Thomas E. Ricks, Pt. 1
HH: I begin this first hour with the Washington Post military correspondent, Thomas E. Ricks. He is the author of a New York Times bestseller, The Gamble, which has just come out. Of course he wrote the critically acclaimed Fiasco book a couple of years back, and before that, ten years ago, Making The Corps, one of the great classics of really military literature in the United States. Thomas Ricks, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show.
TR: Thank you, it’s great to be back.
HH: It’s great to be back, and my compliments on The Gamble. I was telling E.J. Dionne yesterday on the show that I marvel at the reporting in this book. We’re going to quarrel on a couple of things, but wow, you poured your soul into this. How many trips did you make to Iraq to get this thing done?
TR: All told, I’ve done 14. I think this book took 5.
HH: That is, it is just beautifully written and wonderfully reported, and we’ll get to the disagreements later. But let me begin with that. It’s linked at Hughhewitt.com, America, by the way. It’s available in bookstores everywhere, The Gamble by Thomas Ricks. Now big news days with regard to Iraq, Thomas, because the President’s plans for Iraq have been leaked to the New York Times, I’m sure you’ve read them.
HH: What do you make of that plan, if it’s accurate, given the conclusion of your book. And you wanted to go long, and your opinion was we had to stay long, and Petraeus’ opinion, General Petraeus’ we had to stay long. What do you make of what’s been leaked?
TR: I think that Obama is repeating one of the core failures of the Bush administration. You can see I’m not going to please anyone with that sentence.
HH: No, you’re not.
TR: The Bush White House was persistently overoptimistic about Iraq. They had an unwarranted optimism in their plans for Iraq. Remember, George Bush didn’t say hey, everybody, I’ve got a great idea, let’s invade Iraq and get stuck for many, many years. No, his plan was let’s invade Iraq and get out quickly. And the original U.S. war plan was to be down to 30,000 troops by September, 2003. Well here we are, obviously, more than four years later, with more than four times that number of troops still there. So I think when Obama talks about getting forces out, he’s not talking about getting out completely, but he is talking about a radical drawdown, he is walking in the failed footsteps of his predecessor.
HH: Now on Page 318 as we draw near the end of The Gamble, you quote Eliot Cohen as saying the classic conditions for a military coup are developing in Iraq. You also cite a number of experts who worry that while we have relative peace and security and stability there right now, and of course a wonderful election just concluded, that civil war has been postponed in their eyes. Do you think the incoming administration understands these risks, or does not understand these risks?
TR: I think they’re coming to grasp them. They came in, I think, with a fairly realistic approach, but I think even then it’s harder than they realize. The more power you turn over to the Iraqis, the less influence you have, and the more you’re simply subject to the course of events. And I think that’s kind of where Obama’s going to find himself over the next several years. There’s going to be things he wants to do, but that Iraq prevents him from doing.
HH: Now in the leak today of the post-August, 2010 plan, it says there may be as many 50,000 of the troops now in Iraq would remain, but they’d be called advisory training brigades, or advisory assistance brigades, and I think the special operators will still be there. Any way in your opinion that’s sufficient?
TR: Yeah, in fact I write in the book about the post-occupation force, which they’ve been discussing in Iraq for a couple of years. When you crunch the numbers, you realize that basically the minimum force you can have, if you’re going to have any combat operations in Iraq, you really have to have between 35 and 50,000. so that really represents a quiet meeting of the minds between the Obama people and the uniform military about where to go in Iraq. Remember, General Odierno, the top commander in Iraq, says at the end of my book he would like to see 35,000 troops in Iraq in the Year 2015.
HH: I know, it’s a very interesting…
TR: And that would be well into Obama’s second term. I think what you’re seeing, there’s two things – first, a meeting of minds here, but second also, Obama changing the terms of reference in a kind of three card monty way, or actually a shell game way, because he talks about getting all combat forces out. When he says that, what Americans hear, I think, is no more U.S. troops are going to be fighting and dying after 2010 or 2011, and that’s simply not the case. As long as you have U.S. troops there, whether you call them advisors, or whether you call them special operations counterterror forces, some of them are going to be fighting and dying. Yes in smaller numbers, but yes they’re going to be out there in hard combat.
