After reading Fiasco, Thomas E. Ricks’ account of the decision to go to war in Iraq, and the planning for and execution of that war and subsequent occupation, I’m still left with the same questions, How the hell did America get into this mess, and how can it be fixed so that America can get out?
Ricks is a journalist for the Washington Post, and a longtime correspondent on military affairs. Throughout Fiasco, Ricks is able to put the buildup to the war and the current war effort in multiple, enlightening contexts; as a historical legacy of the first Gulf War and its perceived successes and failures; as a consequence of huge political and strategic bet that could only be made in the post-9/11 political atmosphere; as a legacy of deep-rooted personal and political convictions of key leaders in the Bush Administration; as a result of decades-long failures in the organizational management of key American institutions, including the military, the intelligence community, and the State and Defense departments; and, perhaps most tellingly, as a failure in the culture of leadership at the highest levels in the civilian State and Defense administrations and in the military.
Aside from the quality of reporting and analysis in Fiasco, which is excellent, Ricks has unique access to and experience with people in the military, from senior commanders to officers and even privates in the field. Ricks is then able to paint a picture of this war effort, from the high-level politicking and planning that was going on at the Joint Chiefs of Staff and at the secretary level at State and Defense, to the day to day challenges faced, and quite literally, battles waged by troops moving door to door, block to block through the cities and provinces of Iraq.
My intention here is not to critique Ricks’ book or to really tackle the war itself. Frankly, it’s beyond me, and all I know is that it was a mistake to start this war in the first place, and that, while it would be nice to bring the boys home (so to speak), I think it would be a massive strategic mistake, and an abdication of America’s responsibility to the people of Iraq, to pull out fully. That said, all I plan to do is to summarize relevant parts of Fiasco to the best of my ability and then lay out some thoughts and questions about the book, which I may try to tackle independently, later.
Part I: Containment
The thrust of Ricks’ argument about the pre-war can be characterized as follows: significant strategic mistakes were made at the end of the first Gulf War, including promising to support and then failing to support Shiite and Kurdish uprisings and unnecessarily pulling coalition forces out of Iraq without causing Baghdad to fall (this is a contended point, and one I won’t actually ascribe to Ricks). Nevertheless, the policy of containment, as executed by General Zinni appears to have worked – while Saddam gave the perception of strength, aggression, and the desire for WMD capabilities, his military and political strength were, in fact, incredibly weak. Certain neo-cons, primarily Wolfowitz, contended this, and driven by personal ghosts from the Holocaust and the failure to support Iraqi minorities in the first Gulf War, created an unimpeachable rhetorical stance drawing direct parallels between a containment policy for Saddam and an appeasement policy for Hitler.
After 9/11, a political opportunity presented itself to invade Iraq. Certain members of Bush’s administration believed that Iraq could be easily overthrown and managed, and that any such show of force in the Middle East would fundamentally change a stagnant political dynamic in that region. Furthermore, Western intelligence, uncertain by nature, could be consistently interpreted to overstate the threat posted by Iraq. Essentially, in a political climate of war and fear, when practically everybody already believed that Iraq had or was trying to get WMD, it was simple to sell that story.
Finally, even though America was already engaged in Afghanistan, the Bush Administration, apparently led by Rumsfeld and Cheney, felt that it was an opportune time to invade Iraq. Over the objections of many senior military officials, the administration sold a war plan that promised a relatively painless and immediate resolution to any conflict, requiring a minimum of military and financial resources.
Such is the story that leads up to the brink of war, and what stands out to me:
1. History is biography. I’m amazed at the role that personal biography played in the framing of this war. Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, whose family survived the Holocaust, were intellectuals who felt they were fulfilling the promise of “Never Again,” a promise that had been failed in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, etc. Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Wolfowitz felt that they had been let down, and they, in turn, let down the Iraqi people, by being pulled back during the First Gulf War. Quit stunning the level to which Ricks portrays these factors directly influencing the rhetoric and decision making of senior officials leading in to this war effort;Part II: Into Iraq
2. Forget the professionals. It is shocking how easily the recommendations of senior military officials, like General Eric Shinseki, General Jack Keane, and retired General Anthony Zinni were disregarded in both the selling of, and more gallingly, the planning of the war. Consequences of this range from the failure to “finish the job” in Afghanistan before opening a front with Iraq to the apparent decision of Rumsfeld to not only disregard the Army’s preferences to invade with overwhelming force in order to, essentially, try out his theory of a lighter, more agile armed forces.
