By Thomas E. Ricks

The word “fiasco,” especially when applied to a military operation, suggests a specific kind of bad result: a failure of planning and a descent into chaos and disastrous unforeseen consequences. And this is clearly the conclusion Thomas Ricks has come to about the American involvement in Iraq. Such a conclusion, however, assumes a certain level of clear-sightedness and honesty about what America’s “plan” for Iraq involved in the first place. That level of vision and truthfulness was nowhere present in the lead-up to the war and, if Ricks’s book is to be taken as evidence, is still missing in action.

This is because, as I’ve had occasion to point out elsewhere, America is a therapeutic culture, where the function of government is to make people feel good about themselves. In order to do this they lie. And so a number of “feel good” stories were invented to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003. This was a Great War for Civilization, the equal of the titanic struggles against Communism and Fascism. Such pronouncements were prima facie ridiculous, but for a generation high on the hero-worshipping myths not only of a Greatest Generation but the Fellowship of the Ring, they went down well. Then there was talk of weapons of mass destruction, but nobody really believed in them. Ditto for the links between Saddam and Islamic terrorist networks. When both these claims were proven to be false, we heard a lot about democracy. For anyone who reflected on such matters for as long as a minute it was clear that the U.S. would never tolerate a democracy in Iraq. Any democracy would almost surely be opposed to American interests (as has since been demonstrated by such democratically elected populist parties as Hamas and Hezbollah). Indeed, in his conclusion to this book Ricks describes a range of possible outcomes in Iraq, from the “best case scenario” of the Philippines in 1899-1946, through the “middling scenario” of France in Algeria or Israel in Lebanon, to the final “nightmare scenario,” with no modern historical precedent, of a new Iraqi strongman. Such a figure is apparently the desire of a strong majority of Iraqis. As imagined by Ricks, he would be a great unifier, healing the country’s sectional tensions and restoring its sense of national pride and dignity while riding a wave of enormous popular support, domestic peace, oil revenues, and pan-Arab feeling.

Please note that this is Ricks’s “worst possible outcome.” In other words, a popular, democratic leader in Iraq is not only an intolerable result for the United States, but a nightmare scenario! Far better a country destroyed by civil war (the next worst scenario) than one led by a second Saladin.

Again: My point in going over all this is simply to suggest that labeling America’s involvement in Iraq a failure first requires a clear and honest determination of what American goals were in the first place. In a nutshell, I take these to be the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the installation of an American puppet regime that would (a) provide a friendly base for the projection of U.S. military power throughout the region, and (b) protect American business interests (i.e., oil). You have to keep this in mind when listening to administration officials, or journalists, talking about staying in Iraq until “the job is done,” or “victory” is achieved. It helps to maintain one’s footing when confronted with the tried-and-true American foreign policy defence of “best intentions,” or when reading passages such as these:

Yet inside all these problems [resulting from the American occupation] there lay a major victory for President Bush and his plan to transform the Middle East. Like it or not, the U.S. government through his actions has been tethered to Iraq and to the region around it as never before. Under him, the U.S. military has carried out its first ever occupation of an Arab nation, and the United States has spent hundreds of billions of dollars in an attempt to change the nature of politics there. Whether or not his vision of transforming the Middle East occurs, it appears that the United States won’t be detaching from the region anytime soon. “If the government falls, we’ll have to go back in,” in a third war, commented John Lehman, a Reagan-era Navy secretary. The stakes are simply too high to let Iraq become a sanctuary for anti-U.S. terrorists.

I have gone over this paragraph many times and still don’t understand what it is saying. What exactly is the “major victory for President Bush” that Ricks is talking about (a victory, that is, whether we “like it or not”)? Is it the “tethering” of the U.S. government to Iraq? Simply occupying “an Arab nation”? (Would any other Arab nation have done just as well?) Spending hundreds of billions of dollars in an attempt to change the politics in that country – that is, to install a pro-American government – an attempt that may not even succeed? Creating a breeding ground of anti-American terrorism where none was before, and that is now too dangerous to abandon?