HH: And you see, to a hawk or a neocon like myself, I don’t care what he calls it, provided they stay there. And do you think that will be generally the view of the hawks and the neocons?
TR: Yeah, because a lot of what Petraeus was up to, as I say in the book, was figuring out a way to get America to stay. When he began the surge, the question was how soon do we get out. When we entered the surge, the question was how long do we have to stay. So I think he achieved both a major political and a domestic political victory there. I mean, I am not a happy hawk on all this. I’m kind of a reluctant realist. I think leaving Iraq would be immoral, but I think staying in Iraq is immoral, because you’ve got to remember, I think this was the worst foreign policy mistake in American history.
HH: That’s why I said we disagree on a great deal of things. I’m with Thomas P.M. Barnett, who I’ve been interviewing at great length on the toss the table over aspect of this. But let’s get to the history, because I want people to know the story, Thomas, because it’s such a great story. Let me ask you the first, the one thing that struck me between the eyes towards the end of the book, you quote people as saying Muqtada al-Sadr is of the opinion that two million people have to die in Iraq before peace comes there.
TR: Yeah, I had a hard time nailing this down, but I was told that was a signals intercept in which he was heard saying that.
TR: And the implication being that it would be Sunnis who would have to die.
HH: Sure, sure.
TR: And this is actually one really worrisome thing. If they start wailing on the Sunnis again, and once the Americans are out of the way, then you’re going to see Sunni Arab states, Saudi Arabia has said it would intervene on behalf of Iraqi Sunnis, I think Jordan and Egypt would intervene. Meanwhile, Turkey’s going to come in and wail on the Kurds, and suddenly you’ve got yourself a good old-fashioned regional war on your hands that looks a little bit like Sarajevo, 1914.
HH: What we will do is cover that tomorrow in the second hour of this interview which will air in the first hour of my program tomorrow. But now I want to go back to the beginning. I just wanted to get some of the news headlines done there, Thomas Ricks. Two meetings absorb a lot of the opening of The Gamble, one at Camp David, one in the Oval Office, with key players from outside of the government that are brought in to talk about the surge. Can you outline those meetings, tease the audience for me? I know we can’t cover all the details and the participants. In other words, let’s get the scorecard straight.
TR: Sure, first meeting is Camp David in the summer of ’06. This results because the White House staff is becoming increasingly worried about Iraq, the kind of thing, you know, we need to tell the President this thing isn’t working, how do we do that? They say let’s call in sympathetic supporters of the war, people who were really in Bush’s camp, but who are becoming alarmed by the course of events in Iraq. So Eliot Cohen, a professor at Johns Hopkins, Robert Kaplan, a very good journalist, written a lot about insurgency and small wars.
HH: Frequent guest on this program, yup.
TR: And Mike Vickers, who was a professor at Johns Hopkins, but also had been a special operator in the past, and also was key in the CIA effort to support the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and in fact plays a role in the movie Charlie Wilson’s war. He’s the smart CIA guy playing chess, who kind of figures out the strategy. So they sit down and they talk to the President, and they’re kind of telling him, you know, you’ve really got to reconsider where you’re going here in Iraq. This thing isn’t working.
HH: Was Big Jack there?
TR: No, Jack Keane was not there.
HH: Okay, okay. Is he in the Oval Office in the second meeting?
TR: He is, yes.
HH: Okay, I’m sorry, keep going.
TR: And he becomes key later on. The problem with this meeting arranged by White House staffers is that Bush is kind of distracted, and none of the people who came to the meeting knew why. In fact, what was happening was Bush had a secret plan to go to Iraq immediately after this meeting under the guise of having a long weekend at Camp David. And so that meeting kind of went in one ear and came out the other, didn’t have the effect the White House staffers had hoped. The result of this is that American strategy continues on the same losing course in Iraq in the summer of ’06. General Casey has two operations – Together Forward I, Together Forward II that are intended to restore security to Baghdad. They both fail utterly. And what really scared the White House staffers at that point is after the failure of Together Forward I and Together Forward II, Casey seems to intend to stay on the same course. In fact, there was talk of Together Forward III. Well, how many times are you going to beat your head against the wall…
TR: …and say this isn’t working? By this point, by late summer, ’06, General Casey, our top commander in Iraq, did not realize it, but he had lost the support of key people in the White House.
