The War Over the War

Tom Ricks
Tom Ricks

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Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Military Reporter
Tuesday, June 24, 2008; 12:00 PM

Readers joined Washington Post military reporter Thomas E. Ricks on Tuesday, June 24 at noon ET to discuss the latest developments and 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: Hi. I don't know how many questions I'll get today, but I am ready.

I just got back last week from a short trip to Baghdad. It felt better -- not great, but less violent than in the past. Security definitely is better -- it is back to 2005 levels. That wasn't great then, but it definitely beats the levels of late 2006 and early 2007.

Let's go!

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Mopping Up?: Tom, have the security conditions in Iraq improved sufficiently to call it a "mopping-up" mission?

Thomas E. Ricks: I don't think so. I actually think this war will go on for some time more.

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Cannon Falls, Minn.: I realize this is a crystal ball question, and you obviously don't have one, but do you think that things have things calmed down enough that we could begin to bring our troops home?

Thomas E. Ricks: Well, the five "surge" brigades are almost all home, so troop numbers are down from the peak. But we still have about the same number we've had there for years -- between 130,000 and 140,000. I think we'll have quite a few there for a long time.

The big question right now is, how will cutting the combat power of U.S. forces affect the security situation? Commanders in Iraq were pleased to see that civilian deaths continued to come down even as U.S. troop numbers declined.

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Baltimore: Two questions: What revisions, if any, would you make to "Fiasco" in light of the past year's developments in Iraq? Also, what is your opinion of Douglas Feith's book? Why hasn't it been more widely reviewed?

Thomas E. Ricks: I don't think I would make many changes at all to "Fiasco," which I think is an accurate account of the war from 2003 to 2005. I am working on a new book about the war from 2006 to 2008.

I don't know why Feith's book hasn't been more widely reviewed. My guess is that book review editors didn't find it a very impressive book.

Personally I found Feith's book kind of odd. I don't know how many times he has been to Iraq -- I think only once. I was surprised at how little his book covered events in the war.

I also have been surprised at his claim that his book deserves notice because it is based on official documents, while -- he claims -- other books are based on after-the-fact interviews. In fact, I think my book "Fiasco" is based on more official documents than is his. What's more, most of his documents seem to be internal memoranda, while many of the documents I used were sworn affadavits and testimony.

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Thomas E. Ricks: There are a bunch of questions about whether we have won, and whether we can leave. I will publish them and then publish an answer.

Here are the questions, in no particular order:

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Williamsburg, Va.: Have we turned the corner? What exactly are we waiting to happen before we say "we won"? We know we have a humongous embassy in Baghdad, how many troops do we expect will be needed to protect it? There are a million questions, but we're left with snippets of news only when violence occurs. Can you enlighten us?

Thomas E. Ricks: Here's one.

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Yonkers, N.Y.: A lot of the neonconservatives are taking a victory lap over the surge. Today in the Times it was David Brooks's turn. That's very cagey of them. Six months from now, if it all falls to hell, no one will remember what they wrote today -- just as no one lost their job for cheerleading us into this disaster. We're starting to draw down from our peak number of troops, though, aren't we? And today's report from The Post's Karen DeYoung does not seem encouraging. Is this as good as it's going to get? If so, would this be a good time to start looking for the exit?

washingtonpost.com: David Brooks: The Bush Paradox (New York Times, June 24)

Thomas E. Ricks: Here's another.

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Alpharetta, Ga.: Mr. Ricks, thanks for taking questions. Now, following a period of increasingly upbeat reports about progress in Iraq and diminishing news coverage of the situations in both Iraq and Afghanistan, we have this report by the GAO, which is pretty depressing. What's your overall take on all this? Where do you think we stand now, and what are the prospects? I suppose that, like a lot of people, I really want this to be over.

washingtonpost.com: GAO Report Faults Post-'Surge' Planning (Post, June 24)

Thomas E. Ricks: And a third.

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Wellington, Fla.: Mr. Ricks, in light of the recent optimistic outlook of the "surge is winning" in Iraq by historians Victor Davis Hanson and others, do you still adhere to the idea that Iraq is a "fiasco," in the sense that its concept and methodology in fighting are flawed?

Thomas E. Ricks: And a fourth.

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Thomas E. Ricks: Here is my answer to the previous four questions:

There is no question that the security situation in Iraq is better than it was a year ago. There are several reasons for this: There have been more U.S. combat troops available, and more importantly they have been used more effectively; lots of Sunni insurgents stopped fighting, and many of them became our allies as "Sons of Iraq" (but they are not necessarily allies of the Baghdad government); Iraqi security forces are improving; and lots of ethnic cleansing that occurred in 2006 and is now finished.

