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The War Over the War

Tom Ricks
Tom Ricks

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Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Military Reporter
Tuesday, February 5, 2008; 12:00 PM

Readers joined Washington Post military reporter Thomas E. Ricks on Tuesday, Feb. 5 at noon ET to discuss the debate in Washington among government, military and intelligence officials about what course to follow in Iraq.

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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.

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Thomas E. Ricks: Hi. As I sit here writing this, I wonder if anyone is going to show up to this chat today. For the first time I can remember since at least the winter of 2002-03, Iraq isn't one of the top two issues of interest in the United States, and this week it might not even be the third. (I am thinking here of 1. the very interesting presidential campaigns, 2. the economy falling into recession and, maybe 3. the Patriots losing the Super Bowl -- I'm a native Bostonian, but man, that outcome reminded me of the Red Sox-Mets World Series. Where have you gone, Bill Buckner? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you, and to Pumpsie Green.)

As it happens, I am in Spain. I stopped here on the way home to catch my breath and try to shake some sort of bad cold or respiratory infection I picked up in Baghdad-that's what days of alternating cold rain and Mesopotamian dust will do for you. I left Iraq on Friday. There's no mud like Iraqi mud.

So, if anyone is out there, I am ready

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Arlington, Va.: Mr. Ricks ... is there still a war in Iraq? The coverage in The Post and other newspapers has just evaporated ... yet Americans are still dying, our financial debt is growing, etc. Why isn't it being covered? Out of sight, out of the voters' minds.

Thomas E. Ricks: Only four questions for me so far. I think I was right. That's okay -- more tapas for me.

And the first question here goes right to the point. Kind of hurts, because I just got sick reporting in Iraq on the war. I did two stories -- one about top commanders there wanting a pause in troop drawdowns after they get down to about 130,000 this summer, and the second about the state of the war(s) in Baghdad. One of the stories was on page one of The Post, so I bet at least a couple of people read it.

That said, yeah, I get the feeling from a lot of people that they think the war is over. It ain't over till the fat militiaman sings.

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Princeton, N.J.: Tom, I am submitting this comment early because the following article in the New York Times has me so upset. It seems to me that it shows we have no hope in Afghanistan, and Iraq is probably worse. Our effort in these places is so (words fail me here) stupid, blind, arrogant, and in many ways downright evil, that we have no hope to get the people of these countries to believe that our way of life is a good, decent way to live.

washingtonpost.com: Time Runs Out for an Afghan Held by the U.S. (New York Times, Feb. 5)

Thomas E. Ricks: I disagree with your assessment of Iraq -- it is worse off than people back in the U.S. seem to think, but I don't think it is hopeless. (However, I do think that the original goals stated by the Bush administration won't be reached.)

I haven't been to Afghanistan lately, so I don't know. I have been hearing a lot of worrisome stuff out of there in the past couple of months, though.

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Reston, Va.: Why does the Defense Department have no interest in using magnetic minesweeping to fight IEDs?

Thomas E. Ricks: What makes you think they don't, Reston? (That's not a rhetorical question.) There is so much money available for anyone with a way to counter IEDs that I think someone must have looked into this.

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Minneapolis: Tom, I'm concerned about the polls from 2007 that showed a majority of Iraqis in favor of attacks against Americans. Is it the case that American troops are working in the same neighborhoods long enough to create real relationships with the locals, or are those mostly superficial, and do both sides look at each other warily?

Thomas E. Ricks: I was talking to some smart officers in Iraq about those polls. They worry about them too. Their thinking is that, somewhat contradictorily, Iraqis will say in polls that they want the U.S. to leave -- but not yet, because they need some protection against a resumption of the small-scale civil war of 2006.

At the same time, Iraqis will say it is okay to attack U.S. troops because they are foreigners. There is lots of pride in Iraq.

It reminds me a bit of a memoir I once read in which a Nationalist Chinese pilot said that during the Korean War, there was cheering in his officers' club when Communist Chinese troops pushed U.S. forces down the Korean peninsula. Sure, he explained, the Communists were our enemies, but there was pride in seeing Chinese troops triumph over Westerners.

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Arlington, Va.: Some office politics advice please, Tom. I am a Chief Operating Officer and report to the CEO. There is a bright, up-and-coming division head who reports officially to me but he has caught the eye of our CEO because he is helping the CEO on the CEO's pet project that went very, very badly. What the CEO and division head are doing to try to fix this project short term will break the company long-term and divert key resources away from rising problems in other divisions, but the CEO is retiring next year and he doesn't want his project to fail on his watch, so he is pushing the division head's ideas against my view of what is best for the whole company long-term and the problems we face in other critical divisions. Sound familiar? I can't overrule the CEO for the next year. What can I do? Sincerely, M. Mullen, Arlington, Va.