HH: And then we flash forward to the second meeting, and that maneuvering goes on all through the fall as we get close and through the elections. What happens at the second meeting?
TR: Well, you’ve got to set up the second meeting. The key event, I think, in this entire last couple of years in the war, was our mid-term elections, 2006.
TR: Bush gets hid over the head with the 2 X 4 he apparently needed, and he says wait a second, I’m losing the American people, I’m losing this war, and people aren’t buying what I’m selling anymore. And so the next day, he throws Donald Rumsfeld overboard, which I think was a very important action, because it eased up the logjam with the Pentagon. Despite his reputation for harshness, Rumsfeld had a hard time firing people, and a hard time adjusting once he made a mistake. Everybody makes mistakes…
HH: You know, it’s very interesting, Thomas Ricks, we’re going to go to break, the portrait, I’m a big admirer of Donald Rumsfeld, still am, but the portrait you put here of being not a decider but an entertainer of controversy is new, it’s fascinating, it will certainly be the subject of a lot of controversy.
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HH: When we went to break, by the way, Thomas, are you writing at a blog now, or just at the Post? I thought I saw you went to a new blog.
TR: Well, I do have a blog. I am a contributing editor now of Foreign Policy Magazine. If you go to www.foreignpolicy.com, you’ll find my blog, and actually several other interesting ones. One your audience might particularly like is called Shadow Government, which is former Bush administration people commenting on the new administration. But my blog is called Best Defense, and it’s about daily national security events. I find myself writing a lot about Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, and the state of the U.S. military.
HH: Have you scaled back at the Post, though? Or are you just doubling down?
TR: I have. I feel like I’ve stepped off the train about to go over a cliff, which is the U.S. newspaper industry. I’m hanging my hat full-time now at a little boutique think tank called The Center For A New American Security, which is a really neat little place, kind of the Google of think tanks.
HH: Oh, how interesting. We’ll come back to that, and I’m sure you saw the news today that the Rocky Mountain News is closing this week, and the San Francisco Chronicle is on the ropes.
TR: There are a lot of major American cities that by the end of this year probably won’t have real newspapers.
HH: I agree, I agree. It’s a very sad situation, and we’ll talk about that maybe some other time, because journalists all like to do that. But let’s get back to the surge, and when we went to break, the President’s gotten hammered, Donald Rumsfeld’s been fired, arriving is Secretary Gates about whom you write, “Behind the Secretary’s slight smile lurked a very sharp set of teeth.” What happens next?
TR: Gates intrigues the hell out of me. This guy strikes me as the consummate bureaucratic operator, and I think he might have learned a lot from watching the Soviets, because remember he’s an expert on the Soviet Union.
TR: He would slice people’s heads off so fast they didn’t even know that they’d been removed. He did not hesitate to take actions. People would get fired 48 hours within whatever action it was that had bothered him. So he comes in and suddenly things start moving very quickly at the Pentagon. But the uniform military is against the surge. The only person in the chain of command supporting the surge is General Raymond Odierno. Casey, Abizaid, the chairman of the joint chiefs, all of them are saying this is crazy, we’re doing fine, get off our backs, no problem.
HH: Did Peter Pace resist the surge?
TR: Pace actually had told the joint staff, look, I think we’re going to have to do something, maybe think about two brigades. And I actually talked to the joint staff officer who had to deal with…then Pace came scurrying back from a meeting with the President, and said hey, I think we need a five brigade plan here.
HH: Yeah, when you say scurrying, I love Peter Pace. I think he’s a great American and decorated, but you really don’t esteem him very highly.
TR: Pace had a reputation for real pliability, for kind of being a go-along guy. We’ve had a series of chairman of the joint chiefs like that, his predecessor, General Myers, and they weren’t giving the President what he needed, which was tough decisions – look, Mr. President, here’s some risk, which one do you want to take? They kind of hummina hummina’d along not saying if you want strategic gains, then you’ve got to take strategic risks. And I think that was one of the big unrealized parts of the surge, which is Petraeus, Odierno and the guys around them started taking real risk in Iraq.
