Book Reviews CPP Newsletter Online V26.2

Ricks’ Fiasco Reviewed by Gail Presbey

Presbey, Gail. ” ‘Fruit of a Poisoned Tree’: Review of Thomas E. Ricks, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq (Penguin, 2006),” Newsletter of the Concerned Philosophers for Peace, Vol. 26.2 (Fall 2006)

This book, found in the Military History section of many bookstores, is an excellent account of the strategic mistakes of the Bush Administration and U.S. military forces in Iraq. Ricks had special access to top military officials, due to his being a longtime war correspondent for the Washington Post. In contrast to muckraker Seymour Hersch, Ricks names all of his informants, who share their descriptions and analyses of what happened in Iraq, what went wrong and why. Many of those he quotes have high positions of responsibility in the military and were directly involved in the Iraq plans and implementation. He is talking to those most ‘in the know,’ which is what makes his book such a valuable source of information. Also, the carefulness of his argument means it cannot easily be struck down by those who want to defend the war and occupation as a ‘success.’

Ricks begins his book by charging that the Bush Administration’s decision to wage war in Iraq, and its mishandling of the occupation, will probably go down in history books as “one of the most profligate actions” of U.S. foreign policy. Ricks minces no words. He is a dire critic of the Bush Administration. But he is no radical. His book criticizes Bush not from the point of view of a leftist, but as one who has confidence in the longer tradition of U.S. military professionalism, which was ignored in this case. For Ricks, the wars in Iraq and Vietnam, which share many tactical errors, are exceptions to a rule of basically sensible military policy. And his critique of the Iraq war is not limited to Bush himself. Ricks explains that it takes more than one person to create a mess as big as Iraq. He points out systemic problems within the military and between the various branches and offices of government, which all played roles in this ‘fiasco.’

From his moderate perspective, Ricks doesn’t raise big questions, such as what should be the goals of U.S. foreign policy, or what American values are most important. He doesn’t explore better alternatives to war. Ricks’ treatment, therefore, is an invaluable ‘piece of the puzzle,’ but his book does not explain everything that needs to be known or discussed about the war. For example, Ricks does not discuss the larger context of U.S. intervention in Iran and Iraq: the U.S. propping-up the Shah of Iran, the U.S. promotion of Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, or the role that the U.S. played in arming Hussein in the first place (even with W.M.D.) The book does not mention the U.S. motivation for the first Gulf War, that is, why the first Bush administration came to the aid of a rich monarch in rescuing Kuwait, but ignored other concurrent foreign occupations of land in the Middle East such as Turkey’s occupation of half of Cyprus, and Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. It does not mention that U.S. Forces targeted the water supply of Iraq’s cities during the first Gulf War, a supposedly ‘military’ maneuver that had dire consequences for civilians, or that U.S. use of depleted uranium in that war has led to high cancer rates in Iraq. In other words, an overall critique of U.S. neo-colonialism is missing.

Instead, the book begins with the aftermath of the war. Yet within the narrow focus of Ricks’ book, he does an excellent job. In 1991, U.S. forces repelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait, but they did not move further to topple Saddam Hussein. The U.S. government did not see its role as engaging in ‘regime change.’ But the U.S. had thought that checking Hussein’s expansionist project and ejecting Iraqi forces from Kuwait would weaken the Hussein regime and hopefully lead to its downfall. But Ricks thinks that the U.S. made three tactical errors. First, it allowed Hussein’s hated Republican Guard, about 80,000 units, to leave Kuwait and take with them hundreds of tanks, ‘mostly untouched’ back to Iraq. These guards would later attack those trying to rise up against Hussein. Allowing them to leave Kuwait therefore made it more difficult to oust Hussein. But Ricks does not elaborate on what should have been done with these troops instead. He also does not mention the infamous “massacre at Mutla Ridge” where U.S. planes devastated columns of retreating Iraqis (see Phillip Knightley, The First Casualty, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002).

Another mistake made after the first Gulf War, according to Ricks, is that U.S. planes dropped flyers encouraging Iraqis to rise up and overthrow Hussein. Shiites and Kurds emboldened by this seeming promise of aid did what the flyers said, but U.S. troops stood by and did not help. In addition, the U.S. had been enforcing the no-fly zone rules, but General Norman Schwarzkopf allowed Hussein an exception to fly his helicopters. These helicopters shot at Shiites and Kurds in their villages and cities. Failing to support Iraqis in their attempts to rid themselves of Hussein led Paul Wolfowitz, then on the scene, to have a feeling of incompletion. Wolfowitz became involved in the supposedly humanitarian effort to help Kurdish refugees fleeing Hussein in the north. To the dismay of Marine Brigadier General Anthony Zinni, operation “Provide Comfort” was, under Wolfowitz’s direction, changed from refugee relief into carving out a section of Iraq not under Hussein’s control,. With this small foothold in Iraq, the U.S. became committed to ensuring Kurdish safety. As we know, Wolfowitz later became a key player in the push to return to Iraq — to finish what had been started.

