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Washington Post military correspondent Thomas Ricks on Iraq policy

Monday, January 15, 2007

HH: Joined now by Thomas Ricks. He is the Washington Post’s military correspondent, preeminent among his colleagues in this business, also the author of Fiasco, widely reviewed and praised, and the classic, Making The Corps. Thomas Ricks, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show.

TR: Thanks. It’s great to be here.

HH: Good to have you. I wanted to begin by noticing a new feature which I just saw yesterday in the Washington Post, Thomas Ricks’ Inbox. I think this is fascinating.

Explain to people what you’re doing there.

TR: Well, it was actually invented by Susan Glasser at the Outlook section, because I was always passing along interesting e-mails, and saying hey, why don’t you do a story on this, or this might be something you could have somebody pursue. And she said you know, I’d just like to start running these very interesting e-mails, especially those you get from officers and soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. So we kind of made that a weekly feature, in which I basically pick my most interesting e-mail of the week, usually write a short introduction of a paragraph or two, and really let the reader see what I’m hearing from people serving in the field.

HH: It is a fascinating glimpse, and something that is underreported. How many e-mails are you receiving from active duty and reserve personnel who are back from the conflict, and those who are still in Iraq, Tom Ricks?

TR: I’ve never really sorted it out. I get between 500 and 1,000 e-mails a day. Of that, probably half are from people either in the military or recently out of the military. This is the first war, though, in which guys on the front lines are able to send e-mails. I mentioned in my book, Fiasco, a Marine who fought in a firefight in Fallujah one day, came back to base, and checked his e-mail, and got a worried note from a friend of his in New Hampshire who had seen the firefight on CNN. We’ve never had that before, even in the ’91 Gulf War.

HH: Now the reason I really wanted to talk to you today is to talk about the surge and General Petraeus. Let’s start with General Petraeus. He’s covered in Fiasco. What’s your assessment of him, and his chances of success in Baghdad.

TR: Petraeus is really a standout general. I think the two standout top officers in this war probably have been, in the Army, General Petraeus, and in the Marine Corps, General Mattis, Jim Mattis. Very similar guys in a way, genuine fighters, but also military intellectuals, men who think quite critically and objectively about the facts in front of them, and try to come to their own conclusions in a way that not all officers want to or are able to. Whether he succeeds will be an entirely different matter. He’s coming in pretty late in the ballgame here. And he has to deal with several years of mistakes, incompetence, inability to deal with the situation. What strikes me is that the guys they’re putting in charge out there are the dissenters of 2003, 2004. General Petraeus is a leading example, but some of the people they’re putting into economics, the new American Ambassador, Ryan Crocker, was known as an opponent of the war, of the invasion back in ’03. So it’s really as if they’re saying okay, smart guy, you’ve been telling us for years we’ve been doing it wrong, you take a whack at it.

HH: Now General Petraeus, of course, was previously in Iraq as the man in charge of building up the Iraqi army. Did he also object to the invasion, in your understanding, Tom Ricks?

TR: No, but as an active duty officer, he would know quite clearly that that wasn’t his role to say so.

HH: Okay, I thought that was the case, I just didn’t want to confuse it with people.

TR: No, when I describe him as a dissenter, it was more what he did when he came out of the 101st Airborne in Iraq, in Northern Iraq, in ’03-’04, was very different from how most other division commanders operated. He laid down some very clear rules for his subordinate units, don’t do anything that creates more enemies than it stops, always consider whether your action brings in Iraqis, gives them a stake in what you’re doing. If it doesn’t, give Iraqis a sense of a stake, a sense of a shared future. Don’t do it. He was very careful…the first time he had an instance of abuse occur in his division, to essentially shut down the division, tell everybody this is not going to happen in this unit, and also to examine his own leadership and his own operations, to say what have I done wrong that led to this, which was the kind of self-scrutiny that other top commanders tended to avoid.

HH: Now is the change from Casey to Petraeus, and from Abizaid to…

TR: Fallon.

HH: Fallon, is that being perceived as a demotion for the previous two, or a rotation that was inevitable?