HH: And it certainly comes through in the book. And I want the audience to know, I’m not debating Thomas Ricks. That’s not the point of this interview. The point of the interview is to have him explain some of the high points of the book The Gamble to get you into the story. Debates are for another time. I just want to note when I am…I just don’t want my silence to be interpreted as agreement on these things. This is really the story of David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno, and it’s very, very compelling. How did they come to trust you?
TR: I’ve known them for a long time. I knew Petraeus, I think, back when he was lieutenant colonel. I actually when to charm school with Odierno, all new Army brigadier generals upon being selected from promotion from colonel go to this thing they called charm school, which is actually a terrific education about generalship. And I was the first reporter they ever allowed to attend the whole thing, and he was in my class, he was the youngest officer there, and I’d known him also in Iraq in his first tour. He didn’t like what I wrote about him in my first book. To be clear about it, Odierno was one of the villains of my book Fiasco.
TR: He’s one of the heroes of this new book.
TR: And what I asked him one day in Baghdad, how do I go from the Odierno I saw back in ’03-’04 to the Odierno I see now, who has hired, for example, this anti-military, anti-American pacifist British woman as his advisor on politics? And he said Tom, not my problem, your problem.
HH: How interesting.
TR: Basically, you know, but he was very candid with me. He talked a lot to me, and very helpful. But to go back to that White House meeting, December, ’06, because it really is key…
TR: The President wants to make a change, they’re not quite clear what it is, and he brings in Eliot Cohen, the only person to come back from the previous meeting at Camp David, General Jack Keane, General Barry McCaffrey, General Wayne Downing, all three retired generals, and Stephen Biddle, a very good defense analyst at the Council On Foreign Relations. And they say to him, you have got to make a change. Cohen is much brisker with him, almost to the point of rudeness, saying you can’t just say your generals are good guys. That’s not the standard. The question is are they militarily effective. You need to ask your generals some tough questions. And so Bush says okay, who do you think I need out there? In the whole meeting, everybody says you need Dave Petraeus. Well, Jack Keane isn’t quite letting on here, but General Keane, a retired Army vice chief of staff, has two protégées – one is David Petraeus, the other is Raymond Odierno. And Keane has been beating the drums quietly to get these guys out there. The Army is still resisting it, though. Odierno goes out to Iraq, and is essentially ordered to pull out of the cities, retreat, and step back and let the Iraqis handle it. And he says this is crazy, I’m going to lose the war on my watch. He rewrites his orders. He’s talking quietly to Keane a lot, and to Petraeus a lot. Eventually, General Casey, the U.S. commander in Iraq, has someone call up Petraeus and tell him stop talking to Odierno.
HH: I mean, this is really one of the fascinating aspects of The Gamble, is the intrigue within the Pentagon among the professional military. Later, Fox Fallon, David Petraeus mixing it up, and lots of this kind of maneuvering going on, which is why I’m wondering how this book is being received in the Pentagon? Obviously, you are pro-Petraeus, Odierno, not so high on Casey, though you say a few kind things about the General. Are doors being slammed in your face over there, Thomas Ricks?
TR: Well, it’s odd. I thought Fiasco might cause some trouble with me with the Army in Iraq, and instead it opened doors. I think people like having these stories honestly told. And yeah, it steps on a few toes. I don’t get Christmas cards from Tommy Franks, but…
HH: Or General Sanchez, either, I think.
TR: Yeah, but I find a lot of soldiers and officers really appreciated the effort to tell the story accurately and honestly. It was not uncommon in interviews for this book to have an officer at the end of it take his copy off, of Fiasco off the shelf and kind of sheepishly say hey, would you sign your book for me.
HH: Quick question before we…because we’re short on time, I want to do an exit question. How is this selling? Is the American public still as interested in Iraq as I am? I’m not a good test case here. I think this is fascinating. How’s it…is there an appetite to know what happened?
TR: I’ve been surprised. It is…I was just told it was number six on the Sunday New York Times bestseller list that comes out on Sunday.
HH: Oh, well…
TR: It’ll be number five the week after, so yeah, it is selling.
