secretly had declassified portions of the NIE, though there is some reason for skepticism on that count. And in any case, as Libby testified, Wolfowitz was unaware of any such secret declassification, so he thought he was leaking a classified NIE to the Journal.

Thomas E. Ricks: Just posting this follow-up, because I asked for it.

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State College, Pa.: Is it my imagination, or has the rhetoric and attention paid to and coming out of Iran diminished somewhat over the past few weeks? It seems like the tone settled down when the situation in Pakistan started to boil over. Perhaps Tehran doesn't want to be surrounded by three failed states after all, and this may be an opening for some diplomacy here...

Thomas E. Ricks: Not your imagination at all. It strikes me as odd that the buzz about Iraq has dropped off, even though we have as many troops there as ever.

We've discussed this waning attention in this chat before. I remember one person intelligently commenting that it wasn't so much boredom as despair that was turning people away.

That said, I see that plenty of you are still writing in.

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Montreal: Hi Tom. Thanks so much for doing these chats. Over on Andrew Sullivan's blog he posts a mother quoting her son who's serving in Iraq. He says: "No one ever mentions the fact that we have literally built walls around each neighborhood and along every highway as the reason the violence is down here. The place looks like an Orwell novel gone wrong. The people cannot shoot each other through walls and the insurgents cannot move around to plant their bombs. A society cannot function walled off form each other. We pay every bill, manage every facet of governance. The government at every level is a joke. The ministries are controlled by one faction (Shia). They have almost no experience or education. A bunch of guys walk around in suits and look important while they do nothing." How big a deal is this wall-building? What's the long term plan for the walls?

Thomas E. Ricks: I know the initial Iraqi reaction to the walls was unhappy, in part because it supposedly evoked images of Israel.

That said, the walls do seem to have had an effect in reducing violence, especially against Sunni neighborhoods that were being ethnically cleansed by Shiite militias. (And yes, another reason Baghdad is quieter is that ethnic cleansing has been completed in much of the city.)

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San Francisco: The reduced violence in Iraq is welcome, but the purpose of the surge was to buy time for political reconciliation. Not only has that not happened, but high-level Iraqi politicians have said it's impossible. In his November 2005 National Strategy for Victory in Iraq, President Bush defined victory as an Iraq that is "peaceful, united, stable, and secure." That hasn't happened and it doesn't look like it's going to. When do we admit that the strategy has failed?

Thomas E. Ricks: Yeah, I wrote about that in mid-October. The theory of the surge -- that improved security would lead to a political breakthrough -- hasn't happened. So, judged on the terms in which the president presented the surge last January, it hasn't succeeded.

What next? I think what you are seeing is Americans saying to the Iraqi government something like, Hey guys, this is your last chance.

But George Washington University's Marc Lynch and others have argued that the tactical improvement actually has taken pressure off the Baghdad government to compromise.

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McLean, Va.: How interesting that Doug Feith blamed Bremer for abandoning the initial quick transition plan, when, according to your book, Feith hadn't a clue when it came to military planning.

Thomas E. Ricks: I don't think I quite said that in "Fiasco," but yeah, military officers found Feith fussy and unhelpful.

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Glen Ellyn, Ill.: Mr. Ricks, this is Doug "the stupidest ****ing guy on Earth" Feith, so why should anyone take him seriously?

Thomas E. Ricks: Well, as several people noted in blogs this morning, he was called that by Gen. Tommy R. Franks, who in this case kind of lives in a glass house. As one guy I know said, if offered a brain transplant from Feith or Franks, he knew which one he'd prefer -- and it wouldn't be the general's.

I think he should be taken seriously because he was a key figure in the run-up to the war. That certainly doesn't mean I agree with his views.

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Ottawa, Canada: It seems that the British troops will be leaving in the New Year. What effect, if any, will this have on the ability of the U.S. to reduce troop levels? Are the Iraqi troops that will take the Brits place capable of maintaining order in Basra or is this just a smokescreen to allow a withdrawal with honor?

Thomas E. Ricks: With honor? From what I hear, Basra is a mess. Here is a recent AP story:

AP Interview: Basra police chief laments lack of security as British prepare to withdraw

BC-Iraq-Basra,0723

By RA'AD AL-SHAWI

Associated Press Writer

SOUTHERN SHUNEH, Jordan (AP) - The police chief of Iraq's southern Basra province acknowledged Thursday that his forces lack the means to maintain security in the region after a British troop withdrawal later this month.

The rare admission from such a high-ranking Iraqi officer reflected concerns ahead of the British pullout from the overwhelmingly Shiite province, which has seen major fighting between militants and coalition troops as well as between Shiite militias vying for control of Basra city and its security forces.

"I'm faced with a lot of hardships," Maj. Gen. Jalil Khalaf, commander of the Basra Police Division, told The Associated Press. "Frankly speaking, we have rifles, machine-guns and a few armored vehicles, which aren't as advanced as the British weaponry and are insufficient to maintain full control of the province."

So far, in tough situations, he said Iraqi police have had to rely on calling in "support from Baghdad" or the U.S.-led coalition.

A senior American official in Baghdad said the U.S. was concerned about the oil fields and military transport lines from Kuwait with the pending transfer of security to the Iraqis. Under the pullout, the U.S.-led coalition would remain on standby to help the Iraqis if needed.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in exchange for discussing sensitive issues, expressed confidence in the local Iraqi military's capabilities.

