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Thomas E. Ricks and “Fiasco”

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The Washington Post’s senior Pentagon correspondent Thomas Ricks is my guest today, discussing both his new book, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, as well as his controversial statements yesterday on CNN’s Reliable Sources, commented on here at Powerline and blistered by Rush and others today. The transcript and audio will be up later.  Click on the appropriate buttons above after 5 PM. 

Mr. Ricks tells me that “I wish I’d kept my mouth shut,” and says he has been hearing from people today that Israel did not leave “rocket pockets,” that Israeli citizens “wouldn’t stand for it,” and that today’s sources believed that repeating the charge had been irresponsible on his part.Ricks stood by his sources for the explosive charge telling me that the analysts he quoted yesterday “are very good smart, retired U.S. military officers,” but that “[f]rom now on I’m going to stick to Iraq.”

From there we moved on to the Iraq War.  here’s the beginning of that lengthy exchange:

HH: “Is Iraq better off today than it was four years ago?”

TR: “It depends on whom you are asking and at what time. “

HH: “In your opionion, Thomas Ricks?”

TR: “They’re clearly better off with Saddam Hussein gone.”

Be sure to read/listen to the whole thing.  Ricks’ dismissiveness of the view that the invasion was necessary and just, that it liberated a desperate Iraqi population and positions the U.S. where it needs to be on the eve of a confrontation with Iran, and that it led to the destruction of Libya’s WMD programs reflects MSM’s theological rejection of any Iraq narrative that could conclude the Iraq invasion was absolutely the right thing to do.  Ricks’ book is well written and exhaustively sourced, but the alleged  internal Pentagon critique of the war is often based on anonymous sources, and Ricks’ assertion that Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld “drank the kool-aid” on WMD is simply not defensible based upon the book’s own narrative.

Make no mistake, though, this is the most serious critique yet leveled at the Bush Administration’s conduct of the war, and those whom it targets should reply.

UPDATE: An e-mail from a listener:

I listened with interest to your interview of Thomas Ricks regarding his book, “Fiasco”. I think your position that his assertion about administration people “drinking the Kool Aid” with respect to the WMD threat is reasonable, if not completely convincing. Clearly, those who were convinced that there was a high probability that Iraq had WMDs based that finding on more than reasonable assumptions. Had they been found (or were they to be found), the discussion would be moot. Arguing about the reasonableness of those conclusions, however, is less than fruitful since (1) it just keeps going in circles and (2) it misses, in my opinion, the real point of the issues about WMDs.
Yes, it is true that the fear of Iraq’s possession, and possible (probable?) use, of such weapons was publicly adduced by the administration as the primary justification for hostilities. As I recall one administration official (Colin Powell perhaps?) noted, they “went with” the WMD approach because it was the easiest one for people to understand. Cynics might claim that it was the scariest scenario, and therefore the most likely to be accepted. I think this does the the larger situation (i.e. the context) and the American people a disservice. And, given the apparently reasonable anti-war position that the Iraq threat was being effectively “contained,” it is difficult to sustain.
That larger context, I submit, is Iraq’s persistent violation of the cease-fire pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution 687. A cease-fire,per se, entails the suspension of hostilites subject to certain conditions being met, e.g., development of a formal peace agreement or in the present case, compliance with certain terms. That Iraq was, and had been for more than a decade, out of compliance with the terms of the cease-fire was unanimously confirmed by the Security Council in Resolution 1441 (with all appropriate details). While Iraq was given time to cure its failure to comply, its refusal to do so effectively nullified the cease-fire, allowing hostilities (which had never actually completely stopped) to resume.
Despite this legal justification (Kofi Annan’s contrary assertions notwithstanding), critics of the actual resumption challenge the timing, at minimum, asserting lack of necessity, based on the assertion that the alleged containment had effectively reduced, if not eliminated, any threat from Iraq. The question could be posed, however, that if this was the case, why not modify the terms of the cease-fire as laid out in SC Res 687? Of the three options for dealing with the cease-fire (change it, ignore it, enforce it), I do not recall this one ever being proposed. The second option was the de facto position of France, Russia and others who chose not to follow the US, UK, et al. in opting to enforce it and resume hostilities.
But why, one could ask, now (or then, as the case may be)? I submit the answer is the events of September 11, 2001, which culminated a series of similar events following the initial inception of hostilities with Iraq in 1991. As with the focus on the “WMD issue,” I have found the explanation of those events (including the first WTC, African embassies, Khobar Towers and USS Cole bombings) to be, at best, incomplete and, at worst, misleading. There is no evidence that the perpetrators intended (or intend) to “destroy our way of life” or anything so grand. The prima facie motivation is found in the many statements issued by al Qaeda which demanded that the US leave Saudi soil at the Prince Sultan Air Base.
Many who have reviewed those documents consider this to be insufficient (if not spurious) motivation for acts of terrorism because, among other reasons, the Saudi government had invited to US to base troops there. Two factors should be considered in support of the argument that Prince Sultan was the necessary and sufficient cause of al Qaeda’s actions: (1) the reason for maintaining the base and (2) the teachings of Islam.
As to the second factor, Josef van Ess, writing in Hans Kung’s “Christianity and the World Religions,” notes, with regard to the divisions within Islam and the nature of jihad, that “[a]ll Muslims have to take up arms only when Islamic territory is attacked by a non-Muslim power” (p. 103). This is consistent with the historic focus within Islam on territory, beginning with Muhammed’s conquest of Mecca following the hadj and perpetuated by his caliphs. Clearly, an infidel (i.e. non-Muslim) force of more than 5,000 troops on the holiest soil in Islam meets that criteria.
The reason for establishing and maintaining the Prince Sultan Air Base was as a forward staging base for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. In addition to serving as a launch point for the liberation of Kuwait, it was also a deterrant to Iraqi adverturism with respect to Saudi Arabia. As long as Iraq was out of compliance with the cease-fire terms, which, among much else (a “Christmas tree” as some have called it), required the demonstration of “peaceful intentions” on the part of Iraq, As long as Iraq and the United Nations were in a de jure state of war, it was, at best, imprudent to abandon the base. And as long as the base was manned by non-Muslim troops, the terrorist acts of al Qaeda and other Muslims would continue. Iraq was obviously not about to comply with the cease-fire; the terms of the cease-fire were clearly not about to be modified; and the terror attacks were not about to stop. The solution to the terrorist issue (i.e. to 9/11!) was the removal of Iraq’s recalcitrant government by military means, immediately following which (August 2003) the air base was transferred to the Saudis, and US troops were re-deployed. As Paul Wolfowitz noted in his interview with Vanity Fair about the significance of deposing Saddam Hussein:
“There are a lot of things that are different now, and one that has gone by almost unnoticed–but it’s huge–is that by complete mutual agreement between the U.S. and the Saudi government we can now remove almost all of our forces from Saudi Arabia. Their presence there over the last 12 years has been a source of enormous difficulty for a friendly government. It’s been a huge recruiting device for al Qaeda. In fact if you look at bin Laden, one of his principle grievances was the presence of so-called crusader forces on the holy land, Mecca and Medina. I think just lifting that burden from the Saudis is itself going to open the door to other positive things.” (DoD-posted transcript)
Thomas Ricks perceives that Iraq is “better off” since the the resumption of hostilities because Saddam was a bad guy. He questions (one might conclude he doubts), however, whether this action was in the security interests of the US. He supports his position by the apparent containment of Iraq and the failure to find WMDs. Since the primary public justification for hostilities was the threat of WMDs, Ricks’s position carries water with those who opposed that assertion. This position, however, ignores the larger context. Unfortunately, defenders of the overthrow of the “Iraqi regime” persist in stressing the WMD issue, which, while somewhat reasonable, is insufficient and easily contestable, as in Ricks’s assertion about the doubts raised about their existence. The more complete argument is harder to make in a simple way (even this extended missive is but a brief precis) but much harder to refute. To do so, dissenters tend to revert to malicious motivations (or stupidity) on the part of the president or other conspiratorial explanations.
As to the “fiasco” of the current situation in Iraq (about which Ricks asserted the Generals claimed “[Rumsfeld’s] war plan stinks”), that’s another story that requires an assessment of other factors associated with Arab as well as Muslim culture (including the rift between Sunni and Shia), along with the history of the region following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.
Perhaps you could let me know what you think of this assessment of the current discussion.
Ed Young
Pasadena, CA
Listeners are wise.


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