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HH: Let’s turn this segment and introduce David Petraeus a bit. I’ve only talked to him on the radio, and only done it once, July 18th of 2007. When he came on, and I was just stunned, at his facility and easy, and you know, most Army guys, they just don’t want to say much on the radio. You point out later he said 60% of this is information war. And you have a lot of access to him, but you also put Thomas Donnelly’s note in here. “The distinction between the mask and the man is impossible for me to distinguish.” Tell the audience your assessment of David Petraeus.
TR: He’s an interesting guy. He’s a warrior and an intellectual. He is a light infantryman, dedicated to his craft, he also has a PhD from Princeton. In fact, he likes journalists, he likes politicians, and with that PhD from Princeton, that amounts to three strikes against him in the eyes of the U.S. Army. On top of that, he was the only Army general to really have a successful tour in his first tour in Iraq when he commanded the 101st Airborne Division. He really is an outlier in the Army. I think respected more than liked, kind of seen as an oddball for the reasons I just enumerated.
HH: I knew about the shooting incident when one of his troops shot him on the shooting range, and Bill Frist saved his life. I didn’t know about the parachute jump and the bad back. And I wondered when I read that, well, he’s not really out there still, and they kept him in the Senate chair all those hours. Don’t people widely know that? Or are they like me, they just don’t know these things?
TR: Oh, it isn’t widely known. He doesn’t like to complain. He doesn’t want to talk about his physical pains. He actually has a big, metal plate with seven screws in it that holds his pelvis together because it was smashed parachuting. He likes to present himself as a great physical specimen, which he is. He still does one-armed pushup contests against privates, and likes to run and run and run.
HH: And is fast. I’ve seen his times. It’s very impressive. Let’s get back to the story. He comes back from Iraq after his first duty. The Army sends him to Leavenworth. By the way, I found it fascinating that you covered this, so did Thomas Barnett in Great Powers, to develop the COIN Manual, the Counterinsurgency Operation Manual, February, 2006 he’s in Leavenworth. That’s going to come back when the surge hits. Tell people about that process. I think it’s vital.
TR: The Counterinsurgency Manual that they put together really took classic counterinsurgency theory and said here’s how it might work for the U.S. Army these days. One way to read that manual is as a devastating critique of how the war had been fought in Iraq for several years. It says go out and protect the people. Well, for several years, the U.S. military had focused on force protection. So, for example, when the Marines kill 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha, it’s not even seen as a significant action, literally. It is not filed up the chain of command in what they call a significant action report, or a SigAct. Now when he says in his manual you must protect the people, from that flow several consequences. It means that the U.S. military is going to have to operate entirely differently in Iraq. It means you’ve got to move off the big bases, and you’ve got to live among the people. And this manual is really the intellectual beginning of the surge, because if you’re going to move off bases and live among the people, then you’re going to need more troops. The theory of living among the people is if you patrolled one hour a day in a neighborhood, somebody else controls it the other 23 hours. It might be bandits, it might be benign Iraqi officials, it might be the insurgency. You don’t know, because you’re not there. And for 23 hours a day, the Iraqis are going to be intimidated by someone else. So you get out there, you develop a sense of what’s right, what’s normal, what feels good in the neighborhood, what feels strange, eventually people begin talking to you. And that was, I think, the key aspect of what Petraeus brought out there.
HH: And I think civilians who do not have the capacity or the interest to read the COIN will get a sense of it, they’ll find Lt. David Kilcullen and all his ten rules and all this other stuff fascinating. But if that was the manual, the dress rehearsals were Tal Afar with Col. McMaster, and Ramadi with Col. McFarland. In the minute to the break, how have they fared post-surge, Thomas Ricks? Where are McMaster and McFarland?
TR: I think they both should be commanding divisions. Instead, the Army said that’s interesting what you guys are doing out there, I’m not sure it’s relevant, and they’ve kind of gone on to other jobs. This is not an Army that has been taking its successful battlefield commanders and saying let’s move this guy up quickly, which is what we did in World War II.
HH: Now is that…now General Casey gets a lot of rocks thrown at him in this book, is now the chief of staff of the Army. Is that because his strategy of transition and get out of here just had to be repealed?
TR: Partly. I also think it’s because the Army just was following peacetime processes. And it’s only when Gates comes in as Defense secretary, he does something unprecedented. He pulls Petraeus back from the front lines, to the Pentagon, and says run a promotion board for me, pick the right guys to be generals.