But he said that to secure the area effectively, "there has to be some political reconciliation that takes place between the various factions ... and in some sense many of the factions have almost devolved into nothing but organized criminal gangs."

Britain will hand over control of Basra province - the last of four regions of southern Iraq it occupied after the 2003 invasion - in mid-December. British troops withdrew in September from their last base in the city to an airport garrison on the outskirts, and half the 5,000 British troops in Iraq are due to go home by the spring.

Khalaf, who last month escaped two separate roadside bomb attacks targeting his convoy in Basra within a single week, was in Jordan to participate in a U.S.-sponsored conference on ways to develop Iraq's 18 provinces.

The police chief said his forces are "doing their best" to keep Basra calm, adding that the challenges come primarily from a neighboring country and Shiite-allied militias within Iraq. He declined to name the neighbor but claimed it was "exporting drugs and weapons to the Iraqis to kill each other" - a likely reference to Iran.

"They also send us well-trained criminals to kidnap and kill our people and steal our wealth, including oil and livestock," Khalaf added.

Khalaf said his forces also lack "logistical backup gear, like surveillance aircraft and other technical monitoring equipment to control hundreds of kilometers of sea and land borders to hinder the trafficking of drugs, weapons and terrorists."

Basra province, which has an outlet to the Persian Gulf, borders mostly Iran but also Kuwait.

Within Iraq, the police chief claimed "obstacles" come from unspecified government circles. "They're trying to impede our task for various personal reasons," Khalaf said, alluding to alleged official ties with militias allied with Iranian-backed Shiite groups.

"There are thousands of army and police recruits and officers who don't act under my command and I don't know whom they're affiliated with or work for," he said.

Basra has lost more than $64 billion over the last few years, mainly because of corruption and illicit oil exports, Khalaf claimed.

During the three-day meeting at this Jordanian Dead Sea resort, the United States donated $100 million for infrastructure development projects across Iraq, including water sanitation, rehabilitation of schools, road and civic centers. The conference ended Thursday.

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Baltimore: Franks and Feith: If Feith, as Rumsfeld sees it, is such a brilliant intellect, why was Tommy Franks so colorfully disparaging about that intellect? Did Feith try to hold himself out as a master military strategist or something?

Thomas E. Ricks: No, I think they are just very different people.

Franks strikes me as anti-intellectual, to the point of not really understanding generalship. (For example, if you read his memoir, he abuses the concept of "center of gravity" horribly.) Clausewitz says (I believe on page 88 of my edition of "On War," edited by Peter Paret) that the sole task of the top commander is to understand the nature of the conflict in which he is engaged. It seems to me that neither Franks nor his successor, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, passed that test.

Feith, by contrast, seems to me to be one of those guys who over-values intellectual ability, and underestimates the importance of other leadership traits, such as clarity of thinking and expression.

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Washington: I went to a Jesuit school (not Georgetown) for undergrad and graduate school. However, I don't see how a preemptive war comes close to meeting the moral standards espoused by the Catholic Church and the Society of Jesus. And I don't see how the administration at Georgetown can justify hiring warmongers to teach on campus.

Thomas E. Ricks: Here's a comment, not a question, so I am just passing it along.

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Logan, Utah: Still working on your sign ... going to ski beaver mountain this year?

Thomas E. Ricks: Man, I would love to get out to Utah for some skiing this year. Unfortunately I already have planned through March, and I am going to be seeing a lot more of the Tigris River than I am of the Wasatch range.

Let me know when Utah Department of Transportation fixes the sign, okay? I'll go look at it, then drive over the pass to Bear Lake for a strawberry milkshake.

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Washington: What do you make of the Bush administration's claim that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 deterred Iran from making a nuclear bomb?

Thomas E. Ricks: I think that the U.S. invasion of Iraq has actually strengthened Iran's hand in the region. That is, it appears to the big winner in this war so far.

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Baltimore: Would you say that Gen. Petraeus understands a commander's principal job as defined by Clausewitz? Thanks.

Thomas E. Ricks: Yes, I think he does. That's one reason you have seen a radically different approach in Iraq this year.

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Champaign, Ill.: There was a buzz a few months ago about the Marines floating a plan to give them exclusive responsibility for the U.S. forces in Afghanistan and let the Army deal with Iraq. Is there anything new on this?

Thomas E. Ricks: Yeah, the Marines keep floating it, and Defense Secretary Gates keeps on shooting it down.

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Carrboro, N.C.: As you mention Feith, I recall that Feith left with no medals of Freedom or promotion to the World Bank. Was he an example of someone who actually was held accountable for the wretched execution of the war, or is there another story?

Thomas E. Ricks: I am not sure that Feith had a lot of defenders or supporters inside the administration, aside from Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. At least I never heard people go out of their way to defend him.

He has spent some time defending himself, though. Here is his Web site, where he has posted some of his articles, as well as his responses to articles he considers inaccurate.

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Seattle: While I agree that the public buzz about Iran has died down in the past few weeks, what's the word on the inside buzz, at the White House, and especially in the vice president's office? That is what most people were (and are) concerned about...

Thomas E. Ricks: As if I have a lot of sources in Vice President Cheney's office who just can't wait to tell me what they are thinking about Iran!

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Thomas E. Ricks: Thanks for all your questions. I'm off to lunch.

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