Indeed, much of Ricks’s analysis seems tortured and confused by his unwillingness to clearly express America’s strategic goals. In fact, his implication is that such goals may not have even existed (a notion of “drift” we will return to). So, to take the most obvious example, he repeatedly criticizes both the civilian and military leadership for not having a strategy in Iraq. As a result, despite tactical success the mission was doomed to failure. The military was never told what kind of war they were fighting, and so they made (in Ricks’s view) the huge mistake of building giant bases away from major population centers, instead of injecting themselves into the different communities (the approved way to fight a counterinsurgency campaign). But such a critique mistakes the whole point. Those giant multi-billion-dollar bases were not a tactical mistake, the result of a poorly defined or even missing strategy. Those bases, always planned to be permanent, were the strategy. There was nothing mistaken about them.

It should have been easy. That’s the best explanation for how it all happened. If we are to believe Ricks’s sources (contra Paul O’Neill and others), in the Spring of 2001 there was no desire to go to war. The “war party” (Wolfowitz, Perle, Libby, Feith) were on the outs. What’s more, even immediately after 9/11 the only close insider pulling for an invasion of Iraq seems to have been Wolfowitz. One is immediately faced with the question of how such a junior figure had so much leverage over subsequent events. As Ricks points out in the early going, “It is unusual for so much attention to be focused on a second-level official of subcabinet rank, but Wolfowitz was destined to play an unusually central role on Iraq policy.” I like that invocation of destiny. But where did it come from? What reality did it reflect? The same questions arise when, later during the occupation, so many bad decisions seem to have been made (mainly by Paul Bremer) that were contrary to the wishes of everyone in the administration, merely at the behest of Ahmed Chalabi.

Did people like Wolfowitz and Chalabi really have this much influence? Or are we dealing here with a case of “policy drift,” the political equivalent of the military’s mission creep? Ricks seems to more-than-suggest this latter position, writing that by “the time the public really focused on it, the decision to go to war had been made, though more through drift than through any one meeting.” This is an incredible assertion, yet one that is repeated in many of the published accounts we now have. It doesn’t square well, however, with the fact, obvious to everyone at the time, that the war with Iraq had become inevitable at the very latest by Summer, 2002. There was no drifting after that, and whether there was much drift leading up to it is an open question. One suspects in all of the talk of drift a sloughing of the responsibility for failed decisions on to lower-level figures like Wolfowitz and Chalabi (a position that in no way diminishes their personal culpability). But either way, such responsibility would never be held against them. As the Bush administration, to this day, still refuses to acknowledge that any mistakes were made, no one has ever been held to account.

That this would turn out to be a politically acceptable course should come as no surprise. Even after the failure to find stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons, Bush would sail to re-election. Ricks explains that “the post-9/11 American public . . . would prove more tolerant of military casualties and less sensitive about the reasons for going to war in Iraq than many experts expected.” That is, experts who opposed the war. Presumably experts within the administration had a clearer sense of what they could get away with. They understood the need of the public, confronted with inconvenient truths, to be lied to. The American people know, and have always known, that global warming is real, that their favourite athletes are juiced on steroids, that Bill Clinton really did have sex with “that woman,” and that there was no justification for the illegal invasion of Iraq. They know all this, but do not wish to be reminded of it. After all, as citizens in a democracy they might even have to hold themselves in some way responsible.

Ricks has written a decent survey of the early days of the invasion and occupation, but his book is not a “definitive account” of the conflict. In the first place, it is mainly an attempt at understanding what went wrong, and so focuses almost exclusively on 2003-2004. The last couple of years are passed over in a hurry. In addition, his research appears to be mainly limited to descriptions of the events as seen and understood by American government and military actors. We hear virtually nothing from the Iraqi side. It is hard to miss the resulting bias. One can feel the language being crudely massaged when Ricks describes the shocking scene, captured on videotape, of a Marine shooting an unarmed and gravely wounded Iraqi in the head. This incident is described in detail because it is one that “underscored the tenacity of the fight.”

Tenacity? How does tenacity even enter into it? Surely there are better words for it than this. Barbarity comes to mind.

There is no question that the American military adventure in Iraq was a fiasco, if only for the simple reason that it was unnecessary. As, given a more enlightened foreign policy, was Vietnam. I think America may still succeed in Iraq (that is, successfully establish a pro-U.S. regime), but at a disastrous, and still-mounting ,cost. Of course this is only seeing things from the American point of view. We need a stronger word than fiasco to describe what has happened to the people of Iraq. But that’s a book I’m afraid we won’t be getting to read anytime soon.

Review first published online September 6, 2006.