The American Military "Fiasco" in Iraq with Thomas Ricks speaking at the World Affairs Council of Northern California.
The American military is a tightly sealed community, and aside from the handful of Generals who have publicized their views on the Iraq war, few outsiders have access to the personal views of senior officers. But many officers have shared their thoughts with renowned military reporter Thomas E. Ricks.
In his book, Fiasco, Ricks combines these on-the-record military accounts with his own on-the-ground reportage to create a distinctive account of this war. While there was never any question that the U.S. military would topple Saddam Hussein, Ricks concludes there was also never any real thought about what would come next. Through his interviews with a number of military figures in his book - from leaders at the highest levels of the Army and Marine hierarchies to the men and women who led to battlefield success in Fallujah to Tall Afar - he argues that short-sightedness has ensured the current Iraq dilemma, arguing that the Iraq war will hold a place in history that is nothing less than a "fiasco"- World Affairs Council of Northern California
Thomas E. Ricks
Thomas E. Ricks is a Washington Post Pentagon and military correspondent and Pulitzer Prize-winner.
Ricks lectures widely to the military and is a member of Harvard University's Senior Advisory Council on the Project on U.S. Civil-Military Relations. Ricks is the author of the bestselling books Making the Corps, A Soldier's Duty, and Fiasco: The American Military Adventure In Iraq.
Jane Wales is vice president of philanthropy and society at the Aspen Institute, president and CEO of the World Affairs Council, and founder of the Global Philanthropy Forum.
Previously, Wales was a special assistant to President Clinton, senior director of the National Security Council, and associate director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
She also chaired the international security programs at the Carnegie Corporation and the W. Alton Jones Foundation and directed the Project on World Security at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
Wales is the former national executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility.
Thomas Ricks is a Pulitzer Prize winning correspondent for The Washington Post and heis Dean of the America Military Correspondence. He has spent part of his childhood inAfghanistan and after graduating from Yale, won a fellowship for study in the Far East.As a reporter he has covered US military operations in Bosnia, in Somalia, in Haiti and inthe Middle East. His book Fiasco was number one on the bestseller list from the verystart, The New York Times bestseller list and it sparked an impassioned and importantdebate across the country. In fact it was discussed everywhere from the Senate floor toop-ed pieces in newspapers across across our country and in fact across the world. Soplease join me in welcoming Thomas RicksThank you very much for that kind introduction. It's terrific to be in San Franciscoespecially because I was in Dallas last week. But I do have some good news; they arebeginning to get it. In my talks down there people were saying, you mean this Iraq thingthat George did isn't really working out. I said that's right. And they say, you mean themedia was telling us the truth about what's going on in Iraq and the administration got itwrong. And I said that's right, and they are having another think down there in Dallas.What I'd like to do is to talk fairly quickly about 15 to 20 minutes and then get into yourquestions which I think are always the more interesting part of this sort of event. Butbefore I begin talking, I just want to ask do we have any veterans here tonight of Iraq orAfghanistan? If so would you put up your hand please? One, two, three could we have around applause for them?Thank you for your service. Okay, where are we in Iraq now? There has been a lot offuzzy talk about progress without lot of distinction made about what sort of progress.Sometimes I feel that progress in Iraq is like the horizon, it's always there but it nevergets any closer. Every indication is that the so called surge, properly termed a counteroffensive, is having some small success tactically in parts of Baghdad. It's having someimprovement on security in Baghdad. That's not to say that parts of Baghdad are safe, it'sjust that better than they were in 2006, which is not a particularly high hurdle. We aretalking here about circles of hell, which circle or hell are you in? The seventh, eighth, sixor so on. But that's often the nature of the discussion when it comes to things in Iraq, how bad is it?The important thing about surge though is the President announced it in January,explicitly, with the intention the strategic goal of achieving national politicalreconciliation and the military the surge was the military operation that was intendedto create a breathing space in which national political reconciliation could occur amongIraqi leaders. At this point there is no sign of that occurring and actually the evidence tothe contrary is that the Iraqi government appears to be falling apart as more and moregroups pull out of the ruling coalition or start boycotting cabinet meetings with the effectthat they can't have the quorum necessary to forward any legislation. It means essentiallythe Iraqi government has grounded