The Magazine

Battle for Baghdad

Lessons learned from the war in Iraq.

Aug 7, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 44 • By MAX BOOT
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Fiasco

The American Military

Adventure in Iraq

by Thomas E. Ricks

Penguin, 496 pp., $27.95

This is a good book with a bad title. Anyone picking up a volume called Fiasco, with a snarky subtitle referring to "The American Military Adventure in Iraq," might expect another tome from the Michael Moore School of Policy Studies, with its level of analysis restricted to bumper-sticker slogans like "Bush Lied, People Died."

In fact, this is a carefully researched account of the Iraq war by one of America's premier defense correspondents--Thomas Ricks of the Washington Post. His findings of pervasive high-level ineptitude, based on hundreds of interviews and thousands of pages of documents, will be much harder for reflexive defenders of the Bush administration to dismiss than the usual farrago of ideologically motivated accusations from political adversaries.

Which is not to say that Ricks avoids all the traps of administration critics. He sometimes indulges in hyperbole, calling the Iraq war "one of the most profligate actions in the history of American foreign policy" and suggesting that it "was based on perhaps the worst war plan in American history." Really? When did the conflict in Iraq, where fewer than 3,000 American soldiers have died, become worse than the clashes in Korea and Vietnam, where 95,000 Americans perished?

Ricks also delivers a few cheap shots against George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. He rather mysteriously claims that Bush was "at times more in sync with the attitudes of sixties radical Jerry Rubin than with those of Winston Churchill." How so? He explains that Bush was "willing, a bit like Jerry Rubin, to take a chance and then groove on the ensuing rubble." As a bit of character analysis this is no more convincing--and no less insulting--than his suggestion that Dick Cheney went from being an advocate of containing Saddam Hussein in 1991 to overthrowing him in 2002 "perhaps because of his heart ailments, which can alter a person's personality." Or perhaps the reason was that Cheney saw that containment wasn't working.

This is Ricks's big blind spot. He is passionately committed to the view, espoused by retired Marine general Anthony Zinni, that "containment worked" and that Saddam posed no threat to anyone by 2003. He is too quick to accuse the Bush administration of distorting prewar intelligence without noting that the Clinton administration and our European allies reached the same conclusions about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. (Which is why so many Clinton veterans backed the invasion.) Amazingly enough, Ricks never once mentions the U.N. Oil-for-Food program, which had been perverted by Saddam into a mechanism that allowed him to siphon off billions of dollars for his own nefarious purposes while leaving Iraqi babies to starve. Nor does he mention that U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix told the Security Council on January 27, 2003, that "Iraq appears not to have come to a genuine acceptance--not even today--of the disarmament which was demanded of it."

He does mention, but only in passing and near the end of his book, the conclusion of arms inspector Charles Duelfer that, while Saddam had gotten rid of his stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, he "had tried to preserve the intellectual and physical ability to restart the weapons programs at some point."

Ricks is right that containment worked better than most observers believed in 2002, but he goes overboard in dismissing altogether the case for war. He is much better in assessing what went wrong, and why, after the decision to invade had been made. To be sure, Fiasco does not add too much to our store of knowledge about what happened in the run-up to the war and during the three-week blitzkrieg to Baghdad in the spring of 2003. That ground has been exhaustively covered, not only in various periodicals (including the Washington Post) but also in such books as Cobra II by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor and The Assassins' Gate by George Packer. Ricks adds value by tilting the balance of his narrative toward the guerrilla war that began in the summer of 2003, picking up where Cobra II left off.

Ricks's view is that "a large and persistent insurgency" wasn't inevitable. (Although he doesn't say so, this makes the case for invasion stronger.) If not created, it was at least inflamed by numerous miscalculations made by the American occupiers. He takes Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, General Tommy Franks, and various others to the woodshed for not sending enough troops to pacify a country of 25 million people. Plans to dispatch additional troops after the fall of Baghdad--both the 1st Cavalry Division and 1st Armored Division were ready to go--were cancelled by the Pentagon over the objections of commanders on the ground.