Thomas E. Ricks: Interesting analogy.

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Asheville, N.C.: When Secretary Gates launched his recent broadside against NATO countries for what he called an incompetent counterterrorist performance, I noted that he only turned around what had been said from the first against us. Gates's attempt at humor received full, local media coverage, though -- and the origin or pedigree of the criticism was not mentioned.

Now, with the matter of Afghanistan in full blow, and Rice and Gates headed for Europe to tone it down, Prince Andrew -- en route to the States too -- reminds his American confreres that Britain offered its sound advice regarding postwar Iraq, only to see it rejected. And then, locally too, you could have heard a second pin drop. This let's-leave-it-to-the-wire-services-it's-too-hot-to-handle-here approach falls right in line with that now-familiar one, "publish it one on Saturday." When does The Post -- and you, too -- do the real news, hey!? What's going on, too? When some European newspapers already have dubbed this set-to a trans-Atlantic row second only to the run-up to the Iraq invasion, I'd like to know.

Thomas E. Ricks: Oh, give me a break. I think the U.S. press generally is much better than the British press.

As for your Saturday conspiracy theory, I tend to think that The Post publishes news when it has it. That means breaking events on Friday wind up in the next day's editions.

Look, if The Post wanted to punt or run from the truth, do you think they would have given me a year to write a book called "Fiasco: The U.S. Military Adventure in Iraq"? I think that was gutsy of them to not question that. I used to work at a newspaper that would have had a lot of problems with that, I think -- even before it was bought by Rupert Murdoch.

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Freising, Germany: There's an interesting article in the San Francisco Chronicle about the difficulties and paperwork that Iraqi Interpreters have to overcome in order to resettle in the U.S., after their lives and families are endangered by terrorists. I'd once read that the Hmong fighters in Vietnam received aid in order to move to the United States. It seems strange that now donation-dependent organizations like the Checkpoint One Foundation are the main actors in this regard.

washingtonpost.com: From fear in Baghdad to new life in Oregon (AP, Jan. 27)

Thomas E. Ricks: Yeah, it is sad. I've had a couple of conversations lately with reporters who have worked in Iraq trying to help their old Iraqi interpreters get into the U.S. It is very tough. And sad.

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Washington: Sir, as I read more and more "endgame" analysis of the U.S. presence in Iraq the pragmatic opinions seem to be running towards a mission with the following objectives: A troop re-position at the borders to keep Iraq territorially intact and secure from neighboring countries; the U.S. keeping the eventual Sunni, Shia, Kurd, etc. power negotiation/conflict from reaching genocidal levels; The ability of the U.S. special forces to continue to battle al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Now, in my opinion these ideas, while easy to say, may be ridden with problems that will keep us in the country for even more years to come. For instance, say the civil war does become vicious and the troops do move in to restore calm -- okay, so how long do we stay in the streets? And won't the battle just continue after we leave? Furthermore I increasingly am frustrated that these questions are not being asked by the press and/or that I seem not to be able to find any relevant discussion on this topic. Your comments please...

Thomas E. Ricks: Well, before we get to any of that, there are two big questions to be answered: What will be the effect of U.S. troop drawdowns on security in Baghdad? And will the Iraqi government ever get off the dime? The answers to those will determine a lot of other things about the future of Iraq.

But to quote my wise colleague Anthony Shadid: "The more I know about Iraq, the less I understand it."

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Black Mountain, N.C.: The whole effort to make out what we are fighting to be a "war" may be what's behind all the torpor now, as Bush's tour winds down. The Europeans and others even now engage us regarding it. "Training" that NATO shows their preference for police and intelligence work and that's how these countries long have addressed terrorists or "terrorism" (is it really?)! Keep thinking of how the previous Republican juggernaut, their "war" on drugs, with its merry czars too, turned out, and why Noriega turned out the way he did...

Thomas E. Ricks: Black Mountain -- I've always wanted to go there, ever since I read the Black Mountain poets in college. (Now I am old enough to contemplate retiring there.)

To go to the core of your question: I think that Americans realize that we are going to be dealing with Iraq and Afghanistan loooooong after George Bush leaves office. They aren't happy about it. But they don't know if there are any good answers out there. And they're not happy about that either.