TR: Well, no, I don’t think it is perceived as a demotion. Casey’s coming back to be the Army Chief of Staff, which will be a very powerful position, to have somebody who has served so long in Iraq, over two years, to come back and be the Army Chief, it’ll give him a lot of influence with the current White House, but also with the next president coming in in two years. He and Conway, the Marine Commandant, are veterans of Iraq, and that’ll give them a big voice, I think, inside counsels in the Pentagon and elsewhere in Washington. General Abizaid is retiring, or is said to retire, although there’s been some talk of him taking a top job in the U.S. intelligence community. I think it is seen, though, as a sign that they want to try a different approach in Iraq, and that it’s really almost unfair to the senior commanders to say we’re rejecting the road you’ve taken for the last several years, we want to try something different, go ahead and do it, that it’s easier and better to do it with other people at the top.

HH: Now what do you read into the appointment of Admiral Fallon?

TR: A lot of people are interpreting it as oh, they’re getting ready to attack Iran. You know, you never know. Never make predictions, especially about the future, as Sam Goldwyn is said to have said. But I see it as taking a guy with a reputation as a good strategic thinker, and telling him look, Petraeus is going to handle Iraq. He’s going to be a four star officer on the ground there. You deal with the rest of the theater. It’s a very difficult, complex area of operations from East Africa across the Middle East up into the old Soviet Central Asian area. So you’re going to have a lot on your plate here, and especially focus on Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. So I think what you’re seeing is a change in the command structure to make it a little bit more like the United States is set up in the Pacific, with a four star commander in Korea, and then another commander for the whole Pacific.

HH: Now I have read some of those analysis which say if the Straits of Hormuz become the focal point of a conflict with Iran, you’ll want an admiral calling the shot. Obviously, you’ve heard that as well. Is that just the idle speculation of people not the military? Or are some of your sources in the Pentagon saying the same thing?

TR: When you ask people in the Pentagon, active duty military, about invading or attacking Iran, their eyes kind of roll up into their heads. That’s the last thing they want right now. They’re very worried that we’re in a difficult strategic position with Iran, because it’s so easy for Iran to dial up the violence in Iraq on us. It would be easier for the United States military and the United States government to deal with Iran if we were not in Iraq now, because it’s so easy for them to simply call out their pals in the Shiite militias to make trouble for American troops. Some of the most powerful roadside bombs in Iraq right now are said to have come from Iran, some of the most sophisticated ones as well. But you know, I heard one guy say if Bush goes any lower in the polls, then all that’s left for him to do is invade Iran, because then he’s going to be judging…having himself judged by history, and why not double down?

HH: Now when you talk to…again, I’m preferring military to civilian analysts here, about the IED’s, which are coming from Iran, about the Iranian interference with Iraq, is there anybody of sentiment inside the Pentagon that says this is a replay of Vietnam with the sanctuary? We cannot allow our men to be killed by people who are not paying any price at all, meaning the Iranians?

TR: I haven’t heard it expressed quite that way. There is a frustration that there hasn’t been a better job done in closing the borders. And it is not impossible to close borders. For example, the Algerians did it very effectively during the Algerian war, on two borders, both with the Moroccan border and the Tunisian border. So it can be done, though it takes a long time investment and manpower to do it. I think there is a worry that we’re trying to do two things, though, with Iran, and this is where the analogy with Vietnam would really break down. Cambodia didn’t have a nuclear power program, or a nuclear weapons program. Iran does, and we want them to curtail that, as do several other countries, yet the more we pressure them in that area, the more they can reach back and pressure us in Iraq. So it’s a difficult strategic position for us to be in right now.

HH: Do you see any solution to the region, absent regime change in Iran, Thomas Ricks?

TR: Well, a lot of people think Iran, you’ll get some sort of regime change, probably in the short term, but even a much greater change in the long term. I tend to be somewhat small C conservative about foreign policy, rather than a radical. I think containment worked pretty well in the Cold War as a policy. It was difficult, it took a long time, but it did work, ultimately. I think containment has been neglected recently, both in dealing with Iraq and in Iran as a policy alternative. There are ways to contain countries, there are ways to deter countries that have nuclear weapons, and we’ve done it successfully over the last fifty years.