Does that mean the surge worked? Tactically, yes. But I think the strategic question remains unanswered. That is, is this improvement sustainable? I hope so, but I keep on thinking of what one American general in Iraq said to me last year: "Things are never as bad as they look in Iraq -- and things are never as good as they look." Right now I think Americans are getting a bit over-optimistic, even giddy, about Iraq. I think we still have a long way to go.

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Fort Bragg, N.C.: George Carlin used to do a routine about how words, and the sense of impact on us, have changed -- how we've gone form "shell shock" to "battle fatigue" (fatigue being a nicer word than shock), on to "operational exhaustion" (during the Korean War) and through to "post-traumatic stress disorder." Except for the past several days of U.S. military deaths, it's getting kind of hard to remember, if you're not a military family, that there's a war going on. Several, in fact.

Maybe it's time -- if we want to keep people informed and concerned of what's going on (beyond their "I support the troops" bumper stickers and magnets) -- to speak of the wars and conflicts in clear, simple English, instead of long, detailed, dissertations and inside-the-paper stories. Maybe it's time too for The Washington Post, when they cover military funerals at Arlington (covered well by reporters from all sections of the paper) to put the coverage on the front page, where people can see it. I'll miss you, Tom.

Thomas E. Ricks: Thanks.

During the Civil War, even before the World War I term "shell shock," I think it was called "soldier's heart."

One of the things I try to do as a journalist is write as clearly as possible. At the same time, I want to capture the nuances of the situation.

What is stunning is the photos that don't get printed. I am thinking here of photos of the dead bodies in the street, the maimed children. This has been a long-running issue: Just how much can you put in a newspaper that people read at the breakfast table?

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Raleigh, N.C.: Lara Logan was on "The Daily Show" last week; she said that the soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan feel forgotten. Do you agree or disagree? I was quite shocked that she was so forceful in her opinion. Maybe I'm naive, but it surprised me.

Thomas E. Ricks: I dunno about Afghanistan. I love that country -- I lived there from 1969 to 1971, went back on vacation in 1977, and then was there for work in 2002 and 2004. But I haven't been there lately.

I was in Iraq earlier this month. I don't think soldiers there feel forgotten -- rather, I think morale is better than it was a year or two years ago, because soldiers are feeling more successful, and are seeing their work have an effect.

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Newfoundland, Canada: Is no news good news? (Did CBS actually pull all reporters out as I read somewhere?) Can no news last?

Thomas E. Ricks: Yeah, I was surprised to see that in yesterday's New York Times that CBS no longer has a full-time reporter in Iraq.

The Post has made a large commitment to Iraq, and still has three reporters assigned there -- plus people like Ann Scott Tyson, Karen DeYoung and myself, who go in and out.

And yes, no news is good news, but there is news to be covered in Iraq. It is hard to figure out, but things are happening there.

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Thomas E. Ricks: Hey, where is the gang from Peak's Island, Maine?

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Boston: I believe I read you have taken the buyout. If that is correct, thank you for your years of great work at The Post. If I am mistaken, thank you anyway.

Thomas E. Ricks: Yes, I took the buyout, but there is less there than meets the eye. I told my bosses a while ago that after this year's election I planned to focus more on writing books. Also, even after I leave at the end of this year, I expect to retain some kind of relationship with The Post. It is a great newspaper, it has been very good to me, and I want to continue to help it if I can.

Also, I find it hard to stay away from thinking about the Iraq war, even if Americans seem to be getting bored with it. I think it is the most important event of our time, and I think it will affect us and our children for many years to come.

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San Clemente, Calif.: Mr. Ricks, it's good to have you back. Things seemed to have turned around in Iraq pretty abruptly, almost suspiciously so. Are we really at a point that we comfortable can be negotiating long-term security agreements and big-dollar contracts for U.S. oil companies? How much of this some what hurried activity has to do with the real security gains in Iraq, and how much has to so with the clock running out on the Bush administration

Thomas E. Ricks: I don't think it was all that abrupt. It took all of 2006 for the Bush administration to recognize that we were on a course toward defeat and to sit down and conduct a genuine and thorough strategic review. Only in December 2006 were the questions asked that should have been asked years earlier: What is our strategy -- that is ,what are we trying to do? Is that achievable? If so, how do we achieve it? Have we devoted adequate resources -- time, people and money -- to the job? Do our tactics support our strategy? Why do we seem to "rush to failure" again and again in Iraq? And why do generals think that Iraqi troops will be more successful where better-trained, better-equipped and better-led American troops have been unsuccessful?

