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Washington Post’s Thomas Ricks on the White House’s quiet attempt to fill the war czar post.

Friday, April 13, 2007
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HH: Joined now from Washington, D.C. by Thomas E. Ricks, Pentagon correspondent for the Washington Post, author most recently of Fiasco, and of course, the classic, The Making Of The Corps. Tom Ricks, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show, good to have you.

TR: Thank you, it’s good to be back.

HH: Very interesting story yesterday that I wanted to explore with you, by you and Peter Baker on three generals spurn the position of war czar. Can you set it up for us, Thomas Ricks? What is the White House looking for? And who turned them down?

TR: A couple of months ago, Newt Gingrich, I think it began with him, former Speaker of the House, told the White House you know, your biggest problem here is the bureaucracy of the U.S. government. Except for the guys fighting on the ground in Iraq, there’s nobody in the system for whom winning in Iraq is the top priority. And he made a series of recommendations, about 18, that said you really need to get the government in gear. And recommendation three of the eighteen was create a deputy chief of staff to the President, who meets with the President every morning after the intelligence brief, and talks to him about Iraq and implementation of policy. And the recommendation number four war part of that, that this guy has to be seen across the government not as a policy formulator, because they’re good at formulating, but as a policy implementer. And if you cross him, he tells the President the next day.

HH: Is there a precedent for this? I was trying to figure out, is this Harry Hopkins? Was this George Marshall? But George Marshall was the chief of staff. Who is this in American history?

TR: I would say the closest equivalent is a guy during the Vietnam War who was extraordinarily effective. He was in Saigon, and he coordinated civilian and military policy and implementation. His name was Robert Komer, later remembered by his nickname, Blowtorch Bob, which tells you about how he operated.

HH: And who did he answer to?

TR: I believe it was to the U.S. ambassador, and also the commander on the ground there. This is under Creighton Abrams, I believe.

HH: All right. So the Bush administration has adopted Gingrich’s idea. By the way, has that list of 18 recommendations been publishes anywhere?

TR: Yes, as a matter of fact, on Gingrich’s website, www.newt.org, because he delivered this, and nobody seemed to notice in testimony before Senator Biden’s Foreign Relations Committee in January.

HH: Okay, so the Bush White House is open to new ideas. Number two, they went looking. Who turned them down and why?

TR: I so far know of five generals.

HH: Whoa, that’s up from three yesterday, okay.

TR: Yeah, it seems there’s more out there who I think, I haven’t confirmed these all, but I’m trying to track them down. But the best known ones are General Jack Sheehan, very blunt, retired Marine general, who was the supreme allied commander Atlantic in his last post, in his position, very outspoken, even while in uniform, and has kind of remained that way as you saw in the quote in our story. He turned the job down, he said, basically, because these people don’t know where they’re going on Iraq, and all I’d get was an ulcer and no good out of it, no progress.

HH: Right.

TR: Other guys who have turned it down?

HH: Jack Keane, Joseph Ralston…

TR: Jack Keane, very well respected former Army number two guy who in the last year that he was there, really, he was offered the job of Army chief of staff, and turned it down for family reasons, to take care of a sick family member. But these are guys, I mean, Keane is your classic, tough, Irish New Yorker. He looks like a cop on the beat, but he is an extremely smart guy as well. You get the feeling that he could either beat you in debate, or just beat you over the head, and would be quite happy to do either one.

HH: Yeah, and Ralston as well. Now can you name for us the two who you have suspicions about?

TR: Sure, I think I can. I’m just trying to think about how public this is at this point. One of the names that has been floating around is another retired Marine general named Charles Wilhelm, last known, or the last job he had was, in the military, was chief of the Southern Command, which is the U.S. Military headquarters for operations in Central and South America.

HH: And the fifth?

TR: Fifth I shouldn’t say at this point.

HH: Has Barry McCaffrey been approached?

TR: Not to my knowledge, but his views on the Iraq War are already pretty well known.

HH: Yeah, I’m talking, by the way, with Thomas Ricks, Washington Post writer, Pentagon correspondent, who had a pretty important story yesterday, Three Generals Spurn Position of War Czar. So basically, we’re looking for not someone to run the day to day operations on the ground to make sure that those day to day operations on the ground, in the form of General Petraeus and the Centcom commander are supported. Is that the right translation of this, Thomas Ricks?

TR: I think so. I mean, my impression is the Bush administration is very comfortable with General Petraeus, in part because he enjoys a lot more credibility on Iraq than they do now. The best spokesman they have for their policy is not the President nor the Vice President, but General Petraeus. So they’re not looking for a new face for the war, they’re looking more for somebody to get the U.S. government more engaged. Now that’s kind of a tragic commentary. We are now in the fifth year of this Iraq War. And if you’re thinking about the government up and running at this point, it’s pretty late in the ballgame.