HH: Are you at all concerned, and I am a middle C conservative, are you at all concerned about…

TR: What’s a middle C conservative?

HH: That’s someone who doesn’t like adventurism unless the object of the adventuring is a nuclear power that’s threatened to wipe Israel off the map. Do you take Ahmadinejad seriously?

TR: I don’t know. We’re getting out of my area of expertise. I could talk about Iraq, and I could talk about Afghanistan, because I’ve been to one country six times, and I’ve lived in Afghanistan.

HH: We’ll come right back and do just that.

– – – – – –

HH: Going to do a new introduction for that (Fiasco), Thomas?

TR: I am. In fact, I’ve been working on it the last couple of days, thinking about what it means for General Petraeus to go out there. Oddly, I’ve also just finished a new introduction for Making The Corps, which is being reissued by Scribner later this year.

HH: Did you go back down to Perris Island?

TR: I haven’t yet. I would love to, because I really enjoyed my time there. What I’ve been doing is getting in contact with the Marines I followed through boot camp eleven years ago, and catching up with them and where they’re at now.

HH: How many of them are still in the Corps?

TR: Surprisingly few. Well, I shouldn’t say surprisingly few. The Marine Corps is a very young institution, as I point out in Making The Corps. About half the guys in the Marines at that point were in the bottom three ranks, which is basically private and private first class. So they, in order to be a young infantry force, they have to have a high turnover, and so you’d expect that at least 80-90% will be out by now.

HH: I still tell people often, that’s the one book people need to read on the military/civilian divide. Before we go back to Iraq and Afghanistan, Thomas Ricks, do you think that divide is getting deeper?

TR: I think we won’t know until the Iraq war is over. What I think…I was thinking about this over the weekend, because I reread the whole book for the first time in ten years. What I think I missed was the crucial role of Congress in civilian/military relations. Everybody tries to focus on the White House relationship with the generals. But where Congress can really help is in formulating and examining strategy, and that the one place where we really have tied our shoelaces together on the ground in Iraq is strategy. It’s done very well tactically, but often without meaning, because good tactics without strategy are like a Ferrari without a steering wheel. It’s powerful, but it doesn’t get you where you want to go. And so Congress, because it’s been asleep at the wheel, really, since 9/11, abdicated that crucial role of saying okay now, what’s your strategy, what means are you going to use to achieve what goals?

HH: Have you ever seen Congress responsibly exercise that leadership? The opposite was true in the aftermath of Nixon’s takeover of the White House in ’69. Congress was hell bent on destroying the policy that they had watched develop. Are we going to see a replay of that, Thomas Ricks?

TR: The older I get, the more of a traditionalist I become. And traditionally, in our country, we’ve had an activist Congress in the conduct of war. Civil War, a committee on the conduct of war, so in truth, but it atagonized President Lincoln. World War II, Harry Truman makes his name as a Senator by holding hearings with defense contracting. Korea, Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson held hearings on the Korean War. Most famously, Fulbright with the Foreign Relations Committee, holds informative hearings, even if you disliked what he was doing, informative hearings on the conduct of the war. But in this war, the Congress really has held very few hearings, are looking at the issue of training, for example, I think which is the key to our exit strategy in Iraq, to my knowledge, Congress has held one hearing on that subject, and it wasn’t a very good one.

HH: Of course, when Truman had his committee, they worked cooperatively with FDR, Truman often meeting with the president before any report was issued, to give him a heads-up about that. Do you expect that kind of cooperation to come from a Democratic Congress, where that antipathy for Bush is so deep?

TR: Well, Bush did say in his speech last week that he wanted to have that kind of steering group. It’s funny, because people haven’t talked about that much, so I think it would be a good step forward. The problem here, I think, is not that the Democrats are going to be too active, it’s that they’re going to be too hands-offish for this reason. The Democratic strategy on Iraq is to not get tagged with the failure like they got tagged with the failure in Vietnam. And my worry would be that they’re going to basically say this isn’t our war, it’s George Bush’s war.