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HH: And I want to get up to the actual beginning of the surge this hour, and then tomorrow we’ll cover the surge, Thomas Ricks. A question, though, it kept occurring to me, there was so much information, so much detail in this book, I wondered about operational security. Did anyone say to you, you know, I’m sure this is going to make the rounds in the northwest territories of Pakistan?
TR: Well, I knew tons of stuff, and I’ve got a pretty good sense of what actually might be damaging and what might not. There’s not a lot here of operational security. For example, you won’t find in the Army Manual on Counterinsurgency, which is online. It doesn’t hurt if the other guy knows how we’re operating as long as we’re operating so effectively that he never catches up with us.
HH: All right. Now let’s go and do a quick political update. You’re very fair through this, and one of the reasons I think conservatives will appreciate this book is that you quote accurately and unsparingly Democrats in opposition to the surge and the war throughout ’07 and ’08, and their confoundment at what to do. A quick summary for the audience, please?
TR: Well, I think it’s most striking when Joe Biden as a senator basically says this is all failing, let’s just get out. The real resistance to paying attention to what was happening in Iraq, and to actually concede that Petraeus might be succeeding tactically is striking to me. Now remember, I do think the surge failed. But in improving security, there’s no question that that was happening, and that there was not a lot of willingness to recognize that.
HH: Now Big Jack Keane, the retired general, and his embrace of the core lessons of David Galula, I hope I’m saying that right.
TR: You are.
HH: On Page 89, you write that, “This is where the intellectual heft came along with Fred Kagan and Eliot Cohen.” When did he become enamored of that, because I’m trying to figure out, his age would not make him a counterinsurgency guy.
TR: He kind of was a quiet counterinsurgent dating back to his two tours in Vietnam. When he got back from Vietnam, he said to himself you know, this is just not working right. And like a lot of young officers then, he sat down and looked for information and started reading things like David Galula and the other classic works of counterinsurgency. He felt a kind of guilt about this, because he was vice chief of staff of the Army when the Iraq war began, and he went out in the summer of ’03 to look over the operation, and said man, this is not working, these people don’t know counterinsurgency, we have not given our soldiers and our leaders the tools they need to do this job. So he retired from the Army, and watched with some consternation. He was on the Pentagon’s advisory board, the Defense Policy Board, and he and Eliot Cohen, who also served there and Henry Kissinger were all becoming increasingly worried in ’03 and ’04, and found Rumsfeld really did not want to talk about it, did not want to listen to them. But Keane held his fire until the summer of ’06. And he says this thing’s going down in flames. And he’s sitting there watching a hearing one night, he’s sitting in his basement on a La-Z-Boy, and he’s watching a rerun of a Congressional hearing that had happened that day with General Abizaid. And he’s listening and says these guys are just going to ride this thing the whole way down. They’re not recognizing this is losing and they need a new strategy. So Keane at that point goes off the reservation, and he starts seeking audiences. Rumsfeld basically throws him out of his office. And he winds up talking to Cheney, and people around Cheney, and he starts getting a listen, because Cheney, I think, is also recognizing that changes need to be made. And finally, he winds up in this meeting with the President in December ’06, and sells the President, I think, on not only a new strategy, but a new chain of command. And in the following months, they change out almost the entire command structure. Not just the top commander in Iraq, but also the head at Central Command, the ambassador, and eventually the chairman of the joint chiefs. The new people who come in have two characteristics – they’re very smart, and they’ve very critical of the way the war’s been handled. You could really say that the transition to Obama began in Iraq two years earlier than it began here, in January, ’07. Effectively, what happened is Bush turned the war over to the dissidents, people who had opposed the war or thought the occupation had been badly handled. For example, Ambassador Crocker, who became our top diplomat there over the last couple of years, reveals in the book that he essentially opposed the war in Iraq.
HH: Now this is an interesting aspect of the book to me, is that organically, I come away thinking that this organization that we call the American military establishment, with its civilian control, is actually a learning, living, breathing, very complicated, but also, it gives you great confidence that people like Keane, and there’s no bad guys in here, there are people who were wrong versus people who were right as to how to win the war. But is constantly evolving and thinking in a way that…I spent a lot of time in the federal government a long time ago on the domestic side. I mean, this never happens in most major organizations, but it’s really an organism. It’s adapting.