Yeah, that amounts to a feeling of powerlessness.

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Trip to Afghanistan: You said you haven't been to Afghanistan in a while. Per my last analogy about problems in other divisions, isn't the context of what is happening in Afghanistan and the Pakistan border area critical in any discussion of pausing troop levels at 130,000 in Iraq or even keeping 100,000 to the end of Bush's term? Now that you are getting over your Baghdad flu, when are you heading to Kabul?

Thomas E. Ricks: I am not sure that more U.S. troops would help much in Afghanistan. Years ago Gen. Jack Keane, then the vice chief of staff of the Army, argued at the Pentagon against invading Iraq. Instead, he said, put two U.S. divisions (approximately 30,000 troops) on the Pakistani-Afghan border, and keep them there until Osama bin Laden is caught. In other words, keep your eye on the ball.

We didn't.

That said, a small additional number of troops in Afghanistan probably could help with training. But viewing it from afar, the whole war there has a kind of feeling of drift to me. I don't want to say more because I haven't been there lately. (I wouldn't mind -- I loved Kabul when I lived there. I used to ski a lot, and was a proud junior member of the Afghan Ski Patrol.)

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Princeton, N.J.: Well, if Iraq is not hopeless, what do you see as its future? How many more will die before the Sunni and Shia stop fighting, before the Kurds stop trying to expand their empire, before the Badr sit down with the Mahdi, before the Christians come back to their churches and reopen their liquor stores, before the country gets drinking water, electricity, gasoline, and jobs, before a significant part of oil production is not stolen, before corruption is brought to tolerable levels, etc., etc., etc. How many, Mr. Ricks?

Thomas E. Ricks: I don't know. No one does -- not even Princetonians.

I think Iraq is a tragedy. I guess that is one flight up from hopeless.

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Bridgewater, Mass.: What happened/is happening with those walls they put up to seal off communities from each other? They were resented at first, I think I remember, but did they work? And we hear about refugees beginning to come home -- does inflow equal outflow yet? Thanks for going to take a look. It must seem more than strange to come back from a shooting war and see how few people seem to be paying attention.

Thomas E. Ricks: Well, this time I didn't hear much shooting in Baghdad. Back in May I heard perhaps 50 rounds a day, and a couple of explosions a day, plus as many as 30 mortar impacts in the course of a week.

In November I heard about 10 rounds a day, none of it heavy machine gun fire. (I pay special attention to that because it goes through walls very easily.)

On this trip I didn't hear a shot for my first 72 hours. When I did hear shooting, it was about eight rounds of fire exchanged in the middle of the night. I was told it was loyalists of Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric, firing from a minaret down the street at a compound held by their Shiite rivals in the Badr Corps. Not very neighborly.

To get to your question: The walls do seem to have had an effect, especially in preventing a lot of marketplace explosions (not all of them -- see the nasty one last Friday in the pet markets) and also in preventing Shiite death squads from killing Sunnis where they sleep.

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Iraqi translators: Doesn't the FBI only have about 10 agents who speak Arabic? Why aren't we solving two problems with one solution -- getting the Iraqi translators who helped us out of harms way, if they so desire, and increasing the number of FBI agents/CIA agents/U.S. military receiving Arabic language skills, or an Arabic perspective on tactical or communication issues? That would make too much sense for a bureaucracy...

Thomas E. Ricks: That's an interesting idea. I will post your thought right now.

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Colorado: I heard on NPR this morning that the Iraqi army was preparing to attack a southern town that had been taken over by Sadrist militia, then I read on Juan Cole's blog that the Sadrist militia leaders in Najaf (I believe it was) were getting restless and feeling victimized by the official government forces. Is the six-month truce running out?

Thomas E. Ricks: The situation in the south of Iraq is pretty murky. That was a topic of conversation among journalists in Baghdad -- how little we know of what is going on down there.

Every time I hear a British official talk about Basra, I find myself thinking of the expression, "you can put lipstick on a pig, but it is still gonna be a pig."

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Austin, Texas: How do Iraqis feel about the invasion now? Do a majority wish it never had happened, or do many still think there's more hope for the future than there would have been under Saddam? Are there recent polls?

Thomas E. Ricks: I think they feel frustrated, depressed, dissed, and surprised the U.S. couldn't do better.

That said, I think there is a glimmer of hope in the improved security. It is still hellish, but a higher circle. (I actually looked up Dante's Inferno one day while in Baghdad. I think the city used to be in Circle Seven, which he reserved for the violent. Over the past six months it moved up to Circle Five, which is for the wrathful and sullen. I think those are the two main Iraqi political parties.)