Then followed the years of containment, with costs of enforcing the ‘no fly’ zone being about one billion U.S. dollars per year. Hussein’s ‘bark’ continued to be defiant, but in fact he did not interfere with the no fly zone, leading some military personnel like Zinni to say that containment was working. Nevertheless, the U.S. did decide to bomb Iraq, first in 1998 with operation “Desert Fox,” in which 415 cruise missiles were fired in four days; then again in February 2001, with air strikes aimed at five Iraqi anti-aircraft sites. Ricks does not mention the economic sanctions, or the argument popular with Kathy Kelly and her group Voices in the Wilderness that U.S. economic sanctions and the restrictive United Nations oil-for-food programs were leading to a shortage of medical supplies, resulting in the deaths of about 500,000 children in Iraq. Secretary of State Madeline Albright commented in 1996 that the deaths of these children were a price that had to be paid to contain Hussein. Critics suggest that the sanctions violated rules of war, which should not target civilians.

Due to frustrations with containment, the Clinton Administration and the subsequent Bush Administration found themselves pressured to invade Iraq. U.S. Troops, stationed in Saudi Arabia to maintain the Iraqi no fly zone, were targeted. The Khobar towers bombing led to the deaths of 19 U.S. service men and wounded 372 others. Bin Ladin’s 1998 “Fatwah” against the U.S. demanded that U.S. troops leave Saudi Arabia, and stop bombing Iraq.

Some thought that ousting Hussein once and for all would be better than the never-ending work of containment. The Project for a New American Century asked Clinton in 1998 to consider invading Iraq. Wolfowitz and exiles led by Ahmed Chalabi were some of the key instigators. In 2001, Judith Miller’s articles for the New York Times, which involved interviews with Iraqi defectors, influenced many to believe that Hussein could be hiding W.M.D. But the urge to invade Iraq pre-dated September 11, 2001, and pre-dated any real concern about W.M.D.

Ricks argues that the decision to go to war with Iraq and oust Hussein was done without any careful planning for the aftermath of the war. Dismantling Hussein’s army after the ‘successful’ U.S.-led invasion created unemployment for tens of thousands of troops and was interpreted as revenge against them for their loyalty to Hussein. This partisanship did not help to build a new, united Iraq. When U.S. forces could not effectively guard weapons caches, the displaced soldiers joined others in arming themselves to take part in the insurgency.

Ricks cites military officers who say that U.S. forces did not understand Iraqi mentality. In the Balkans, U.S. forces were able to quell insurgencies by constant patrolling of the streets. Their mere presence during the patrols would deter insurgents from fighting. But in Iraq, the constant patrols were experienced as humiliating. Americans did not understand Iraqi pride. Americans also hurt Iraqi pride and honor by engaging in house raids in the middle of the night. They rounded up many detainees, but made more enemies. One military officer suspected that many of the roadside bombs aimed at U.S. convoys were actually attacks by Iraqis who felt honor bound to retaliate against U.S. forces that had violated the sanctity of their homes. The fact that so many roadside bombs were able to be placed meant that locals supported them. The attempt to win Iraqi ‘hearts and minds’ was losing.

U.S. reticence to release thousands of suspects led to grave overcrowding of prisons. We all know the Abu Ghraib scandals, involving torture and humiliation of detainees. Ricks argues, conservatively, that while torture tactics were not ordered from above, they were tolerated. Ricks does not get involved in allegations that trace responsibility for mistreatment of prisoners all the way to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (see Charlie Savage, “Documents Link Rumsfeld to Prisoner’s Interrogation,” Boston Globe, 15 April 2006).

Ricks argues that from a military point of view, effective counter-insurgency tactics call for treating prisoners well so as to wean them from the insurgency. U.S. tactics of abuse further alienated Iraqis from the occupation and strengthened the insurgency. Likewise, retaliatory tactics such as those used in Fallujah, after four foreign contract workers were killed there, did not have the hoped-for effect of quelling the insurgency. While the city lay in ruins, the insurgents grew more determined.

In an effective counter-insurgency effort, troops must live with the people and win their trust. Instead, U.S. troops lived apart from the people in bases intended to duplicate U.S. luxuries back home. The continuous need for supplies meant that convoys were targeted by the insurgents. Ricks concludes that the counter-insurgency efforts of the U.S. duplicated many errors of the Vietnam war. In both wars, U.S. forces over-relied on their technological superiority and firepower, and downplayed the need to win popular support.

