By David Rothkopf
FP wants book lists. Now, I have nothing against books. I've read some books. I own a lot of books, too, because they really are the easiest decorating solution for almost any room. I've even written some books. I'm even writing another one now. At least I am when I am not doing this damn blog and trying to earn a living and make sure my daughters have all the fancy Japanese ceramic hair-straighteners they need. But basically, I have a big problem with most books. They bore me senseless. (Which is why the last two books I read for fun were the international affairs classics My Booky Wook by Russell Brand and Chelsea Handler's Are You There Vodka? It's Me Chelsea. I recommend both not because either will tell you anything about the economy or all that geo-blah-blah-blah that you foreign policy geeks love so much. But rather because either is likely to help you survive this crisis better than all the "Black Swans" or "Outliers" and other intellectual porn that you are likely to pick up in the airport bookstore.
So, rather than going the easy route and giving you a list of books that I've read or that I want you to think I have read (so you'll think I'm smart and not just another pretty face), I will offer you a few books that haven't been written yet, but that ought to be. Like most of this blog and its author ... some of these ideas are semi-serious. I'll leave you to decide which ones.
1. Carla and I: The Early Years
This is, of course, the intimate story of the previously secret, passionate relationship between France's current first lady, Carla Bruni Sarkozy, and, well, me. In it we relive those beautiful moments when I taught the former supermodel how shallow her previous relationships with Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, Laurent Fabius, and Kevin Costner all were by taking her to the Jersey shore and showing her that G5s and summers bobbing in a 300 foot yacht off St. Tropez were nothing compared with pulling taffy, fried clams and whack-a-mole in Long Branch. Naturally, she was devastated when I decided to move on to my (much more beautiful and charming), wife, and it left a hole in her life...roughly the size of a tiny Frenchman. This is a book that the public never expected -- especially Carla and my wife -- but has already been made into a movie -- mostly playing in my own private psychic cinematheque.
2. Did the News Media Die or Commit Suicide?
Is it possible it wasn't new media that killed journalism? Is it possible that it actually just committed suicide by taking massive overdoses of happy-talk, gossip, and reality-TV sex-predator stings thus triggering the death of its intellectual curiosity and professionalism? This book will look at three massive failures of the media in the past several years. The failure to cover the Iraq war and its causes. The failure to cover the roots of the financial catastrophe. And the complete sell out of objectivity involved in its coverage of the 2008 elections. The book will ask the tough questions: Why did the media play along with the campaign of fear-mongering and faux-patriotism cooked up by the Bush administration after 9/11? What happened to old fashioned-style war correspondents who actually covered wars rather than allowing themselves to be the embedded puppets of military spin masters? What happened to investigative journalism? Was modern finance too complex and too hard to show on CNBC (especially if the facts would piss off the advertisers)? Why did the media decide to kill Hillary Clinton and lift up Barack Obama? The only problem with this idea of course, is that there is no one who could write it...given that we don't actually have journalists anymore. But I'm thinking if we could get the DNA of one...possibly from an old shot glass...maybe we could do one of those Jurassic Park cloning kinda deals.
3. The Takeover: Goldman Sachs and the Leveraged Buyout of America
No single company has ever had the prolonged hold on the American political establishment that has been achieved by Goldman Sachs. Of the last four Goldman CEOs, two have been chief economic advisor to the president (Rubin and Friedman), two have been Treasury Secretary (Rubin and Paulson), and one has been a governor and a senator (Corzine). But the firm's unparalleled influence has extended for decades from former Deputy Treasury John Whitehead thru Bush 43 White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolton to current Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner's chief of staff plus the guy who runs the TARP program plus there are rumors that new White House public liaison official Kal Penn's movie Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle was actually backed with Goldman money. During this period in which Goldman rode the government like a pony, U.S. policy has not only thrown off the regulatory shackles that freed them to make money by the boatload, the USG has intervened directly and regularly to the benefit of Goldman from the Tequila Crisis "bail-in" to the AIG "bail out." How can this have happened? Why has the media rolled over and let Goldman scratch them on the belly throughout? (See previous book idea.) Why is the government still full of them and others from even less reputable financial institutions (which, to Goldman's credit, is virtually all others)? Why are we still drinking the Kool Aid that somehow these people have special powers after all we have been through? This book will provide answers. (Unless Goldman pays the author more to shut up. In which case, this one, I volunteer to write...well, to be lucratively co-opted out of writing.)