to a halt. So what next?Everybody is waiting for General Petraeus. In six weeks General Petraeus comes back toWashington and along with Ambassador Crocker testifies in front of the Congress. Myguess and its just a guess, is that his testimony will be interesting, but not dispositive.That is I don't think it's really going to change the debate in Iraq. I think what he will dois put lipstick on a pig. He will come back and say, don't pay any attention to thebenchmarks that were laid down in January, pay attention to these other things and theyare genuine trends. The switching allegiance of tribes in Anbar province and in someother provinces away from Al Qaeda and at least temporarily arriving at deals ofconvenience with the Americans and fighting alongside the Americans, and this includespeople who have killed American troops. That's a significant change. It actually is whatyou need in almost every counter insurgency, is that kind of deal that's how you putdown the insurgency.There are real questions though about how sustainable that trend is. And also whether itmight end up simply adding fuel to the fire of the future full blown civil war. The Shiitepoliticians are profoundly worried about this that we are cutting deals with theirenemies. One Shiite politician recently said, "Baby crocodiles are cute, but you can't keepadult crocodiles in your house." And they worry that these deals we are cutting withinsurgent groups and tribes is creating a whole bunch of baby alligators out there, that aregoing to grow up and start biting each other as the US draws down its presence in Iraq.The most interesting thing to watch in Congress right now and especially in Septemberwill be the 21 Republican Senators who come up for reelection next year. They areterrified. When you ask them and I asked one of them, what's going to be like if youhave to campaign next year with Iraq like it is now, their faces turn white. I don't thinkthey are going to bolt entirely though, may be they will start distinct themselves andfrom the Bush Administration but I don't think you are going to see the Republicans gettogether with the Democrats and actually pull the plug on the war. Why? Because I thinkthe Democrats are terrified of getting tagged with ending this war as they were taggedwith ending the Vietnam War and were distrusted by a large part of the country onnational security issues for decades afterwards. So I actually think September will be likeMacbeth, full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing.On Iraq I think the beginning of wisdom is to understand that there are no good answersleft. We have frittered away a lot of time and a lot of good answers in Iraq. At this pointwe have been fighting in Iraq a year longer almost then we fought in World War II as anation. We have much left to show for it. We need to start talking about what the leastbad answer is and how we get to it. As one general said to me in Iraq last May "Justbecause you invade a country stupidly doesn't mean that you should leave it stupidly." SoI think we need to start thinking about mitigation strategies. How can we lessen thedamage done? How we can lessen the chances of a full blowing civil war following onour heels in Iraq? And I do think that will probably be the lasting contribution fromGeneral Petraeus's testimony next month. I expect he will try to force the debate towardsconsidering consequences of possible courses of action. What is the consequence of acomplete pull out? What is the consequence of moving to some sort of containmentstrategy? What are the possible consequences of partitioning the country, which I think ofas breaking up the country and selling it of the parts.I suspect what we will do, as America often does, is moon walk into a new policy,looking like we are moving forward and actually kind of moving backwards, not evenrealizing where we are going. And kind of wind up with the policy some where aiming atcontainment, certainly not aiming at positive goals, liberation and democracy, but moreaiming at negative goals. And this will be a policy one person that I know calls the"three no's." That our goals in Iraq essentially will be no genocide, no safe haven for AlQaeda and no regional war. Now those are still ambitious goals. They going to take a lotof blood and treasure from this country to achieve and they may not be achievable.So what's how is this going to play out over the next year? I see two courses on trooplevels. The first one; if things go unexpectedly well, say if an Iraqi political breakthroughoccurs, if the level of violence goes down, then next spring will likely bring the beginningof the US troop brought down in Iraq. You will see 5,000 thousand troops cut a month,for several months and probably by sometime at 2009 will be down to somewhere about80,000 to 100,000 troops. The other course is this; if things go badly about as they arenow or worse and I can give you a whole bunch of nightmares, what happens if an Iraqiunit turns on its American advisors and slaughters them? What happens if that starts spreading?If things go worse then next spring will likely bring the beginning of the US troop drawdown and probably by sometime in 2009 it will be down to around 80,000 to a 100,000troops. Why the same outcome? Because the simple fact is that there are no more troopsavailable. When you ask about this at the Pentagon they tell you, we