– – – –

HH: Joined by Thomas Ricks, Pentagon correspondent for the Washington Post, and author of Fiasco, most recently. Is that out in paperback yet, Tom?

TR: No, coming out in paperback this summer. But since you’re asking about my books, Making The Corps will come out in a 10th anniversary edition this summer also.

HH: I hope they made you go back to Parris Island and run a few laps or something.

TR: I would love to. I actually enjoyed my time on Parris Island enormously.

HH: Oh, next time you go, call me. I’ll go with you. I’d love to see that. I’ve been to Quantico, but I’ve not been to Parris Island.

TR: Parris Island is really a unique place in America. I would hope every American high school teacher would go there and see. You know, you can really work with these 18 year olds, and make something of them.

HH: I have a book idea for you, Tom. Do you want one?

TR: Sure.

HH: I have a young intern. He’s a sophomore at Biola University, who’s enrolled in the Marines, their officer candidate school. You have to go two summers in a row, and when you graduate, you do five years. I’d be fascinated to know who is making the Corps’ officers now, and you could do that in your spare time by driving down to Quantico. I mean, that means you’re going to Ramadi. And so it’s got to be an interesting group of people.

TR: I meet with these guys all the time. I was actually down at Quantico on Monday. I have a lot of friends in the Marines. What struck me is the honor graduate of the platoon I wrote about in Making The Corps, was a young kid from South Boston named Andrew Lee, did his time in the Marine Corps in the 1990’s, got out, went into the Boston Fire Department. September 12th, 2001, he walked back down the Marine Corps station, and signed up to be an officer. And he went through OCS, and OCS, Officer Candidate School, is really tough…

HH: Yeah.

TR: Because they’re basically there to get rid of people they don’t think should be Marine officers.

HH: Right.

TR: They’re not training you, they’re basically harassing you…

HH: Yup.

TR: You know, go half a mile underwater on a cold November day with a straw in your mouth, and see, you know…see if people freak out.

HH: You’re learning things along the way, but you’re, yeah, but hard things.

TR: And Andrew Lee went back into the Marine Corps, did three combat tours as a lieutenant in Iraq, and I was interviewing him for this new edition of Making The Corps, and I said what do you think about Iraq? And he said sir, I loved every single day there. He was the great combat leader. There’s actually a book by Bing West called No True Glory, about the Marines in Anbar Province.

HH: Oh, I haven’t heard about that.

TR: Oh, it’s a good book, and Andrew Lee is on the cover of the book. The photograph of him yelling at other Marines, typically, “Come on, fellows, do it harder, do it faster, do it better,” because Andrew always drives people.

HH: Bing West, No True Glory?

TR: Yup.

HH: All right.

TR: The day after I interviewed Andrew Lee for the new edition of my book? He was in the Boston Globe, he didn’t tell me this, I found out another way, he had run into a burning building in Boston, and carried out three children to save them. Just a great guy.

HH: You see, I think there’s a bunch of stories like that at Quantico, and I hope someone writes that. Let’s get back to the war now.

TR: Okay.

HH: Bad attack inside the Green Zone today, although Petraeus has been the first to say that the hardest thing to stop will be in fact the suicide bombers. And so…

TR: They should have been able to do better in the Green Zone, though. I mean, they’ve wanted to hit the Green Zone for four years now.

HH: That’s what I mean. I’m actually, I’m sorry for people dead, but if you get one successful cross in four years, that’s not bad.

TR: On the other hand, the trend’s not good. They’ve been trying to do this for four years. They’ve only been able to rocket and mortar the Green Zone. To actually be setting off a suicide bomb inside the Parliament’s cafeteria, that’s a very worrisome sign, especially on the same day that they dropped one of the bridges across the Tigris River…

HH: And they were looking for the bomber. That’s the bad sign, is they knew they were coming, so they had some intelligence, and it still got through. The Israelis have something to say there. But given all that, what is your report on what Petraeus believes is happening now in the Petraeus offensive?

TR: They’re sort of cautiously optimistic. They are really warning the Bush administration against more happy talk. They’ve really put a fatwa out against that. We don’t want to hear anybody saying how well things are going. And they’re kind of slapping it down hard. It’s kind of a mixed picture. There’s some early indications that in some parts of Baghdad, this might be working sometimes. The problem is, the toothpaste seems to be just getting squeezed around inside the tube. While there’s some improvement in Baghdad, there has bee noticeable degradation of security in the surrounding area.

HH: How far outside of the city are you talking about?

TR: Oh, maybe fifty miles north, and especially maybe about 100 miles east, up in the Diyala Province, which has really been erupting lately in a way we haven’t seen during this war.

HH: All right, now I’d like to talk to you a little bit about something I kicked around with your colleague, E.J. Dionne earlier this week, which is your understanding of the size of the enemy…

TR: You’re like becoming a liberal outlet here.

HH: I talk to all you folks.

TR: Washington Post columnist, Washington Post reporter…

HH: I consider myself the Kissinger between real America and the Beltway. I shuttle back and forth.

