Sunday, August 06, 2006

Fiasco: A serial review, part I 

I am in the middle of Thomas Ricks' must-read book on the war in Iraq, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq. Why should you read it? First, because it stitches together the bureaucratic story in a way that makes one realize that we do not have a national security apparatus capable of fighting a nuanced, political counterinsurgency. No president, "competent" or otherwise, could have marshalled the existing agencies to perform the mission in Iraq effectively, and that is a serious problem.

Second, because Fiasco will define the understanding of Iraq for the mainstream media in this election cycle, and most probably the next.

The book is journalism, not history. Fiasco's biggest technical shortcoming is that its notes are very sparse and they are not linked to the text with superscripts, which is frustrating to bloggers and historians alike and undermines the book's seriousness. This may have been done to save the publisher money or Ricks work, but it damages the book's credibility. For example, Ricks describes an academic attack on Paul Wolfowitz in 1998 in almost mysterious terms:

Perhaps the low point for the Wolfowitz view [that Saddam Hussein could be overthrown by civil insurgency from a protected enclave] was a biting article in Foreign Affairs magazine that appeared during winter 1998-99. Siding with Zinni, it mocked the idea of having Iraqi exiles seize territoryu, supported by U.S. airpower. Essentially, the three authors, each from a mainstream national security institution -- the Rand Corporation, the National Defense University, and the Council on Foreign Relations -- argued that only people who know nothing about military affairs could think that a small force of Iraqi rebels could topple Saddam easily. The article cited a few proponents of what it disparaged as the "Rollback Fantasy," but singled out Wolfowitz, quoting him disapprovingly, and then stated that he was wrong, and that, in fact, "for the United States to try moving from containment to rollback in Iraq would be a terrible mistake that could easily lead to thousands of unnecessary deaths." Given the background of the authors and the venue carrying their words, it was almost as if Wolfowitz were being taken to the woodshed by the foreign policy establishment.

Fair enough, but why doesn't Ricks tell us in the text who the authors were? Because one of them was Kenneth Pollack, who went on to argue in The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq that we needed to invade Iraq because less intrusive options -- such as Wolfowitz's "rollback" -- would not work.

Ricks also fails to do a perfect job of disguising his underlying political beliefs. He uses the word "neoconservative" almost as if he has Tourette syndrome to describe an unnamed group of people who do not refer to themselves that way. The term "neoconservative" is one of the rare instances in which the media refers to a "group," if in fact there is such a group, by a term that the group does not use to describe itself. Given that the term is widely used by leftists and European journalists to hint at an international Jewish conspiracy to enslave American foreign policy to Israel's interests, Ricks would have done well to avoid the term, or acknowledge it and adopt another. My preferred alternative is "interventionist hawks," which does not carry the smelly anti-Semtic overtones.

If there is a great strength in the book's first 138 pages, it is that it does not appear to take sides in the bureaucratic fight, other than to excoriate the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Ricks is unstinting in his criticism of all of the CIA, the State Department, the military command, and the White House. He fingers George Tenet specifically for the poor intelligence served up by the CIA, not much forgiving him in light of Dick Cheney's "pressure," and he savages Tommy Franks for his lack of imagination, who Ricks believes had no sense of strategy:
On April 7, the second foray cut through to Saddam's palace complex in the center of Baghdad, on the left bank of the Tigris, and decided to stay. The American military believed it had taken Baghdad.

To understand that mistaken conclusion, it is necessary to step back and examine Gen. Tommy Franks, the senior U.S. commander in the war, and particularly his misunderstanding of strategy. That is a grand-sounding word, and it is frequently misused by laymen as a synonym for tactics. In fact, strategy has a very different and quite simple meaning that flows from just one short set of questions: Who are we, and what are we ultimately trying to do here? How will we do it, and what resources and means will we employ doing it? The four answers give rise to one's strategy. Ideally, one's tactics will then follow from them -- that is, this is who we are, this is the outcome we wish to achieve, this is how we aim to do it, and this is what we will use to do it. But addressing the questions well can be surprisingly difficult, and if the answers are incorrect or incomplete, or the goals listed not reachable, then the consequences can be disastrous.