are out of troops.This results from decisions made by the Bush administration several years ago not torapidly expand the size of the US military even as they launched what they called a globalwar on terror. You could force troops to go to 18 month tours of duty in Iraq. That likelywould break the morale and General Petraeus has already said he is not going to do it.The only other way to keep troop numbers up would be to alert guard and reserve unitsand those alerts have not gone out. So troop levels are going to come down. And I thinkwe need to worry about the strain on the US Military.The longer they are out in there in that grinder the more damage would be done to the USMilitary. I was really struck on I had breakfast with a young captain in Iraq realscholar, first in her class at West Point and I said what are your plans, and she said, I planto get out. And I said, why. She said, because I no longer have faith in our government.We are losing the best and the brightest at a large chunks of our military, the captains, theexperienced sergeants, these are the leaders that we need in the military. That actuallyremind me of a line in a poem by William Butler Yeats "The best lack all conviction,while the worst are full of passionate intensity." And when I look at the morale of truthit's actually surprisingly good at five years into this thing. But I do see frustrationgrowing in our officer core and that kind of dwindling of conviction, the sense that I amjust out here beating my head against the wall. Then they come back for 12 months andthey wonder, was it worth it, losing those buddies out there. And this is an enormouslycohesive force we have out there; this is an all volunteer force. So when they lose the guynext to them, it's not some anonymous draftee who just showed up, this is probablysomebody they've known for a couple of years, may be live next door to back at FortBragg or Fort Benning of Quantico, know the wife, saw the first baby come home, sawhim blown up in front of their eyes.So the real question is how quickly will the troop levels come down in Iraq in 20082009? And more importantly what would be the mission of the troops left behind theresidual force? I think it will be those three no's. No genocide, no regional war, no safehaven for Al Qaeda. But even that is going to be extremely messy. How do you prevent aregional war while you probably going to have to deal with refugee flows? You got tokeep those refugees from flowing out of Iraq and destabilizing the entire region. Therealready are a million Iraqi refugees in Jordan and probably another million in Syria. Okayso what do you do? You set up catchments areas along to borders, you put up refugeecamps. American troupes guard them. That begins to feel to me like the next generationPLO camps. And that's some lousy mission to hand to US troops. Even worse as partitionit might wind up, it sounds appealing but you might wind up with three mini civil warsinstead of one big one. Already in Southern Iraq right now, the British have pulled backand essentially an intra Shiite civil war is breaking out between factions down there. It'snot about religion. It's not about the Americans. It's not even about the British. They arehoarding at one little base. It's about control of oil and the oil exports at Al Basra.This leads me to three final points. First this is rapidly not George Bush's war anymore.It's rapidly becoming a war for the next president. President Bush has made most of thedecisions he is going to make on this war. Second, the next president is not going to beable to get out of Iraq quickly in my opinion. I would not be surprised if we still havecombat troops in Iraq at the end of the next president's first term and I really wouldn't besurprised if we still have combat troops at the end of the next president's second term.When I was writing this book 'Fiasco' sometimes I would look out of the window atthese little kindergartners who would walk up everyday from the elementary near myhouse to a day care center and I would think one of those kids is going to fight and die in Iraq.I think the point to take here is that Iraq is becoming a bigger strategic problem for thiscountry than the Vietnam War was. We could walk away from Vietnam, if you are aCambodian it was bad, if you were an American ally of the the enemies' ally of theAmericans it was bad, you were sent after re education camp. But this country could walkaway from Vietnam and wash its hands off it. I don't think we would be able to walkaway from Iraq, even if we pulled out of Iraq tomorrow morning by magic, we would beliving with the consequences from many many years to come.Third finally I think it would not end well however it ends. I mentioned Shakespeareearlier and I really am serious about this. I think we need to understand that Iraq is atragedy. I think we need to remember as well that tragedy is Shakespearean tragedieshave five acts and I suspect we are only in act three. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are stillalive. One of them is the Iraqi prime minister. And act four is going to be messy and actfive is going to be even messier. I don't know what they are going to be. But I don't thinkthey are going to be pleasant times to watch. And now you can see why Jon Stewartcalled me Little Miss Sunshine.That takes care of my prepared remarks and now let's turns to the questions