3. The failure of politics. Ricks doesn’t spend a lot of time discussing Congress inaction in questioning the war, or failure to call the timing or the planning into question, but as a body, and as a necessary piece of government, they are conspicuous in their absence. The troubling question is if the problem runs deeper than some 535 people in a climate of war, specifically, if the two-party political dynamics of this Republican party and this Democratic party make it impossible for independent-minded members of Congress to stand up and be heard.
4. The failure of intelligence. It’s hard to blame the intelligence community for failing to get their perspective on WMD and the threat of Iraq right. There are enormous systematic failures in the intelligence community, that is clear. It seems that these failures may be bandaged by extra resourcing and a change in approach, but it is not clear that until America, and specifically, Americans, start engaging more evenly with the rest of the world, that we will be able to gather the sort of specific, culturally-sensitive intelligence that will allow us to judge “enemies” that we simply do not care to understand.
Summarizing again, the war to capture Baghdad was simple. Shock and awe and American military strength prevailed easily, moving from allied bases in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the Gulf, and winning the military battle and capturing Baghdad in a matter of weeks. There was never much question that this would be the case.
The promise of flowers and sweets, however, failed to materialize. Not that there wasn’t an opportunity to win the Iraqi population, but it was missed, and it was a big strategic miss. Neither the senior military leadership, primarily General Tommy Franks, nor the civilian leadership in the Bush Administration, understood that the true strategic mission was not the overthrow of the state of Iraq, but the winning of the nation of Iraq, and particularly, capturing the hearts and minds of both the Shia majority and the Sunni minority. As such, the tactical posture of American forces, from their troop placement in enormous forward bases, to their approach to day-to-day interaction with Iraqis, helped foment the beginnings of insurgency. On the ground, certain commanders, such as Patreus, Mattis, and Spain are highlighted as trying to do the right things to thwart the nascent insurgency, and then combat the active one. Other commanders, including Sanchez and Odierno fail to take the right approach entirely.
More troubling, however, are the ramifications of conflating Iraq and Al-Qaeda in the build up to war – specifically, the psychology among the young men and women of the army that average, every-day Iraqis represented “the enemy,” as opposed to ”the prize.” As the insurgency grew, and the day-to-day lives of servicemen in Iraq became more perilous, this perception only grew stronger, to the detriment of the war effort.
Even still, through the first year of combat, Iraq was still perceived by many military experts to be winnable. Individual battles had been won and lost, and different regions of Iraq were in better or worse shape. Still, resolve by the American electorate, the support of what countries comprised the coalition, the involvement of the UN, the Red Cross, and other independent agencies, made the effort seem plausible. Each death, each kidnapping, each bombing eroded this perception, and eventually, both allies chose to leave, and support flagged, particularly as the insurgency began to focus their tactical efforts on destabilizing the coalition.
And so we found ourselves in a mess:
1. Lessons never learned. Making an analogy to Vietnam, during this time period, was taboo. But what is most striking is not that Iraq was or is becoming another Vietnam, but rather, that the lessons learned in Vietnam were apparently forgotten prior to Iraq. More specifically, it appears that the Army invested so heavily in its military and political apparatus in avoiding another Vietnam, that it was ill-trained in how to operate when confronted with another Vietnam-like situation, where the population needed to be won over, not through force, but through soft means, where the tactical fighting was guerilla warfare, and where it was impossible to tell the good Iraqis from the bad Iraqis.
2. No news is good news. When I try to figure out what exactly constitutes systematic failure among the organizations responsible for the planning and execution of this war, the only thing that truly stands out to me is the insistence of senior officials, elected, bureaucratic, and military on averring from bad news. Bad news did not represent reality, did not signal a situation that needed to be managed, was the symptom and not the disease. Bad news was false, inaccurate, biased, for losers.