Why would the United States invade Iraq without a genuine strategy in hand? Part of the answer lies in the personality and character of Gen. Franks. The inside word in the U.S. military long had been that Franks didn't think strategically. For example, when the general held an off-the-record session with officers studying at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, in the spring of 2002, not long after the biggest battle of the Afghan war, Operation Anaconda, one student posed the classic Clausewitzian question: What is the nature of the war you are fighting in Afghanistan? "That's a great question for historians," Franks sidestepped, recalled another officere who was there. "Let me tell you what we are doing." Franks proceeded to discuss how U.S. troops cleared cave complexes in Afghanistan. It was the most tactical answer possible, quite remote from what the officer had asked. It would have been a fine reply for a sargeant to offer, but not a senior general. "He really was comfortable at the tactical level," this officer recalled with dismay.

Ricks goes on from there, and it isn't pretty.
Franks was a cunning man, but not a deep thinker. He ran an extremely unhappy headquarters. He tended to berate subordinates, frequently shouting and cursing at them. Morale was poor, and people were tired, having worked nonstop since 9/11. "Central Command is two thousand indentured servants whose life is consumed by the whims of Tommy Franks," said one officer who worked closely with him. "Staff officers are conditioned like Pavlovian dogs. You can only resist for so long. It's like a prisoner of war camp -- after a while, you break."

It wasn't just a matter of low spirits among staffers, this officer added. Franks's abusive style tended to distort the information that flowed upward to him."

Assume for a moment that Ricks' characterization of Franks is more or less on the money (and we have no reason to believe that it isn't). Sure, George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld bear the responsibility for putting such a man in command, but what does his promotion say about the Army? Should we be worried that our system promotes unimaginative leaders to the point that they end up in charge of our wars? Is there room for a Sherman or a Patton in today's military? If not, why not?

This, finally, is one small example of one of Fiasco's insistent themes: that the American national security bureaucracy was not, and probably is not, capable of waging a strategic counterinsurgency. Its agencies do not cooperate, and they interact in ways that frustrate the formulation of strategy. The people who rise to the top are not necessarily the rough truth-tellers that we need. The White House (whether run by George Bush or, if you believe Richard Clarke, Bill Clinton) is unable to torture these agencies into supporting its decisions. What are we going to do about this?


By Blogger sirius_sir, at Sun Aug 06, 11:15:00 AM:

Can you imagine a Sherman or a Patton, having routed the Republican Guard on the way to Baghdad, being told to hold up and turn back?

The failure of imagination precedes Tommy Franks, I'm afraid.

But at some point, the President needs to put his foot down, either for or against his generals. After all, Patton didn't get by unscathed (something about berating a subordinate) and look what happened to MacArthur when he wouldn't do as he was told.

I suspect neither Patton, Sherman, or MacArthur would understand why we aren't already in Damascus or, for that matter, Tehran.  

By Blogger geoffgo, at Sun Aug 06, 11:50:00 AM:

Seems to me Frank's job was to win the battle of Iraq as quickly and effectiviely as possible.

To carp about his not having the farsight to have foreseen the consequences of the you break it syndrome in hindsight, is ridiculus in light of the fact that we won't be nation-building the next time.

OTOH, we can write off the cost of OIF as establishing a base of future operations.  

By Blogger AMac, at Sun Aug 06, 12:20:00 PM:

Fantastic book review, TigerHawk. You're on a roll this week; take a bow.

> Is there room for a Sherman or a Patton in today's military? If not, why not?

Brings to mind the sad roster of commanders of the US Army between Scott (1861) and Grant, specifically as it impacted the performance of the Army of the Potomac.

Lincoln--for all that his war aims changed drastically from 1861 to 1864--understood strategic aims in Clauswitzian terms. But oh, the trouble he had with his generals. And oh, the butcher's bill that Grant and Sherman were willing to pay, and that victory required.

Check this 2003 post from 'The Coming Anarchy' for a counterfactual look at the cost of avoiding the Total War of Messrs. Lincoln and Grant (H/T ThreatsWatch.)

Ripped from the headlines.  

By Blogger Papa Ray, at Sun Aug 06, 12:29:00 PM:

I think both of you need to read Frank's book as well as others written about the Invasion of Iraq and the first two years of occupation.

I think you would be not only amazed but surprised.

Also, it could be noted of all the Generals that have been there since, only one seemed to know what he was doing and they jerked him off,(in more ways than one) way before he was finished.

If you don't remember, he is the one that finally got the balls all rolling in the right direction in the training of the Iraqi Army...his last name starts with a P as in pissed when he was "re-assigned".

You might want to read up on why he was able to do what he did in such a short time.

