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Ricks in Lexington

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While I’m on the subject of Tom Ricks…

Last month, Tom Ricks visited the Patterson School and gave a couple of talks about Iraq. One talk was for the Patterson students, and the other for the general public. Because of bad weather, however, most of the turnout at the public talk happened to be Patterson students or recent Patterson graduates.

Ricks argued that the invasion of Iraq was the worst mistake in the history of American foreign policy. He suggested that the Surge succeeded at a tactical and operational level, but failed to resolve the basic strategic and political problems of the US occupation of Iraq. He is relatively optimistic, however, about the McChrystal plan in Afghanistan; he believes that the fundamental political issues are more tractable than in Iraq, and in particular that the unpopularity of the Taliban among the Afghan people makes military victory possible. The Karzai government was the most serious problem, but he suggested that making a credible threat to leave Afghanistan was the most effective tool that the United States had in order to make Karzai more accountable to his domestic constituency.

The most controversial aspect of Ricks’ argument will be familiar to anyone who read his recent op-ed in the New York Times. Ricks contended that the political situation in Iraq is untenable, and that civil war is inevitable in the absence of a substantial, long-term US commitment. He further argued that the civil war would be destructive to US interests in the Middle East, and would produce a greater humanitarian disaster than Iraq has yet seen. Although the Surge failed overall, he suggested, combined with the strategy of buying off the Sunni insurgency it did manage to produce a substantial drop in violence. The current situation in Iraq is an uneasy truce, enforced by US troops and dependent on US financial commitment. US disengagement in the near or medium term, he argued, will make the status quo untenable.

Obviously, this argument doesn’t fall into any convenient ideological box. The progressive coalition remains appropriately hostile to the notion of maintaining a substantial military commitment to Iraq over the long term. Conservatives aren’t much more excited about a long-term commitment, preferring instead to declare victory and blame any post-withdrawal violence on the Democrats.  I think that a modest percentage of the uniformed military is just about the only constituency that supports a continued large scale presence in Iraq, although, as I suggested, conservatives will be happy to blame any post-withdrawal disasters on Obama.

There are certainly elements of Ricks’ argument that I agree with. I am deeply skeptical of the ability of the Maliki regime to maintain control without the presence of substantial US forces.  I’m also quite certain that Iran is more influential in Iraq than it ever has been.  However, that doesn’t get me very close to Ricks, for a few reasons.  The first is the aforementioned lack of any constituency for keeping a large scale presence beyond the short term; Democrats certainly don’t want to stay, and Republicans are hoping that Democrats will be the ones to pull out.  The second is the apparent disinterest of the Iraqis in a continued US presence.  Even if the leadership could be convinced that US troops were necessary for survival (political or otherwise) general Iraqi resistance would be… substantial.  Third, Ricks argument on Afghanistan makes the threat of US withdrawal a centerpiece; the main obstacle to success is Karzai, and our main weapon against Karzai is the threat that we’ll abandon him to his domestic opponents.   I’m not sure why the same dynamic wouldn’t hold in Iraq; if we make clear that we’re “around for the long haul” then there’s little incentive for political reconciliation.

Still, even though I disagreed with Ricks’ conclusions, his talks were excellent and informative, and his visit was extremely productive.

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  • Ralph Hitchens

    I too appreciate Ricks as a serious journalistic student of war and the military profession. Agree that the invasion of Iraq was a stupendous strategic blunder. But I am also unsure that “losing” Iraq to civil war followed by Iranian domination would be such a calamity for the US and the West. We remember the domino theory and dire predictions about the loss of South Vietnam, and after a while we realized that it was a big nada. A very expensive, 58,000 death nada, but still a nada. So it will be with Iraq, in my opinion.

  • Barry

    And that’s why I think that Ricks, in the end, is a neoconman, merely smarter than the usual run. He’s still aiming at keeping large numbers of US troops in-country for a whole boatload of Friedman units. He simply has recognized that the propaganda line needs to be changed.

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