Mar 1 2009

Tom Ricks’ Gamble

Justifying a kinder, gentler Iraq occupation

Photo Credit: Thomas Ricks/Penguin Books

Photo Credit: Thomas Ricks/Penguin Books

Reporter Thomas Ricks’ new book The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008, documents the military changes that took place in Iraq after the controversial troop “surge,” which is commonly credited with having greatly reduced violence in the country (Extra!, 11-12/07, 9-10/08). A Pentagon correspondent for the Washington Post, Ricks is also a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and writes the Best Defense blog at Foreign Ricks has been deeply embedded with the leadership of the “surge” and, as the book boasts, had “extraordinary privileged access” to Petraeus and his team, and to hundreds of hours of “exclusive” interviews with top officers. The Gamble and its media reception are extraordinary for what they reveal about the occupation of Iraq, but equally astounding for what remains unsaid in the media discussion.

The Gamble has been embraced across the media with newspaper and online reviews and broadcast interviews allowing Ricks to demonstrate his considerable journalistic talent to tell a story. The book contains some stunning revelations, including Petraeus’ habit of setting on-the-ground policies without even telling George W. Bush. Also remarkable is Ricks’ attribution of much of the success of the “surge” to strategies for non-violent conflict resolution rather than armed might.

But Ricks and the media have done much more with The Gamble than simply detail recent military reforms in Iraq. Ricks draws very specific conclusions that have been eagerly echoed in corporate media: U.S. troops cannot leave Iraq, and Obama’s promise to withdraw them is foolhardy. Consider the title of an NPR Fresh Air interview with Ricks (2/10/09): “No End in Sight to the Iraq ‘Gamble.’” The online text warned, “Military correspondent Thomas E. Ricks predicts that the war in Iraq is likely to last at least another five to 10 years.”

Indeed, Ricks’ first broadcast interview on NBC’s Meet the Press (2/8/09) focused exclusively on Obama’s future Iraq policy, opening with campaign footage of Obama promising, “If we haven’t gotten our troops out by the time I am president, it is the first thing I will do.” Host David Gregory then quoted extensively from The Gamble’s admonitions, with Ricks concluding, “We may be only halfway through this thing.” Later on Meet the Press (3/1/09), Gregory cited Ricks’ argument in order to press Defense Secretary Robert Gates on the proposed Iraq withdrawal:

[Ricks said,] “If we left right now, [civil or regional war] is a live possibility. So the downside here is enormous. And Obama is going to have to pick his way through it. And I think that’s one reason that he’s going to find out he is stuck in Iraq.” Let’s be clear here. Has the president said that if things get worse, if things go bad, that all bets are off? That he would stop the withdrawal?

In numerous interviews, Ricks argues that the sacrifices and lost life would amount to nothing if Iraq were allowed to descend into sectarian violence and civil war.

Ricks’ media blitz has served to amplify the voices of a bevy of U.S. generals, many featured in The Gamble, who are trying forcefully to convince Obama to back down from his campaign promise. After a January 21 meeting at the Oval Office, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus were reportedly disappointed that the president rebuffed their recommendations to wait on a troop withdrawal plan and insisted they present him with a timetable to draw down troops over a 16-month period. Not willing to take no for an answer, Petraeus and Gen. Raymond Odierno started “mobilizing public opinion against Obama’s decision” (IPS, 2/2/09).

Indeed, after the January 21 meeting, retired Gen. Jack Keane, whom Ricks portrays as the heroic architect of the “surge,” appeared on the PBS’s NewsHour (1/21/09) to caution that removing troops within 16 months would jeopardize the “stable political situation in Iraq,” arguing that the “dramatically” increased risk was “not acceptable.” Ricks and the military faction he has written so admiringly about are speaking to the media with the same voice. The Gamble and its media presentation have been invaluable to the generals’ media campaign to pressure the president to continue the occupation of Iraq—which has, so far, succeeded in getting Obama to lengthen his timeline for withdrawal of combat troops to 19 months.

But the insistence on continued occupation emphasized in the book and repeated in the media is curious, given the rich details in Ricks’ account. So much in The Gamble seems to condemn violence as a pathway to peace and stability, yet such revelations go unpursued by interviewers who might easily have drawn many different lessons from his stories.

Much of the story Ricks tells revolves around talking instead of killing. In an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air (2/10/09), Ricks noted that massive firepower has been the American traditional approach; to find and destroy the enemy, or “kill and capture.” But according to Ricks, today’s military has learned that more effective than killing is turning the enemy over to your side. You need to make people feel safe enough “to tell you where the bad guys are, then go to the bad guys and talk about it.”

Americans started talking to the Sunni insurgents and saying “we know you fought us, we understand you had reasons for doing it, but can’t we talk.” The Gamble includes an anecdote about a captured Iraqi, initially hostile, who bonded with a U.S. interrogator over a shared love of the movie Titanic. In another Petraeus innovation, Sunni insurgents in Anbar province were paid not to attack U.S. troops, because according to Ricks, many insurgents were “simply jobless Iraqis.”

In his interview on Fresh Air (2/10/09), Ricks argued, “That’s really what changed in Iraq in 2007, not different ways of killing people, but different ways of talking and relating to people.”

It’s fair to say that Ricks sugarcoats his depiction of the post-“surge” occupation; one can read about Hellfire missiles, also part of the surge, raining down on civilians in Sadr City in the Washington Post (5/23/08), for example, but there’s no entry for “Hellfire” in Ricks’ book. But interviewers failed to draw out the implications of the novel parts of the “surge” strategy that Ricks does describe. Independent-minded questioners might have asked, if U.S. commanders can talk and negotiate with insurgents—“terrorists” who have killed soldiers—could the State Department save lives by opening negotiations with those it has labeled terrorists, such as Hamas?

If respectful treatment, American popular culture, financial support and protection from violence all prevent hostilities and attacks on Americans, shouldn’t we be having public discussions about beginning to implement such strategies in earnest in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Iran?

If violence breeds violence, should we end aerial attacks that kill civilians? Even as Obama sends 17,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, Richard Oppel (New York Times, 2/22/09) reports that a U.S. airstrike there killed 13 civilians, including three children and six women, and the United Nations fears that as more U.S. troops deploy to Afghanistan, what Oppel calls “the soaring number of civilians killed by airstrikes and fighting” will increase. Indeed, Obama has also signed orders allowing pilotless drones to drop bombs over Pakistan.

Ricks’ choice of a strictly military solution, albeit a kinder and gentler one, leads him to discount future reconstruction efforts in Iraq (p. 325) and assert that recent elections mean little for its future (Fresh Air, 2/10/09). Proponents of force, keen to revive the image and power of the U.S. military, are eager to hear that American forces are an essential part of Iraq’s indefinite future, but as independent journalist Richard Dreyfuss has pointed out (Nation, 3/9/09), “To the extent that democracy is allowed to flourish and that authentic Iraqis find their voices, the presence of U.S. troops will not be tolerated.”

On his blog (2/19/09), Ricks cited Joan Walsh of Salon (2/18/09) telling her readers they had a “responsibility” to read his book. She says Ricks tells “an admiring, often inspiring story of the way the American military came back from humiliation thanks to the so-called surge, which so many Democrats, myself included, passionately opposed.” An indication of the success of the media campaign to persuade the opponents of the war to continue the occupation of Iraq are Walsh’s concluding words: “I still want troops out of Iraq as soon as possible. But reading this well-reported book may have changed even my notion of what that means.”

Robin Andersen is Director of Peace and Justice Studies at Fordham University and author of A Century of Media, A Century of War. Research assistance provided by Anthony DiMieri.