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Richmond, Va.: There is a very clear divide between the Republicans and the Democrats over vis-a-vis the Iraq war. McCain, for example, says he can see us in Iraq for 100 years. Obama and Clinton can see troops out in a year, start in 60 days. Diametrically opposite positions. If McCain says "see, the surge is working," won't that put pressure on the Democrats to come up with a reason why it is not -- given that, even though the surge is working, most Americans want out? It seems the rhetoric going forward, at least on Iraq, is as complicated as the war itself.

Thomas E. Ricks: I find myself growing frustrated with the phrase "the surge is working." That's an incomplete thought. Working to achieve what?

I think it has worked to improve security somewhat. It's not great, but it's better. Baghdad is far from being a "safe" city. But when President Bush unveiled the surge 13 months ago, he said it was being done to aid a political breakthrough in Iraq. That hasn't happened, so in that sense, the surge has failed.

And there is my attempt to improve the quality of the debate!

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A telling absence?: Scrolling through the dozen or so questions and answers, I see mention of Sadrists, Badrists, Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. No al-Qaeda. Yet if I were to watch a TV/cable news story on Iraq, I would be told that al-Qaeda was the source of all evil in Iraq.

Thomas E. Ricks: Well, they probably were the jerks who blew up about 100 men, women and children in the pet markets on Friday. But al-Qaeda in Iraq is increasingly marginalized, according to U.S. officers. (These are people I have known for years, and who aren't lipstick-on-the-pig types.)

With them on the fringe, it actually might be possible to move forward in Iraq, but it is still going to be nasty and hard. I don't think Americans understand that we really aren't going to like the eventual outcome in Iraq. I strongly doubt it will be anything resembling a democracy. It might not even be an American ally -- but still might want American troops around as insurance against coups. And it still might fall apart into pieces.

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Raleigh, N.C.: It's not, I don't believe, that people think the war is over. It's just that it's hard to think of a question, because everything has been determined! The war was a -- ahem -- "fiasco," strategically; we ain't leaving until there's a new president, if then; the surge worked to (more than?) halve U.S. deaths; the surge failed to move Iraqis on the road to political or military self-sufficiency. People who are casual observers already have made up their minds as to whether or not the war was a good idea, and us news junkies don't see any "movement" either.

Thomas E. Ricks: Not a bad summary, news junkie!

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Washington: I hear "surge" supporters claim we're now on the right path in Iraq, that the surge is "working," etc. If we can't leave, if the government can't defend itself, if we have to spend $100 billion a year to fight the war so that we're winning but haven't won ... how long can we afford to be winning?

Thomas E. Ricks: Funny, a British general said the same thing during the American revolution. (And he wasn't the first -- see the definition of "Pyrrhic victory.")

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Princeton, N.J.: I feel the surge has purchased security at the cost of more divisiveness. Now we have Sunni militias to more effectively fight the Shia militias. Now we have Baghdad divided up into walled enclaves -- with, by the way, no place for the 4.5 million displaced people to return to.

Thomas E. Ricks: Well, you feel wrong -- there was a lot more violence in Iraq in 2006 than in 2007. And nothing is more divisive murderous violence.

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Reading, Pa.: Turkey is getting more aggressive about tactics in Northern Iraq -- do you see a point when the U.S. will need to send a stronger message that this is unacceptable?

Thomas E. Ricks: I have no idea of what is happening up north. The Kurdish role baffles me right now ... but I worry about it.

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Arlington, Va.: Now here is a practical question. How exactly do we get out. What I call the "military physics" of withdrawal will be very difficult. To some extent we will need to focus our military efforts on setting up a scenario that will allow us to do leave. (I was rather hoping the surge was actually a way of doing this, but no sign of that so far.) People who think that Iraq is Korea and that we will be there for 50 years ... are in a fantasy. People who think we can leave, even as part of a phased withdrawal that lasts less than two years ... are in the same fantasy.

Thomas E. Ricks: Sure, it will take awhile to get out, when the decision is made. But remember what Daniel Day-Lewis said about heading west in "Last of the Mohicans" (one of my all-time favorite movies). The British officer said: "There is a war on. How is it you are headed west?" Hawkeye (his character) replies, "Well, we kinda face to the north and real subtle-like turn left."