4. America's Real First Family: The Daleys of Chicago
Forget the Kennedys and the Bushes, no American family has been more influential in truly transforming American politics in the past fifty years than the Daleys of Chicago. They helped steal an election for John Kennedy, the first Mayor Richard Daley presided over the watershed chaos of the Chicago Democratic National Convention in 1968 thus ushering in a rebellion against modern machine politics...which he nonetheless used to empower his own children, one a future Commerce Secretary who helped make NAFTA a reality, and the other the current mayor-for-life in Chicago. Of course, their greatest triumph may have been using that same machine to create the presidency of Barack Obama-thus enabling him to simultaneously embody both the status quo and to be the change from that status quo that was so desperately needed. Even electing a pinhead like George W. Bush president hardly seems like much of political conjuring trick by comparison. (It would also be great to see a side-by-side comparison of say John Kennedy and Richard Nixon that would offer a fair evaluation of who really best exemplified the American dream of making it on one's own, who actually committed the greater crimes in pursuit of their political futures and who actually was the better president. Of all these books...this last Kennedy vs. Nixon idea is the one least likely to actually get written given the machinery that would shut it down.)
5. A School for the Differently Humor-Enabled
This would be the saga of my daughters' beloved and otherwise extremely wonderful high school which has become such a living parody of Washington, D.C. lefty political correctness that a rumor has sprung up that the school will soon adopt a block of quivering tofu as its mascot. While I believe that particular rumor to be untrue (or at least an exaggeration), nothing demonstrates the pitiful reality like the fact that the head of the school recently felt compelled to sanitize the upcoming, much anticipated spring production of The Producers by banning the use of swastikas in the musical. Admittedly the show was written and produced by Jews for audiences that had so many Jews in them that during intermission you could have called the area outside the auditorium the Israel Lobby (cue the rimshot)...so you have to wonder who they think is going to be offended (although knowing the school-which by the way has given my daughters a great education-they might well be doing this out of concern for Indians objecting to the continued co-opting of their ancient symbol for luck.) And of course, the show within the show is still called "Springtime for Hitler" so we all will have a clue as to what is being lampooned....although this does raise the question as to why the symbol was offensive but the actual genocidal maniac was not. (Although, I hesitate to raise these questions lest the powers that be rename the big number "Springtime for Ralph Nader" or something that would appeal more to their sensibilities and simultaneously wipe away every hint of every joke in the show.) Nonetheless, while I encourage everyone in Washington over the next couple weeks to go see the show, I warn you...laugh at the wrong place and you could find yourself at the center of a painfully earnest group sharing session about your insensitivity.
Other ideas welcome. I will make all of them available to the publishing community for immediate direct-to-Kindle release.
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by Tom Ricks
Susan Glasser's approach in underlining out some interesting aspects of the book leads to a larger point about it that occurred to me only after I finished writing it. To me, The Gamble was much more of a revelation than Fiasco. That is, when I wrote the earlier book, we all knew the major events that needed to be described-the invasion, the rise of the insurgency, Abu Ghraib, First Fallujah, Second Fallujah, and so on. But the events covered in The Gamble were much more obscure. There were many reasons for this. American attention had wandered and the media was kind of baffled by the surge. Much of what was significant wasn't fighting but talking, and much of that was happening in private.
"If we couldn't win under the best circumstances we can reasonably expect, why linger on?"
Because, I think, we have to, despite the meager outcome that I expect, which Stephen Walt limns well. I don't like the idea anymore than Walt does. I think that invading Iraq preemptively on false premises, at the time that we already were at war elsewhere, was probably the biggest mistake in the history of American foreign policy. Everything we do in Iraq is the fruit of that poisoned tree.
But I think also that there are no good answers in Iraq, just less bad ones. I think staying in Iraq is immoral, but I think leaving immediately would be even more so, because of the risk it runs of leaving Iraq to a civil war that could go regional. That is, I don't expect much to be gained by staying, but I think much, much more could be lost by leaving right now. Just pulling out unilaterally reminds me of Jerry Rubin's comment back in the 1960s that after the revolution, he would just "groove on the rubble."
I'm old enough to remember Jerry Rubin, and Barack Obama is no Jerry Rubin. So I think he will have troops fighting and dying in Iraq for many years to come. Yes, he will get the troop numbers down. But no, he won't get out.
This is the question I'd like to pose back to Messrs. Drezner, Bose, Lynch and Walt: Should we try to mitigate the damage we have done to Iraq and the region, and if so, how?
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by Tom Ricks
Marc Lynch adroitly zeroes in on the ambivalence that is at the heart of The Gamble. I think he explicates well what this book is all about. (By the way, one other reviewer really delved deeply into this ambivalence, and especially into what it means for an opponent of the war and of the surge.)