TR: (laughing)

HH: I asked E.J. how numerous he thought the enemy was, and he didn’t have an estimate. You’ve covered this war for four years. How numerous do you consider the worldwide jihadis to be, those who would actually kill, or would desire to kill Americans or their Western allies in the course of the war?

TR: I have no idea. My only worry is that the number is much larger than it was on September 10th, 2001, because of some of the responses of the U.S. government over the last four years. What I do know is in Iraq, the amazing thing to me, is they keep on telling you there’s 20,000 hard core insurgents, but they also tell you they’ve captured about 20,000, and they’ve killed 20-40,000, which means that what you have is a self-regenerating organization that has had four years of training in fighting the U.S. military, and through a Darwinian effect, is much better than it was four years ago. And that’s not a happy picture.

HH: Let’s pause on your theory for a second, and I want to probe it a little bit. In Algeria yesterday, we had attacks on the prime minister’s office, killed a bunch of people. In Morocco two days ago, four suicide bombers captured, three of them killed and killed other people with them when they set themselves off. Do you consider the Moroccan and the Algerians do be products of American action?

TR: No, those were preexisting. I mean, the Algerians have been chewing on each other now, in some ways, for 20 years, and in more ways, for 40 years.

HH: Okay, so how…

TR: What they’re doing, though, is aggregating themselves onto the umbrella of al Qaeda.

HH: So how many of those sorts of jihadis do you think we have around the world?

TR: I’ve got no idea, but in some ways, it doesn’t matter, because it’s not like I’m a full time insurgent, I put on my insurgent uniform in the morning and I go to work. The worrisome thing is when an entire population is sympathetic to an insurgency, because most insurgents are what I think of as part-timers, five percenters…

HH: Well, I don’t know, these guys in Algeria and in Morocco had bombs and suicide vests…

TR: I’m not talking about the hard core suicide bomber. I’m talking about a national environment in which the people are broadly supportive of anti-American elements.

HH: Sure, that’s very dangerous. But have you seen anything from…well, can you stick one more quick segment with me, Tom Ricks?

TR: Sure.

– – – –

HH: I want to go back the size of the enemy, Thomas Ricks, because it’s really bedeviling me and my colleague, Dean Barnett, that five years, as you say, in the fifth year of the war in Iraq, and the sixth year of the war in Afghanistan, are media elite doesn’t have a sense of how many divisions the enemy has, and whether those divisions are in onesies or twosies, or tens or twenties, or 20,000 in Iraq. I don’t know the American people can really get a strategy together unless they have some sense of what we’re up against. It doesn’t sound to me like anyone in MSM knows, or cares to even venture a guess.

TR: Let me try here. I don’t think you’re listening. How many divisions does the insurgency have? None. You can’t mirror image them. The enemy is not what we are. We are a very different structure, and an extraordinarily different society. It doesn’t matter how many hard core fighters they have, whether it’s 10,000 or 20,000. If the population broadly turns against them, they become irrelevant, and that’s really what we want. Sure, you have to kill the frothing at the mouth diehard, but if you could peel away the population, they basically, you dry up the sea in which they operate. That’s why the important question is don’t focus on killing and capturing the enemy. This is what Petraeus is trying to hammer through the heads of a lot of the subordinate commanders.

HH: Well, that’s a true enough…

TR: It’s not how you prevail. You prevail by winning the support of the population.

HH: That’s true in Iraq, but what Dean wrote today at Hughhewitt.com is if you look at Palestine, if you look at Jordan, if you look at Egypt, even probably Iran, you will find those broad populations, and not because of our invasion of Iraq, decidedly Islamist, and growing more so every day, and they are nurturing not tens of thousands, but probably hundreds of thousands of people in violent mode. Do you agree with that?

TR: I don’t know on the numbers. What I do know is the U.S. intel is some of the most dangerous foreign fighters who come into Iraq are people who have been expelled from the security forces of those countries for Islamic extremism. The funny thing is when they get a young crazy kid coming in who doesn’t know anything, he’s a security risk for them, and they basically get rid of him as soon as they can, some foreign fighter. They make him a suicide bomber.

HH: That’s fascinating. So how many of them are there?

TR: In Iraq, a relatively small number. You ask commanders out there, and it’s usually fewer than 2% of the people, of the fighters they capture, are foreigners. But the effective foreigners, the Syrian, the former Syrian sergeant, or the former Egyptian or Algerian paramilitary police officer who was kicked out of his own country, or out of his own military, for extremism.

HH: Last question, Thomas Ricks. Do you think we’re going to get hit again soon in the United States?

TR: I sure hope not, my gut tells me no, but you know what Darryl Zanuck said, never make predictions, especially about the future.

HH: Thomas Ricks, always a pleasure, looking forward to the new edition of Making The Corps, and we’ll talk to you again soon, and I appreciate the time.

End of interview.

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