Papa Ray
West Texas

By Blogger AMac, at Sun Aug 06, 01:08:00 PM:

Papa Ray,

In your opinion, what is the best account (book or online) of what befell Petraeus?  

By Blogger Fabio, at Sun Aug 06, 01:49:00 PM:

This conflict is profundly different from almost any of the past, both for the carachteristics of the enemy and for the strategy being employed against him.

It follows that in this situations the civilian and military leaders should be imaginative and adaptable. But this is the opposite of the bureaucratic culture, which is unimaginative and rigid.

The whole bureucratic machine will maybe manage to adjust just in time for the next big war, that will be again different...  

By Blogger Automatic_Wing , at Sun Aug 06, 03:25:00 PM:

Ah, another all-knowing journalist pointing out everyone's failures.

I certainly question whether another General - even a Sherman or Patton - would have done things much differently.

Others have noted that scorched-earth tactics like those Sherman employed aren't available to U.S. commanders now. How would Tom Ricks and his WaPo colleagues write up the March to the Sea if it occurred in 2006?

As for Patton, he was a conventional Army general, not a guerilla-fighter. Who knows what he would have made of the situation in Iraq?

Finally, I question whether it is possible for any U.S. administration to act strategically in today's culture. Our media and intellectual elite are addicted to moral preening and grandstanding. So many options are closed because of their unacceptability to the bien-pensant opinionmakers of the west.

Could we, to use one example, have openly chapioned the Kurds and used their militia to pacify Iraq? I think that would have been the correct strategic move, but Tom Ricks and all the rest would have been outraged at the cynicism and injustice of it.

So don't ask for strategy, Tom. You can't handle strategy!  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Sun Aug 06, 07:51:00 PM:

He doesn't really want strategy. He wants sales.  

By Blogger sirius_sir, at Sun Aug 06, 08:32:00 PM:

Last two comments (preceding this one, of course) are the best, and get extra points for also being amusing.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Sun Aug 06, 10:42:00 PM:

As I recall, Pollack pretty much destroyed the "rollback" or "enclave" strategy in The Threatening Storm. I don't know if it looks better in retrospect, but I was persuaded prospectively that it would not have worked even to remove Saddam.  

By Blogger Steel Monkey, at Sun Aug 06, 11:11:00 PM:

If we had any perspective at all, we would realize that toppling the regime of an Arab nation and establishing a struggling democracy with less than 3,000 dead is a huge success story. Think of how many American soldiers died just taking a single island from the Japanese in World War II.

But you are always going to have self-proclaimed "experts" who will say, "If they had used my strategy, we would only have 400 American soldiers dead and Iraq would be as peaceful as Cedar Rapids, Iowa right now."

I just got through reading Fouad Ajami's "The Dream Palace of the Arabs" and am amazed at how disfunctional Arab culture is. We should accept the fact that democratizing even part of the Arab world is a huge project.  

By Blogger Steel Monkey, at Sun Aug 06, 11:25:00 PM:


I hope your next book review will be of "The Foreigner's Gift," also by Fouad Ajami. It's about Iraq and Mr. Ajami was on C-Span a few days ago offereing his insights. He says that being from Lebanon has prepared him for the factional nature of Iraqi politics.  

By Blogger sirius_sir, at Sun Aug 06, 11:41:00 PM:

Did the "enclave" strategy posit securing an independent Kurdistan from which US forces could project regional power, letting the rest of Iraq go to hell or not, depending on what the Sunnis and Shi'ites decided to do?

That seems as if it could have worked. It would have been cynical, most probably immoral, and very un-Neo. But it might have worked.

And actually, if the Maliki government doesn't get the militias under control, there's reason to believe we might still get to know one way or another.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Aug 07, 02:13:00 AM:

the American national security bureaucracy was not, and probably is not, capable of waging a strategic counterinsurgency. Its agencies do not cooperate, and they interact in ways that frustrate the formulation of strategy. The people who rise to the top are not necessarily the rough truth-tellers that we need. The White House (whether run by George Bush or, if you believe Richard Clarke, Bill Clinton) is unable to torture these agencies into supporting its decisions. What are we going to do about this?
*************end quote*********
I am afraid the answer is: nothing. Jihadies will do it for us. Institutional ossification is repeated regularly throughout the history and only great external jolts allow society to regain its youthful vigor. Just look at Israelies.  