But I disagree with Lynch's notion that without the surge, things in Iraq would have pretty much gone the same, but with fewer U.S. troops involved. Take the decline in violence in the summer of 2007. I think this happened for two major reasons: Because the Sunni insurgency had been put on the payroll, and because American troops had been ordered to make protecting Iraqi civilians their top priority.
The book's two big holes
Yes, Lynch and Stephen Walt are correct about the two absences in the book.
1. On the Status of Forces Agreement, I just don't think it is that meaningful.
As I watched it come together in Baghdad, it appeared to me to simply be a way of taking the American military presence off the table as a divisive issue in Iraqi politics. That is, it was much more about 2009 than about 2011. So I make less of it than others do. I might be wrong. Yes, I know a tremendous amount of time was spent on this at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, because I kept on hearing about it as I did my interviews last year. But expenditure of words is no indication of historical significance-just look at how screamingly irrelevant NATO is becoming, despite many speeches given in Brussels and at summit conferences. Similarly, in the book I didn't discuss the much-ballyhooed war czar, Lt. Gen. Doug Lute, because I didn't see that he mattered much to the course of the war.
That said, in retrospect, I should have devoted a paragraph or two to explaining why I think there is less to the SOFA than there appears to be.
2. On the absence of Iraqi voices, Lynch's criticism again is correct.
I was aware of this lack, painfully so, but decided against trying to paper it over with some desultory interviews. I don't speak Arabic and I am not an expert on Iraq, so I think I would have done of mediocre job of trying to figure out the Iraqi side of the story. What I know a lot about is the U.S. military. I even speak some of its dialects. So I decided to remain focussed on that. (Those who want to learn about the Iraqi side of things should read the works of my old friend and old Washington Post colleague Anthony Shadid. The second half of his book Night Draws Near does a terrific job of showing how Iraqis reacted to the early days of the occupation.) But this is an explanation, not an excuse. The absence of Iraqis in my book is especially significant because Iraqi solutions will be the key to the end of this story. That is, Iraqis will make the decisions that determine how this all ends.
I disagree with Walt's assertion that the surge somehow succeeded (tactically) because ethnic cleansing was already largely completed. That assumes that the violence was mainly about ethnic cleansing, when I think it was more about the larger issue of who controls Iraq. Indeed, even though the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad was largely completed by late 2006, violence continued to increase there for several months. (See chart above.)
I also think the book covers in some depth the related reasons for the tactical success of the surge, such as the split in Anbar between al Qaeda and the tribes.
By the way, I don't think anyone who has spent time in Iraq over the last five years would agree with Walt that the surge somehow worked because of dumb luck, or "fortuitous timing." To believe that, you'd have to think that after four years of counterproductive operations, the U.S. military changed its chain of command and its entire approach to the war -- and just then, its luck changed. That places too much faith in coincidence for me.
"Security Incidents" Sources: SIGACTS (CF reports) as of 1NOV08; weekly beginning 03JAN04.
by Tom Ricks
I apologize for this. Consider it a down payment on the 12 hard months that it took me to pound out Fiasco. I do know what you mean about how difficult it is to re-live 2006 and early 2007. I think that one of the three big misunderstandings people back here have is a lack of appreciation of how hard the surge period was. (The two other things people back here don’t get are that the surge failed, and that the war isn't over.)
The shortcomings of the military establishment
I share Brose's puzzlement on this. By 2006, the entire U.S. national security establishment seemed stymied by the Iraq war, willing to stay with a losing strategy even after the White House had given up on it. Every general in the chain of command save Odierno opposed a big surge. U.S. policy in the war only became effective after retired General Jack Keane and two of his protégés, Generals Odierno and Petraeus, did an end run around that chain of command. I think this says some worrisome things about how we pick, educate and judge generals. And that is the subject of the next book I plan to write.
Democracy vs. stability
Mr. Brose, please put that bottle of "W"-brand Kool Aid back in the drawer!
The American goal of democracy in the Middle East is at odds with the American goal of stability there. In Iraq, as elsewhere in the Middle East, democracy -- or at least its first step, fair elections-tends to be destabilizing. The Bush administration never seemed to be to grasp this.
But don't worry about this debate. As it happens, I don't think we will get either democracy or stability in Iraq, even in the "long term" that Bush Administration veterans so like to invoke -- especially fevered academics. I think that eventually a new strongman will emerge who is stronger and tougher than Saddam Hussein. He likely will reveal himself to be anti-American. He may then harness Iraq's oil revenue and buy himself a new generation of weaponry. And he may bid for leadership of the Arab world on the platform of revenge against the Americans. At that point, as Israel faces an existential threat, I will want to hear from all the Bushies who have said in recent years, "Say whatever you want, at least we got rid of Saddam."