Near the end of his book, Ricks finally entertains the possibility that the Iraq occupation has been going so badly because it was “fruit of a poisoned tree.” In other words, since the U.S. went to war for the wrong reasons in the first place, the occupation was bound to be difficult. Here the problems of tactics are briefly put into the larger context of wrong goals. But when Ricks looks toward the future, he does not think that withdrawal of U.S. troops is an option. To do so would let Iraq fall to U.S. enemies. His ‘best case’ scenario does not sound very easy. If military advisers take to heart the lessons learned by military strategists regarding defeating an insurgency, and based on those insights, completely change their tactics, then the U.S. could finally win over the insurgency. His ‘cheery’ comparison for the best case is the U.S. occupation of the Philippines after the Spanish-American war. There, after a few initial years of brutal repression, and several more years of careful counter-insurgency work, the U.S. occupation finally led, in about ten years, to a stable government with which the U.S. could work. Following this ‘best case’ scenario, U.S. troops would stay in Iraq another ten years.

Ricks presents two other options, the ‘middling’ and ‘worst case’ scenarios. The middling scenario is that the U.S. role in Iraq could end up like the French in Algeria, their presence resented, fought, and finally ousted as a neo-colonial power. The ‘nightmare’ scenario, according to him, is that in response to U.S. incursions there, a new dynamic leader and strongman — a Saladin — would arise to unify the Arab world. A united Pan-Arab country or empire could use oil money to arm itself with nuclear weapons and be a serious problem to the U.S. In order to avoid this scenario, Ricks advocates his option number one above.

I think that Ricks shows his limitations in his conclusion. His dependence on current military strategies prevents him from seeing other options. While he admits that the U.S. entered Iraq for the wrong reasons, he does not advocate a U.S. public apology. Bush continues to defend the decision to enter Iraq, while shifting the rationale from pursuit of W.M.D. to that of promoting ‘freedom and democracy.’ Any continued U.S. presence that does not admit past mistakes is bound to encourage further resentment. Also, the U.S. has to separate issues of private gain from its continued presence in Iraq. Due to U.S. influence on privatization laws adopted by the Iraqi Governing Council under the stern leadership of L. Paul Bremer, III U.S. motivations cannot easily be interpreted as altruistic. If U.S. forces are to stay, the U.S. government should forswear all claims to oil and reconstruction profits.

Ricks’ ranking of endgame scenarios shows that his own position seeks to continue a position of U.S. Domination in the Middle East. To say that every country and region in the world must be on friendly terms with the U.S. and its current economic agenda, or else the country will be called an enemy of the U.S. and will be undermined diplomatically, economically, or militarily, is certainly an Americo-centric perspective. To say that the U.S. is justified in the continued occupation of a country which it should not have invaded in the first place, merely because to leave would mean that it would then be ruled by U.S. enemies, presumes that the U.S. has the right to do whatever it wants wherever it wants if it thinks it is in the U.S. interest. What gives the U.S. that right? On the other hand, a graceful exit after a profound apology, and a commitment to help in reconstruction by funding Iraqi firms rather than Halliburton or other U.S. corporations, would go a long way to ensuring that a future Iraq government would not become an enemy of the U.S.

Also, those who fear a future powerful Middle Eastern country in possession of nuclear weapons have other ways to avoid that grave scenario. If the existing nuclear non-proliferation treaty were strengthened by existing nuclear nations such as the U.S. taking seriously their obligation to work toward disarmament, as the treaty states, the U.S. could by its example reverse this arms race. The U.S. should also stop engaging in blatant double standards such as turning a blind eye to, or supporting, Israel’s nuclear arsenal; providing expertise to India, while its nuclear arsenal violates the treaty; while working to penalize Iran on the mere suspicion that it would want a weapon in the future. If the U.S. consistently worked for a non-nuclear future, the goal in the Middle East could be achieved, and the ‘nightmare’ scenario Ricks fears could be averted.

I realize that the alternative scenario I propose is not one that is popular in the circles that Ricks frequents. I myself am not a military expert. I have learned a lot about the Iraq war and the debate regarding military strategy and tactics from reading Ricks’ book. As I said at the beginning, Ricks’ book is a crucial piece in the puzzle for understanding the current crisis in Iraq. Those of us looking for an alternative to endless U.S. occupation of Iraq can use Ricks’ careful military analysis to show Bush supporters that Bush’s handling of the Iraq war has been deeply flawed. Then, I think, we have to go beyond Ricks’ proposals to find a solution that is more acceptable than reproducing, a hundred years later, the U.S. occupation of the Philippines. A fuller understanding of our errors should lead to a fuller sense of our possible alternatives.


Gail M. Presbey is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at University of Detroit Mercy. Her areas of expertise are social and political philosophy as well as philosophy of nonviolence and cross-cultural philosophy. She was a Fulbright Scholar in Kenya and India. She has co-edited a textbook, The Philosophical Quest: A Cross-Cultural Reader, now in its second edition with McGraw-Hill; and an anthology, Thought and Practice in African Philosophy (Nairobi: Konrad Adenauer Foundation, 2002).

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