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Fiasco – Tom Ricks on Iraq

Tom Ricks book Fiasco starts off with criticism of the politicians who started the Iraq war, but in the middle (which is as far as I have gotten) mainly focuses on the failures of the military, particularly the Army, to prosecute the war correctly. Despite my experience as draftee in the Vietnam war, I sympathize with the Army, which still does most of the real fighting, followed by the Marines. But Ricks focuses primarily on the failures of the senior generals, rather than the troops in the field. It sounds like Vietnam, where arguably we won all the battles but lost the war because of failures of the politicians and the senior military leadership.

A very odd parallel with Vietnam is that Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense McNamara went to head up the World Bank, and Iraq-era Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz followed in his footsteps. What does America have against the World Bank?

Anyway, some points in Fiasco that caught my attention:

p. 30: “Perle and Wolfowitz quickly began [after 9/11] to make the case that 9/11 was precipitated by a myopic and false realism that wrongly had sought accommodation with evil. ‘The idea that we could live with another 20 years of stagnation in the Middle East that breeds … terrorism is … just unacceptable…,’ Wolfowitz later told the Jerusalem Post.” Interestingly, Perle was one of the owners/editors of the Jerusalem Post. Why should two “Americans” be talking about American policy to the Jerusalem Post? What’s wrong with American papers. Americans should not be making policy through Israel.

p. 49: Cheney lies to the Veterans of Foreign Wars about WMD. He said, “‘There is no doubt’ that Iraq possessed … WMD.” “In retrospect, the speech was even more stunning than it appeared then, because it has become clear with the passage of time that it constructed a case that was largely false.”

p. 50: One of Ricks’ sources appears to be Gen. Zinni. He says that Zinni liked and thought he agreed with Cheney from Cheney’s days as Defense Secretary during Gulf War I. Zinni was at Cheney’s VFW speech. Ricks says of Zinni, “He couldn’t figure out the change in Cheney…. ‘When he [Cheney] sort of got tied up and embraced all this, it seemed out of character, it really confused me.’ What he didn’t know then was that Cheney had changed — perhaps because he knew the Bush administration hadn’t performed well in heeding warnings before 9/11, or perhaps because of his heart ailments, which can alter a person’s personality.” I would add the possibility that Cheney’s job as CEO of Halliburton may have changed him, either the big money, or something in the water in Texas which seems to have corrupted many in the Bush administration. Cheney is now a Texan, despite some questionably legal device to claim he lived in Wyoming, so that he could run for Vice-President with Bush.

p. 53: “Richard Perle’s influence in the events leading up to war likely has been overstated. At the time the chairman of the Defense Policy Board, he also seems to have wielded some influence with the office of Vice President Cheney. Perle’s main role, at least in public, seems to have been the one willing to be quoted in the media, saying in public what his more discreet allies in the Bush administration, such as I. Lewis Libby, Cheney’s chief of staff, would say to reporters only on background.”

p. 64: “In October, the Atlantic Monthly, which would do an exemplary job in posing the right questions about Iraq both before and after the invasion, carried a clarion call by James Fallows titled ‘The Fifty-first State?’ Fallows began by explicitly rejecting the analogy to the 1930s on which Wolfowitz so relied. ‘Nazi and Holocaust analogies have a trumping power in many arguments, and their effect in Washington was to make doubters seem weak — Neville Chamberlains, versus the Winston Churchills [see recent David Brooks column in the NYT] who were ready to face the truth,’ he wrote. But ‘I ended up thinking that the Nazi analogy paralyzes the debate about Iraq rather than clarifying it.’ Yes, Saddam was brutal. But Iraq was hardly a great power…. The US military had been confronting it and containing it successfully for over a decade. So, Fallows said,…. ‘If we had to choose a single analogy to govern our thinking about Iraq, my candidate would be World War I.'” [My view is that WW I is also an apt analogy for the recent Israel-Lebanon war. In any case, the Holocaust connection shows that there is a uniquely Jewish component to the Iraq war.]

p. 73: Ricks has a low opinion of Jerry Bremer’s job as American pro-consul in Iraq. Discussing the findings of a pre-war conference, Ricks says, “They specifically advised against the two major steps that Amb. Bremer would pursue in 2003…. The Iraqi army should be kept intact because it could serve as a unifying force in a country that could fall apart under US control…. They likewise were explicit in warning against the sort of top-down ‘de-Baathification’ that Bremer would mandate. Rather, they recommended following the example of the US authorities in post-World War II Germany.”