TR: It is. I think the fact that they’re facing life and death situations help encourage that change, helps force change. My great concern about the military is we have been fighting in Iraq four and a half years, longer than we fought World War II before they started becoming militarily effective. That’s just a long time before you start making changes. We are too kind to our generals. George Marshall began World War II by firing several dozen senior generals.
HH: Boy, that comes through.
TR: …because he thought they were too old.
HH: That’s a key lesson of the book that no one got fired ever.
TR: And during the war, 17 division commanders were relieved during World War II four of the core commanders.
HH: I remember very distinctly when General Maddis, the Marine who is also in the book in a featured role, relieved a battlefield colonel on the march to Baghdad, and there was such controversy around it. Do you think that that created the sense that the military wasn’t going to do that?
TR: Well, Maddis is just as terrific commander, and I think he knows that one of the key aspects of a good leader is willingness to fire subordinates. War is too important to be concerned about commanders’ feelings. You’ve got to be out there representing the country, and representing the soldiers. And your subordinates deserve the best possible leadership. And if you think that some commander is not delivering that, you have a moral responsibility and a military duty to find someone else.
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HH: I mentioned when we went to break, Thomas Ricks, that Eliot Cohen dressed down President Bush on the need to make changes in generalship. It was really about Casey. But I also wonder was there every any doubt in the President’s mind, as well as you can find out, that David Petraeus was the guy? Was there a competitor for the Petraeus appointment?
TR: There actually was a competitor for the Petraeus appointment. That’s something that people haven’t noticed in my book. I’ve reported it, but it hasn’t been commented on, so I’m glad you asked. Vice President Cheney called Jack Keane.
HH: Oh, yes, wanted him to do it.
TR: And offered him the job.
HH: Yeah, that was stunning.
TR: And it’s interesting, because actually Petraeus would have loved that. But as it happened, Keane said he couldn’t, and Petraeus became the man. So I think he really was in many ways the sole candidate.
HH: Didn’t they offer Keane the CentCom job later as well?
TR: Yeah, they offered it to him, and Keane just said look, I really can’t. Unfortunately, at that point, he said why don’t you look at Admiral Fallon. He seems to be a pretty savvy guy.
HH: That’s tomorrow’s story. So back to Eliot Cohen, I find this fascinating, a presidential historian, a historian of military history, lecturing a wartime President on the need to change generals. It’s a fascinating story.
TR: Cohen has thought deeply about leadership. He wrote a terrific book called Supreme Command, about how civilian leaders should lead militaries in wartime. He had also thought deeply about this, because at the time, he had a son in the military in Iraq, a young Harvard graduate who joined up and became an intelligence officer, a terrific kid. And Eliot has had a lot of students at Johns Hopkins University who have gone into the military. So there’s a sense of personal responsibility, and he really kind of hit the President pretty hard. Look, stop talking about guys, generals as good guys. Start judging them on whether they’re militarily effective. This also might have been a way of preparing Bush to think about his generals differently. Remember, Bush got along famously with Tommy Franks, a fellow Texan, kind of a good old boy, cigar smoking backslapper. Well, Petraeus is not that. Petraeus is rather cerebral, remote, small and quiet, in many ways, the opposite of Tommy Franks. He’s not a backslapper. And he goes off on tangents. I remember one day in Iraq, he started asking me questions about French generals in Vietnam in the 1950s, and he was fascinated. He was saying which general are you talking about, and he would reel off the names. He read all this stuff. He wrote his PhD on all this stuff. And I think Cohen was preparing the President for a very different sort of general, but one with whom Bush, I think, became fairly close. Bush talked to Petraeus almost every week when Petraeus was out there on video teleconferences.
HH: We’ll talk about that on tomorrow’s interview continuation with Thomas E. Ricks. Fascinating first hour, America, remember it’ll be posted on podcast later tonight, it’ll be transcribed tomorrow night. The book is The Gamble, Thomas E. Ricks, General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure In Iraq, 2006-2008.
End of interview.