And then it took most of 2007 for the new strategy to be implemented and start showing results in security. And here we are in 2008, and the assumption of the surge -- that improved security would lead to a political breakthrough -- still is being debated.

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Mentor, Ohio: Is the $3 trillion dollar cost of the war in Iraq affecting the American economy?

Thomas E. Ricks: This question touches on something that is a pet peeve of mine, which is the decline of the American infrastructure. This is something I notice when I come back to the U.S. from Europe. Their roads are better. Their public transportation is way better. Their schools are better. I think that $500 billion could have been spent on some of those things here.

On top of that, we aren't paying for this war -- we have put in on the national credit card. It seems to me that the Chinese effectively are paying for it, by buying American debt. And I worry about when the bill comes due.

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Bridgewater, Mass.: Sen. Obama has recently said he'll go to Iraq sometime before the election. The question is, do politicians learn anything from their visits there? Most of them seem to come back and report that they saw what they expected to see. I wonder whether Obama would have to do his walkabout without a vest as well as the helmet (but with extra helicopters, maybe?) to show he's as brave as McCain.

Thomas E. Ricks: Yes, I do think people learn from being on the ground there, even if they are just in protected zones. If nothing else, it helps to talk to soldiers -- they can be very refreshing. I remember one guy saying something controversial to me, and I replied: "You know, I am a reporter. Are you on the record?" He said "what are they gonna do to me, cut off my hair and send me to Iraq?"

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Arlington, Va.: I was at a meeting recently, after which I chatted with a couple of colonels (one Army, one Air Force). I was surprised at how openly they expressed to me their disgust with the war in Iraq, and their feeling that Bush's actions have "destroyed" the military for the next 20 years out (some of that being related to brain drain to Iraq and to the contractor side). They were very unhappy, needless to say. To what extent do you hear higher-ranking officers expressing this kind of sentiment in private? Have you noticed any changes recently in the level of negative feelings toward the war and this administration? Thanks as always for your response.

Thomas E. Ricks: I actually think I am hearing the opposite. When I was writing "Fiasco," there was a huge amount of anger in the military with the Bush administration for its handling of the war in Iraq -- but in the last two years, I think that anger has diminished. One way this comes up is in officers volunteering how much more they like Defense Secretary Gates than they liked Donald Rumsfeld.

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Hartford, Conn.: I can envision a scenario in which violence in Iraq continues to decline for the rest of the year, emboldening a President Obama to draw down troops fairly quickly in 2009. Then -- as you and many others feared -- violence returns and we end up with a fragmented Iraq, possibly with terrorist havens. We then spend the next couple decades arguing among ourselves about who "lost" Iraq, much like we did post-Vietnam. Is this likely or possible in your view?

Thomas E. Ricks: Yeah, it is possible. I really have doubts about the current near-euphoria. It reminds me that when I was writing "Fiasco," some people said to me, "hey, they just held elections, the war is over." They were wrong.

I do think we are gonna be there a lot longer than people here seem to think.

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Bethel Park, Pa.: Have we been in Iraq and Afghanistan longer than the Soviets were in their occupation of the latter? If not, when's the magic date? I'll pencil it into my day planner. Have a big party or something. Curious -- both of these "countries" sit on or control major energy resources. Just a coincidence? Thanks.

Thomas E. Ricks: I disagree with parts of your question. First, whether or not Iraq is a real country, I think Afghanistan is. Second, are you really sure Afghanistan has energy resources? I know Central Asia has natural gas, but I am not sure that Afghanistan has much.

Off the top of my head, I can't remember what year the Soviets left Afghanistan. At any rate, their withdrawal certainly didn't bring an end to that country's troubles. In fact, it led eventually to Afghanistan becoming a safe haven for al-Qaeda, and that helped lead to Sept. 11.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: Thank you, Mr. Ricks, for your seminal book and for continuing to cover this war. While it may seem like many have tuned out, I and others still want to hear about this conflict. Please keep it up. My question is, how long, in your opinion, will a surge-style tactical presence be required for the U.S., with soldiers in neighborhood bases, going on daily foot patrols and so on?

Put another way, could a president Obama withdraw U.S. soldiers to Kurdistan and Kuwait and perhaps a select few Iraqi desert forward operating bases, and be able to still conduct anti-al-Qaeda actions, while providing logistical, training, intelligence and air support to a more functional Iraqi army? Or is leaving the surge tactical posture unrealistic for the next two years?

Thomas E. Ricks: I don't think that sort of semi-withdrawal would work. But hey, I might be wrong.