HH: My worry is that they’re going to undermine the war. But let’s get to the war itself. Who’s going to fight the Baghdad battle, Thomas Ricks?

TR: Under the plan the President rolled out last week, we’re supposed to send in several brigades into Baghdad, totaling about 17,500 troops over the next several months, kind of piecemealing them in. They are supposed to be partnered with Iraqi units across the city, broken out into nine sectors. In reality, who’s going to fight? American troops are going to fight.

HH: But do we know if it’s the 101st? The 82nd?

TR: Oh, it’s from a bunch of different brigades, from a bunch of different units. I think there are two from the 3rd Infantry, based in Fort Stewart, one from the 82nd Airborne that’s already begun its movement. They were the reserve brigade for the theater down in Kuwait.

HH: And does Anbar become the Marine Corps’ principal mission?

TR: Yeah, Anbar has long been where the Marines are active, and they’re going to get a couple of battalions, it looks like, a total of about 4,000 additional troops in there. The U.S. troops number is really not that significant. We have had more, several more significant surges and troop numbers in the past. Once you get all these extra troops in, you’ll be up to about 153,000 troops in Iraq. Well, that’s not even the peak of where we were. The peak was mid-December of 2005. We were up to 165,000 troops, according to a number that President Bush used in a speech back then. It’ll be American troops fighting, and not Iraqis for this reason, which is Shiite troops don’t want to confront the Shiite militias, and that’s the key issue. In Baghdad, who’s going to confront the Shiite militias. Kurdish troops are going to be shipped into Baghdad, but Kurds A) don’t…most Kurds don’t speak Arabic, especially the younger Kurdish soldiers, and B) the Kurds have an alliance with the Shiites, so it’s unlikely that they’re going to confront the Shiite militias. That leaves you the Sunnis, but if you send in a Sunni unit to fight the Shiite militias, all you’re doing is intensifying the civil war. So we go back to the default position, which is American troops.

HH: We confronted the Shia militias in Najaf in ’02, I believe, excuse me, in ’04, and stacked them up like cordwood, I recall the phrase as going. Is that what you expect will happen again?

TR: If there is a military confrontation, yeah. We had two big rounds with Sadr’s militia, one in the spring of ’04, and the second one in August. More recently…I mean, people in America didn’t notice much was last October. Sadr’s militia took over a town down in Southern Iraq. They’re much more powerful than they were in ’04. Back then, they were estimated at about 15,000 effective fighters. Now, Sadr’s milita, Muqtada al-Sadr is the radical Shiite cleric, his militia is estimated to have 60,000 fighters, which according to intelligence people I know, means it’s more effective than the Iraqi army.

HH: Do they have Iranian embeds with them, Quds forces, to your knowledge?

TR: I don’t know for a fact. Of all the Shiites, Muqtada al-Sadr is seen as the most Iraqi nationalist. For example, he has people who are the only people who when they demonstrate, carry Iraqi flags. That said, I would bet he’s got relations and advisors in from Iran.

HH: Do you think they’ll hesitate to kill Iranians who happen to be embedded with the Shia?

TR: I don’t think it’s going to come to that, frankly. I don’t see how there’s going to be a confrontation with Muqtada al-Sadr’s forces. This is the guy who is the most powerful person inside the Iraqi government. He controls key ministries. He has 30 seats in the parliament. If you attack him, you almost certainly topple this government, which may be what the Bush administration thinks it’s going to wind up doing there.

HH: Do you expect to see, Thomas Ricks, stage atrocities? And if so, like Hezbollah did in the summer war, and if so, will the American military be prepared and nimble enough to respond to them, and the American media responsible enough to give the context?

TR: Don’t know. There’s no question, though, that Muqtada al-Sadr, a supporter of Hezbollah, to my knowledge, he mounted the largest demonstration ever in their favor.

HH: But do you expect that they will try and rig the media war?

TR: They will use every tool they can. They are very smart, and they’re very tough, and they’ve succeeded in a very difficult operating environment. Sadr’s taken on the U.S. government twice, and has emerged not only alive, but more powerful.

HH: Thomas Ricks of the Washington Post, thank you very much. We’ll check back again.

End of interview.

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