- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 10, 2009

By Thomas E. Ricks
Penguin, $27.95, 394 pages

The conduct of war is seldom linear and predictable. What appears in hindsight to be a logical progression of events obscures the chaotic nature of the process, which requires timely adaptation if the struggle is to be concluded successfully. In “The Gamble,” Thomas Ricks chronicles the difficult birth of the “surge” strategy in Iraq and describes the personalities and events that reversed the course of the conflict and arguably led to victory.

It is a useful companion to the veteran Washington Post correspondent’s 2006 book, “Fiasco,” which details how we got into the mess in the first place.

The central ideas behind the surge — such as developing cooperative relationships with Iraqi tribal leaders, increasing U.S. troop presence and using our forces to secure the population from the insurgents rather than keeping them penned in behind blast-proof walls — had been under discussion for years before they were implemented.

“There’s no rule book, there’s no history for this,” then-Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld told a Senate panel in 2006, but he was wrong on both counts. There was a lengthy history of counterinsurgency literature and practical lessons learned, stretching back hundreds of years in this country alone. As for the rule book, the doctrine at that time was being written by a team led by Gen. David H. Petraeus.

Gen. Petraeus was part of a trinity of generals who brought about the difficult midcourse correction of U.S. strategy in Iraq. The motivating force was Gen. Jack Keane, a retired former Army vice chief of staff who launched a “guerrilla campaign” in the defense establishment to get these new ideas accepted at the highest levels.

Working with him was Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who had commanded the 4th Infantry Division in Iraq during the first year of the war. They labored largely behind the scenes and often outside the chain of command, trying to sell their model of a workable strategy even as the war was at its bleakest stage and calls for a pullout were mounting.

Translating ideas into policy is difficult; surge advocates faced entrenched interests and inflated egos. However, many of these impediments were swept aside after what Mr. Ricks calls the “turning point of the war” in November 2006, when the Republicans lost control of Congress. This apparently focused President Bush on the need for quick action to salvage the situation in Iraq or face a congressionally imposed pullout and ultimate defeat. Mr. Bush eventually removed Mr. Rumsfeld, and Mr. Ricks might have explored the background of that decision in more depth, given its rich symbolism.

Meanwhile, the spadework for the policy change had been done by Gen. Keane and his group, along with some dissenting National Security Council staffers (dubbed the “Surgios”) and a number of scholars affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute, most notably Frederick W. Kagan. The surge strategy was adopted after a December 2006 meeting with Mr. Bush. Gen. Petraeus was chosen to implement the new approach as the commander of Multi-National Forces — Iraq, ably aided by Gen. Odierno, then commanding III Corps.

Gen. Petraeus found himself in a three-front war. First was the fighting in Iraq, where the new strategy, coupled with a growing realignment of interests among tribal leaders, quickly began to produce results. However, he simultaneously was fighting a rearguard action against Central Command commander Adm. William J. Fallon, who had taken over from Gen. John P. Abizaid in March 2007. Adm. Fallon did not favor the surge and sought to cut the mission short. Gen. Petreaus, though nominally Adm. Fallon’s subordinate, was able to resist this pressure because of his influence with the president.

The third front was political. The decisive engagement came in September 2007. The Senate held a two-day hearing on the war that Democrats expected to be a dance of death on the surge and the Bush administration. Then-Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. chaired the hearing, and also present were Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama. All three were running for president, and all declared the surge a failure.

Sen. Clinton gracelessly questioned Gen. Petreaus’ honesty. Gen. Petreaus emerged the victor, however, in part because of a tasteless MoveOn.org ad that ran (at a discounted rate) in the New York Times calling Gen. Petraeus a traitor.

The ad generated substantial public sympathy for the selfless warrior and forced Democrats to blunt some of their more severe lines of attack. More important, American casualty rates, the matrix of choice of the political class and media, had begun to drop precipitously. This hearing marked the beginning of the end of Iraq as the dominant campaign issue of the 2008 election.

But has the war been won? Mr. Ricks concludes with a series of gloomy scenarios, saying in closing, “The events for which the Iraq war will be remembered probably have not yet happened.” However, Iraq will only become more memorable if President Obama squanders the victory he has been handed, which is unlikely at this point.

The principal value of Mr. Ricks’ book beyond being a historical chronicle is the light it may shed on the future course of events in Afghanistan. During the September 2007 hearing, Mr. Obama spent his entire allotted seven minutes asking Gen. Petraeus pointed, soapbox-type questions, leaving no time for answers. Mr. Obama consistently doubted the surge strategy, even months later, when progress in Iraq had become undeniable. Now, 18 months after that hearing, Mr. Obama is president and Gen. Petreaus commands Central Command. Mr. Obama already has decided to increase troop levels in Afghanistan, evoking at least the image of the surge in Iraq.

Yet initial reports of the relationship between Mr. Obama and Gen. Petraeus are not encouraging, and the president has ordered a 60-day interagency review of Afghanistan policy options to compete with Central Command’s upcoming assessment. As Mr. Ricks’ work illustrates, the products of the bureaucracy can be unpredictable and sometimes irrational. Staying the course with the ideas that brought us victory in Iraq may be too unsophisticated for the best and the brightest on the Obama team. One hopes we are not headed for another fiasco.

• James S. Robbins is senior editorial writer for foreign affairs at The Washington Times and senior fellow for national security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council.

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