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Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates: Is the war in Iraq really for liberation?

Thomas E. Ricks: Well, take your pick -- the Bush administration has offered a variety of rationales. I remember Defense Secretary Rumsfeld saying before the war that it was absolutely and unquestionably about weapons of mass destruction. I remember Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz saying it was about bringing democracy to the Middle East. I remember opponents of the war saying it was all about oil.

I think history will remember it as a distraction from the response to Sept. 11.

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San Clemente, Calif.: Sadly, you're right -- we are going to be in Iraq in a major and expensive way for many years to come. At the very least we have a moral responsibility to repair what we have destroyed. It won't be easy with the majority of Iraq's population hating our guts.

Thomas E. Ricks: More a comment than a question here, but as my Irish relatives say, "that's alright, too."

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Wilmington, N.C.: Okay, this might sound strange, but what in your opinion has made Nouri al-Maliki or his administration turn the corner and take more responsibility for general Iraqi security? Has Iraq really become al-Qaeda's quagmire, as Gates recently stated, or is the media making things seem better than they are? Are we or the coalition lining his pockets? Is it the possible upcoming change in leadership here in states and the possibility of less funding and or fewer troops doing the trick? Your expertise is more than appreciated.

Thomas E. Ricks: Maliki took a real gamble with his attack on the militias in Basra in late March. He appears to have won, big time. One thing that has struck me lately is that several moderate Sunni Arab states have indicated that they plan to open embassies in Baghdad -- after years of resisting American pressure to do so. This seems to me to signal that after Basra, they look at Maliki less as the leader of the biggest Shiite militia and more as a leader of Iraq.

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Maui, Hawaii: Have we turned that corner that Dick Cheney was always promising? Just exactly where is that corner? We have Google Maps now, maybe we can all go look at it if you give us the latitude and longitude. Thanks.

Thomas E. Ricks: Again, more a comment than a question.

I never have understood Vice President Cheney's tendency to make over-optimistic statements about Iraq, especially as he seems to be to have a fairly dark view of the world.

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New York: Mr. Ricks: You mention less-than-ardent feelings for Donald Rumsfeld on the part of officers in Iraq. What are the residual sentiments vis-a-vis our former Viceroy, L. Paul Bremer III, if any?

Thomas E. Ricks: Good question. I hear a lot of denunciations of him. In my opinion, they probably blame him a bit too much. Sure, he made decisions that helped intensify opposition to the U.S. presence, but so did the military -- especially in using tactics that proved counterproductive, like stuffing Abu Ghraib with a lot of bystanders who then were radicalized while imprisoned. Maj. Gen. Stone, the recent commander of detainee operations in Iraq, recently said that American detention policies turned the prisons into a jihadist university system.

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Bethesda, Md.: Thomas -- could an argument be made that this is an "occupation" more than it is a war? The U.S. has won the war and taken over the country ... now it seems it's just a violent occupation.

Thomas E. Ricks: I am not sure there is a difference.

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Chicago: Tom, many in the media compare the Iraq war to the war in Vietnam, but personally I believe the Iraq conflict resembles the French-Algerian war of 1950s and 1960s. Do you agree? If not, what past war do you believe the current conflict resembles the most?

Thomas E. Ricks: Yeah, I have learned a lot from studying the Algerian war. There are major similarities, but also major differences.

Anybody interested enough to read this chat should watch the terrific movie "The Battle of Algiers." Also, a good book: Sir Alistair Horne's "A Savage War of Peace," the best history I know of the Algerian war.

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Wokingham, U.K.: Is the rise in oil prices -- very steep even without overt military action in the Gulf -- steadily removing from the United States and Israel the option of an attack on Iran?

Thomas E. Ricks: Again, I may be wrong, but I just don't see it happening this year.

As for the recent hoopla about Israeli air exercises, a smart retired intelligence analyst I know argues that such public acts are a signs that something isn't going to happen. His view is that overt acts reduce surprise, which is essential to success.

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San Francisco: Something been nagging me for a while now, and I have to ask. Whatever happened to the airplane mock-up terrorist training facility that was said to exist in pre-war Baghdad? Was its existence confirmed in the invasion, or was it just some figment of over-eager neocon imagination?

Thomas E. Ricks: This is reaching back five years, but if I recall, it wasn't a terrorist facility. If I recall correctly, it was some sort of legitimate training facility -- for firefighters or hostage rescue teams or something.

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Thomas E. Ricks: Thanks for a good set of questions.

As for all the queries about Lara Logan on "The Daily Show," I didn't see it -- I guess I will have to work less and stay up later.

I'm off to lunch with my terrific daughter.

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