Likewise, I suspect when the time comes, it will be easier than we think -- especially if the Iranians want us out, and so don't try to cut the roads. You just face west, and turn left.

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Anonymous: I know that our military men and women on the ground in Iraq have a lot of pride about what they are doing ... do they have confidence in the mission? Do they worry whether there is a realistic plan that either lets them do their job or gets them home? In short, what do the grunts think should be done ... if there is any unanimity of opinion?

Thomas E. Ricks: I thought they were kind of all over the place -- worn down by three or four tours, but pleased to see an increase in security after four years of flailing about. And they want to believe that their friends died for something worthwhile.

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Peaks Island, Maine: What is your view re: Iraq hearts and minds -- i.e. paraphrasing from Rumsfeld's October 2003 question: "Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than" are being recruited, trained and deployed against us?

Thomas E. Ricks: I don't think it is about winning Iraqi hearts and minds. That strikes me as hopeless indeed (and a tip of the hat to our Princeton tiger).

I think it is about persuading Iraqis that it makes sense to at least temporarily align with the U.S. and its allies.

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Arlington, Va.: Take heart. There are a lot of lurkers reading the chat, even though they can't post.

Thomas E. Ricks: I don't think so! If you are lurking, put up your cyberhand now (maybe just send a note saying, "I am lurking").

I want to go for tapas but will check the remaining questions now.

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Philadelphia: Today is the fifth anniversary of Colin Powell's lie-fest in front of the U.N. Where is Gen. Powell these days? Hiding in shame? What a waste of a good man.

Thomas E. Ricks: What was the waste -- the speech or his taking a low profile?

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Crestwood, N.Y.: Mr. Ricks, here's my fearless prediction, and please tell me why I'm full of it: We elect a Democratic president, the withdrawals start, and we're nearly all drawn down when the civil war reignites. The Shiite majority gains the upper hand, we redeploy the rest of our forces off-shore, and five years from now we have an unstable assemblage of provinces called Iraq similar to what is there today, which is under Iran's domination, but otherwise not a haven for al-Qaeda. What is off the mark?

Thomas E. Ricks: Hey Crestwood! I used to live just up the line, back when university professors could afford a house in Scarsdale. (My pop taught at Columbia University.)

You may well be right.

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Thomas E. Ricks: Okay, I am gonna post some comments, and then it is time for tapas and a little vino tinto.

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Philadelphia: When will the political gains be made? If the "surge is working" shouldn't the political gains come now? If not, how can anyone say the surge is working?

Thomas E. Ricks: Here's one.

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Minneapolis: Mr. Ricks -- Thanks for your expertise and reasoned judgment on this very difficult issue. This is more of a comment than a question. The reports of the surge "working" notwithstanding, people feel defeated by the war, and are sick of Bush et al talking about it. To me, that is a tragedy as well -- that we don't want to hear about it anymore.

Thomas E. Ricks: Another.

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Pyrrhic victory definition: The U.S. spending $100 billion a year on 130,000 U.S. troops and local Sunnis in Iraq while al-Qaeda leaders are doing Walter Reed-like troop visits to wounded al-Qaeda openly in hospitals in major Pakistan cities. We killed that leader with a missile strike thankfully, but I'm sure al-Qaeda will adjust quickly. Bin Laden and Zawahiri are only too glad to have us bogged down in Iraq while they enjoy a safe haven in the border region of Pakistan.

Thomas E. Ricks: A third. Still unclear on the spelling of Pyrrhic.

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Washington: Comment mostly: It seems to me that the three major groups in Iraq are using the U.S. presence to get a bigger piece of the pie, knowing that the U.S. will protect the size of the pie. Without a U.S. presence, or with a vastly reduced one, the three groups have the choice of being three small fish in a tank of large piranhas or one large fish in that tank. Do the Kurds really think that the Sunnis and Shiites would lift a finger against Turkey?

How important is being Iraqi to these people, and if they have no interest in being Iraqi who put us in charge of determining their national identity. The oil still will be there, and we buy lots of oil from some very unsavory people. We can't focus on Iran, Turkey, Israel/Palestine, and most of the rest of the globe because of being overcommitted in a multitude of ways in Iraq. The West basically stood by while a civil war in Congo killed 4 million-5 million. You would think that a former drinker would understand the side effects of enabling bad behavior.

Thomas E. Ricks: And more.

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Washington: I just don't know what to ask anymore. It feels like we're in a holding pattern until Jan. 20, 2009.

Thomas E. Ricks: And a final thought.

But no one has jumped up to confess to being a lurker.

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