Thursday, July 4, 2013

When is Independence Day for Iraq? The Gamble

Review by Bill Doughty

While contemplating independence, freedom and democracy on July 4, “The Gamble” by Thomas E. Ricks makes a sobering and insightful read.  That’s especially true this year -- ten years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and two years after our departure -- as we think about our men and women still serving in the Middle East and as we watch events unfold in Afghanistan, Egypt and Syria.

Ricks’s book, an "essential" title on the CNO’s professional reading program under the "warfighting" category, is subtitled, “General David Petraeus and the American Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008.”  Sectarian violence continues to flare in Iraq in the first half of 2013.

Ricks, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Fiasco” and "The Generals," researches, analyzes and describes how Petraeus, Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno and others took a bad situation and made it better, despite some people’s doubts about counterinsurgency and surge strategies at the time.
Petraeus and his team had a carefully-thought-out “minimalist” approach that differed from the grand vision but “lack of imagination” of those who pushed us into Iraq, wanted to stay indefinitely and advocated confronting Iran.

“For years, the U.S. military had fretted about ‘mission creep.’  Beginning with the Somalia operation in 1992-93, top commanders worried that once U.S. forces were committed to a situation, the tasks assigned them would continually expand, from security to providing a variety of services to standing up a government, until they were mired in what was derogated as ‘nation building.’ Many in the military had listened with relief (when) George W. Bush had denounced this tendency during the 2000 presidential election campaign, saying it was not a proper use of the armed forces. ‘I don’t think our troops ought to be used for what’s called nation building,’ he said during a debate with Al Gore, the Democratic candidate. ‘I think our troops ought to be used to fight and win war.’  Then, of course, he went on to invade Iraq and inadvertently launch perhaps the most ambitious and expensive nation-building effort in the history of the United States.”

Petraeus’s minimalist position, Ricks says, was “a polite way of rejecting the grandiose Bush vision and instead acknowledging that Iraq isn’t going to be a stable, quiet, peace-loving democracy anytime soon.”

Author Tom Ricks
Ricks mourns the “blood, treasure, prestige and credibility” paid in the lack of imagination over the past decade in Iraq.  On this Independence Day we are still recovering from the impact of Iraq, and some service members and families will never fully recover.

In his clipped reporter-on-the-ground tone Ricks carefully outlines events and describes key people and places.  He pulls no punches.  “The Gamble” has an extensive appendix that includes unclassified FOUO documents and plans.  All of this makes this book a key read to help us understand how the United States turned things around after the “fiasco” and how we left Iraq in the best way possible.

Implicit in the pages of this book is the question of whether freedom and democracy can be imposed on a country through war or if it’s best to be homegrown from within through peace, encouragement and cooperation.  Independence or National Day in Iraq, by the way, is celebrated October 3 to commemorate independence from the United Kingdom in 1932.

After quoting Ambassador Ryan Crocker from 2008, Ricks makes it clear that the history of the war in Iraq is still being written as Sunni, Shiite and other Islamic and secular factions wrestle with sharing power.  Throughout the region it’s still an open question whether radical fundamentalism is winning or whether freedom and democracy will prevail over despicable warlords, tribalism and medieval thinking.

Ricks concludes, “In other words, the events from which the Iraq war will be remembered probably have not yet happened.”

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