p. 77: Ricks points out the strong role the Holocaust played in the thinking of the key characters, many of whom were Jewish. “For Feith, as for Wolfowitz, the Holocaust — and the mistakes the West made appeasing Hitler in the 1930s, rather than stopping him — became a keystone in thinking about policy. Like Wolfowitz, [Douglas] Feith came from a family devastated by the Holocaust. His father lost both parents, three brothers, and four sisters to the Nazis. ‘My family got wiped out by Hitler, and … all this stuff about working things out — well talking to Hitler to resolve the problem didn’t make any sense to me,’ Feith later told Jeffrey Goldberg of the New Yorker in discussing how World War II had shaped his views.”

p. 89: I agree with Ricks that Rumsfeld’s two choices to head up the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Generals Myers and Pace, have been real losers. About Myers, Ricks says, “Congress faced an unusually strong secretary of defense and an unusually weak chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Myers … seemed an incurious man, and certainly not one to cross a superior…. Inside the military, he was widely regarded as the best kind of uniformed yes-man — smart, hard working, but wary of independent thought. The vice chairman [now chairman], Pace was seen as even more pliable, especially by fellow Marines.”

p. 99: Discussing Gen. Eric Shinseki’s controversial testimony to Congress that hundreds of thousands of troops would be necessary to occupy Iraq, Ricks quotes Andrew Bacevich: “Shinseki was offering a last-ditch defense of military tradition that Wolfowitz was intent on destroying, a tradition that saw armies as fragile, that sought to husband military power, and that classified force as an option of last resort.” “That subtext about the nature of military force and the wisdom of using it in Iraq may have been one reason the effects of the exchange between Shinseki and Wolfowitz were so far reaching.” Ricks quotes an unnamed senior general as saying, “The people around the president were so, frankly, intellectually arrogant…. They knew that postwar Iraq would be easy and would be a catalyst for change in the Middle East. They were making simplistic assumptions and refused to put them to the test…. These are educated men, they are smart men. But they are not wise men.”

p. 101: On February 21 and 22, 2003, the original nominee to be American pro-consul in Iraq, retired general Jay Garner, held a meeting on postwar Iraq. The attendants included “Abram Shulsky from Feith’s policy office in the Pentagon, Elliot Abrams from the National Security Council, Eric Edelman and others from Cheney’s office,” in other words a good contingency of Jews. However, Ricks says, “Of all those speaking those two days, one person in particular caught Garner’s attention…. ‘There was this one guy who knew everything, everybody,a nd he kept on talking.'” The man was Tom Warrick from the State Department, where he headed a project called the Future of Iraq. Garner asked Warrick to come work for him, but Ricks continues, “Garner, a straightforward old soldier, didn’t realize that he had walked into the middle of a running fued between the State Department and the Defense Department…. Apparently there was some sort of ideological test they [Warrick and other State employees] had failed, but it was all very mysterious to Garner, even to the extent of exactly who was administering the exam.” Soon Rumsfeld told Garner he had to get rid of the State people. “Garner then had one of his staffers call around national security circles in the government to find out what was going on. ‘He was told the word had come from Cheney.'”

p. 120: Ricks says that criticism of Iraq war deployments from senior military veterans got under JCS chairman Myers skin. “He was in the difficult position of being a career pilot and Air Force officer responding to the views of men who had been senior commanders in ground combat.”

p. 136: I thought the looting that followed the Americans’ arrival in Baghdad was awful, and that Rumsfeld’s “Stuff happens!” remark was atrocious. I was glad to see that Ricks says it had consequences: “Rumsfeld’s fundamental misunderstanding of the looting in Iraq, and the casual manner in which he expressed it, not only set back US forces tactically, but also damaged the strategic standing of the United States, commented Fred Ikle, who had been the Penatagon’s policy chief during the Reagan administration…. He wrote, ‘America lost most of its prestige and respect in that episode. To pacify a conquered country, the victor’s prestige and dignity is absolutely critical.’ This criticism was leveled by a man who not only had impeccable credentials in conservative national security circles, but actually had brought Wolfowitz to Washington from Yale during the Nixon administration.”

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