3. The failure of planning. At many levels, from the Defense department, though the Joint Chiefs and CentComm, down to lower levels of active forces in Iraq, it is clear that many leaders failed to plan. They failed to plan for worst-case scenarios, they failed to resource middle case scenarios, and they predicated their operations on best-case scenarios. This isn’t even Management 101, how did this happen?
4. The failure of leadership. Unfortunately, and the most troubling thing to come out of Fiasco for me, much of the failure of planning and the failure to account for bad news came down to the political and military leadership. The political leadership had no use and no interest in adequately understanding, planning for, and confronting the true issues in Iraq, and the military leadership lacked the fortitude and the culture to confront the political leadership. Why the military failed is understandable, but a failure nonetheless. Why the civilian leadership failed is less clear, and until some historian can really lay that one to bed, the conspiratorial whispers and concerns about the bad faith and incompetence of this Administration won’t be laid low.
Part III: The Long Term
It becomes clear that Iraq will not be an operation won or lost on a timescale of months. The CPA is established, fucks some major things up, like disbanding the Army and disbarring all ex-Baathists, high-level bad guys and low-level nobodies alike, failing to ensure security, failing to coordinate well with either the military or the US-based administration.
New troop rotations start coming in, to relieve the initial combatants, but create major discontinuities in operation, at every level, from commanders to combat patrols. Key army tasks are either not ordered or failed, like securing the borders and training indigenous army and police forces.
The insurgency grows, becomes more violent, targets American forces, but also becomes internecine. Baghdad erupts. Sadr City erupts. Falluja erupts. Anbar Province erupts. Karbala, Najaf, Samarra, Mosul. The Army and Marines contain and then quell the fighting, but the insurgency simply shifts, or takes a break.
Bush, inexplicably, is re-elected.
The war continues. Oil revenues fail to pay for reconstruction. Reconstruction itself often fails. The security condition deteriorates. Iraqis turn on Americans. The Armed forces begin to be stressed out. The war continues.
Ricks then summarizes four potential long-term outcomes.
His best case, an analogy to US intervention in the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century. A prolonged engagement, ten-plus years, where the armed forces learns to fight an effective counterinsurgency campaign; a state left stable, but short of our idealized hope, hopefully not a security concern.
His middle case, an analogy to France’s occupation in Algeria or Israel’s occupation in Israel. Again, a prolonged campaign, effectively culminating in a strategic loss, where a relatively stable, but hostile state is left behind in the wake of an eventual pullout.
His worse case, a civil war, partition, or a regional war drawing in Iran, Syria, Turkey, perhaps Saudi Arabia, and causing a fundamental divide and shooting war between Sunni Islam and Shia Islam. An unstable region in bloodbath, with no control over the movements of non-state terrorist actors, and free and fluid movement of weapons. An unstable and uncontrollable impact on world oil supplies.
His nightmare scenario, a power vacuum into which emerges an Islamist leadership, creating a new Muslim caliphate, a united and fanatically religious super-state with significant population, almost total control over world oil supplies, strategic, global importance, power and military might, and a religious orientation dead set against Western liberalism.
1. Should we stay or should we go? I have no idea. Fiasco does a wonderful job telling us about the mess we’re in, but less of a job pointing the way out. The strategic and political considerations or complex, I don’t even begin to understand them. To borrow a bad metaphor, I feel like America is pot-committed, at this point, both strategically and morally, and that to leave would be in error.
2. What becomes of all this? Again, I have no idea. Recently, I’m interested in exploring further, as Ricks touches on briefly in his afterword, cases in history where countries were unable to achieve their goals in conflict abroad. Take Vietnam, or Algeria. Generally, these are characterized as tactical wins, but strategic losses – meaning a narrowly defined political victory was achieved, but the greater goals of the victorious nation failed or were diminished. But is this true, in history’s long view? What of Algeria, and France? And what of Vietnam and the US?