For the first ThinkProgress book review, I’ve been reading Tom Ricks’ The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006–2008. Ricks’ previous book, Fiasco, is considered one of the key accounts of the first years of the Iraq war, and The Gamble picks up where that left off. Ricks explores the origins and the implementation of the new counterinsurgency strategy, the various factors and events with which it contended and cooperated, and what all this could mean for the future of the U.S. in Iraq.
There’s no doubt that this book, which is based upon numerous visits to Iraq and extensive interviews with military leaders and civilian analysts, is another essential contribution to the literature of this war. Ricks knows a good anecdote when he hears one, but he also allows U.S. soldiers and marines to tell their own experiences in Iraq. Among the book’s most important contributions is that it makes clear how very much we have asked of the men and women of our military, and how hard they have worked to accomplish their mission.
But the broader effects of that mission on U.S. national security and the Middle East region are increasingly ominous. Ricks notes that while President Bush and conservative war supporters like John McCain continued to make grand claims about “victory” in Iraq, the military understood that the new surge strategy represented a radical redefinition of the war’s aims. Rather than the creation of a “democratic ally in the heart of the Middle East,” the new goal was simply to avoid the complete collapse of Iraq. General Petraeus’ decision to ally with Sunni tribal elements — essentially putting large parts of the insurgency on the U.S. payroll — signified a recognition of this reality. RAND counterinsurgency analyst Austin Long told Ricks that “the tribal strategy is a means to achieve one strategic end, fighting Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, but is antithetical to another, the creation of a unified, and democratic Iraq.” (p. 224) While recognizing that the strategy was “one more step toward the fragmentation of Iraq,” counterinsurgency adviser Carter Malkasian insisted that “Optimal is no longer a luxury the United States can afford…We must focus on avoiding the worst possible outcome.” (p. 215)
Defense Secretary Gates said that “the purpose of the surge was to create enough space that the process of reconciliation could go forward in Iraq.” Ricks’ grade for the surge, which he calls “the least wrong move in a misconceived war,” is “incomplete.” As he has reiterated in subsequent interviews, the Ricks’ view is that the surge worked militarily — bringing the violence down from its staggering 2005–6 heights to a level that would only be considered a national emergency in any other country — and failed politically, as many of the fundamental disagreements about the future of the Iraqi state remain unresolved. I would suggest, however, that the surge worked politically where it most mattered: Here in the United States. As Tom Donnelly — an American Enterprise Institute defense analyst who helped develop the initial plan for the surge — told Ricks, the goal of “making the Baghdad security situation better” was “establishing a rationale for keeping the United States in the war.” (p. 120)
To this end — not “winning the war,” but changing the terms of the U.S. political debate in order to keep the U.S. engaged in Iraq — it must be admitted that the surge has been a success. As a result, Americans now face the prospect of an indefinite presence in Iraq, perpetually justified by the need to prevent an outbreak of mass violence — that is, violence of the very sort that last occurred precisely when the U.S. military was there in its largest numbers. And the general consensus among those interviewed by Ricks is that more violence is just around the corner — if the U.S. does not remain to prevent it. As an unnamed “senior Pentagon official” told Ricks, “Now, the fundamental fact about Iraq is, we’re kind of stuck.” (p. 15)