By Blogger C. Owen Johnson, at Mon Aug 07, 06:56:00 AM:

"Why should you read it? First, because it stitches together the bureaucratic story in a way that makes one realize that we do not have a national security apparatus capable of fighting a nuanced, political counterinsurgency. No president, "competent" or otherwise, could have marshalled the existing agencies to perform the mission in Iraq effectively, and that is a serious problem."

A good review, but I have a problem with the statement above. Leaving aside the fact that Ricks’ book is premised on a logical fallacy that renders it entirely specious, the heart of the matter is: How exactly do you know we are not performing the mission in Iraq effectively? How do you know there is a serious problem?

In order to reach those conclusions, you first have to answer two questions:
1) Under ideal circumstances, how long would it have the initial invasion taken and what would have been the human cost?
2) Under ideal circumstances, how long would it take for Iraq to become a peaceful functioning democracy, given its history and the initial conditions at the start of the invasion?

Once these questions are conclusively answered, with appropriate margins of error to account for uncertainties and random events, you have a metric to decide if we are being effective of not, or if we have a serious problem of not. Without those answers — which to the best of my knowledge neither Ricks nor any other war critic has ever produced — your only recourse is to history, by which measure our success in Iraq is unprecedented, both in carrying out the invasion and subsequently.  

By Blogger Pofarmer, at Mon Aug 07, 09:32:00 AM:

Not to pick nits. But he's blaming Bush and Rumsfeld for a Clintoon appointee.

IMHO The military part of the Strategy went as planned. What failed was when the beauracrats at State got involved.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Aug 07, 09:41:00 AM:

The Sunni/Baathist elite is exactly like the Ku Klux Klan of the 1870's. A ruling class which dominated for so long and was so ingrained into the political culture that nobody can even imagine or remember what it was like before they established their dominance. They are fanatical, ruthless and delusional. They have lost and there is zero chance of them ever regaining their former level of power. They refuse to accept defeat. In retrospect, 2 extra divisions or 20 extra divisions would not have prevented this from happening. No magical plan, unless it involved carpet bombing and possible nuclear weapons use, could have stopped them from waging an insane unwinnable war that they are currently enaged in.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Aug 07, 02:28:00 PM:

A few quick comments:

1) Lt.Gen. Petreaus did a great job standing up the training effort in Iraq, and he is bound for higher office in the Army. But there is nothing unusual rotating him out of that position after a year or so; by that time he had spent over two years in Iraq, and there are other generals in the Army that could also do the job.

2) General Franks efficiently accomplished the missions he was assigned. Given the decision to use the U.S. military to remove the Saddam government, we remain skeptical that any alternative set of post-war policies would have had a material effect on Baathist or Al Qaeda behavior in 2003-2004.

3) We have great respect for Mr. Kenneth Pollack. We believe that the some version of the "enclave" strategy could have worked, but it would have taken a decade to work and would have required the open support of several U.S. administrations. This is likely why it was never tried. We have more thoughts on this discussion here:

Now we're getting somewhere - part 2.

We wonder if Mr. Pollack would have argued (or did argue at the time) that resisting the Soviets in Afghanistan was a hopeless task?

In any case, the "enclave" strategy is the only one remaining to the U.S. in the future - there won't be any more Iraq-type interventions by the U.S. for a long time. The U.S. government thus had best get itself organized with this reality in mind.


By Blogger C. Owen Johnson, at Tue Aug 08, 03:13:00 AM:

For those thinking of reading Ricks' book, here is some interesting background on how and what he thinks that has a direct bearing on his credibility:


After reading this, I would be very dubious of anything Ricks' asserts on his own authority.  

By Blogger Nathan, at Thu Aug 17, 12:16:00 AM:

One of Mr. Ricks' assertions is that, after Vietnam, the Army ducked away from institutionalizing the knowledge it had gained about successful counterinsurgency methods. Lessons were learned (ie use of minimal force instead of overwhelming force, treating prisoners well) and retained by some who remained in the service, but did not become part of the field manuals and basic intruction given to new officers. One benefit of the current conflict is that this oversight is being corrected... albeit slowly and piecemeal. The longer we are there the more "right" we'll get it.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Dec 15, 01:48:00 PM:

I think Ricks reporting is very impressive. It's not surprising that Bremer, who stole out of Baghdad like a thief in the night -- didn't even stick around for the transfer ceremony -- made himself unavailable.

But I don't like his attitude, which to me seems to be: "We could have had a great war!"  

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