Was the surge worth it?
Barely, I'd say. I'm a 51 percent supporter. The best we can say for the surge is that it improved security at least temporarily.
And that's not a bad thing, considering what the alternatives were. Kicking the can down the road may not be satisfying, but sometimes is the least bad solution. For example, it might be the best we can hope for in Pakistan for the next several years. And in both Iraq and Pakistan, I'd say that it beats the other possible outcomes.
by Tom Ricks
Dan Drezner asks this. He proposes that instead we could have just dumped the Iraq mess on Iran, which he thinks would have been a good idea.
Ai yi yi. His idea is an interesting roll of the dice, but it advocates taking a lot more risk than I would be willing to take on. It reminds me a bit of the many people at my book talks over the last week who have arrived at the hard-hearted position that we should just leave Iraq ASAP and let the chips fall as they may.
This came up, for example, last Tuesday night when I spoke at Book Passages, near Mill Valley, California. When I said that a damn-the-torpedoes pullout might result in a bloody civil war or even genocide, I heard the stunning response, "So what? Genocides happen all the time." I am not ready to accept that, especially when we helped create the situation.
Was it a good thing for General Odierno to bypass the chain of command prescribed by the Goldwater-Nichols Act?
An astute observation by Drezner. This is worrisome indeed. In this instance, it worked. American policymaking in the war didn't become effective until Odierno and Petraeus bucked the chain of command. But if the surge had turned out to be a disaster, they would have been blamed, and may well be retired by this point.
I like accountability, but I share Drezner's worry that there is something lacking in the way the chain of command has worked under Goldwater-Nichols. It especially seems to tamp down needed dissent and overly reward consensus. Fortunately, I now hang my hat at a boutique think tank, the Center for a New American Security, and one of the first projects I am taking on there is a look at how Goldwater-Nichols has affected strategic decision making.
Thanks to the four of you for these comments, which are smart, insightful, and civil. Your praise means a lot to me. Also, I appreciate your taking the time to write these thoughtful responses to The Gamble. I read most of them on a flight Wednesday night from San Francisco to DC, and then read Susan Glasser's after it was posted yesterday.
What follows is my own addition to the discussion that's appeared on this blog over the last week.
by Susan Glasser
Back in 2003, I drove into southern Iraq in a rental car from the Kuwait airport. This was during the phase long since quaintly known as "major combat operations." On the day Basra fell to the British, we drove through the gates of Saddam Hussein's opulent but apparently unused summer palace there and found a thoughtful major taking a break on the banks of the Shatt al Arab waterway. In the city streets, looters rampaged freely, unhindered by British tanks, as the rest of Basra seethed. "Ultimately, what we have to do is replace what they've been fighting to protect with something better," Maj. Kevin Oliver, whose company of British commandos first stormed the palace, told us.
Major Oliver, wherever he is now, was right of course -- that was the task. Six years on, the war's leaders -- civilian and military -- have done their best to redefine the goals. Forget "something better." Never mind "democracy." How about a war that tails off to a "reasonable" conclusion? Or one where 50,000 U.S. military personnel remain indefinitely -- but we just won't call them "combat" troops? Six years on, we're all still asking Gen. David Petraeus's pointed question, at just about that same time in 2003: "Tell me how this ends?"
Reading Tom Ricks's powerful, and also powerfully depressing, new book The Gamble is one long exercise in remembering all over again that pointed, annoyingly relevant question. At first, you think, okay, this is the story of a success of an unlikely bureaucratic end run that rescues the U.S. military from the brink of disastrous military failure in Iraq. But really it's not. Steve Walt is right: The Gamble is a very convincing book about the tactical achievements of the surge in Iraq; it does little to suggest a real strategic victory.
Which takes us right to this week: Barack Obama says the war is virtually over; he will, he promises, "responsibly end this war" by next year. Tom in his chilling last sentence of The Gamble tells us categorically: "The events for which the Iraq war will be remembered probably have not yet happened." What gives?
My money's on Tom here, not a little bit because he has a real track record of seeing ahead of this particular curve. I remember when he first told me the title of his previous book would be "Fiasco." It was many months before the book came out, and very far from being the accepted view of the Iraq war at that point in 2005. But Tom was amazingly prescient: my only concern, he told me, is that by the time the book comes out this fall "fiasco" will already be the conventional wisdom...
Unlike our other book clubbers, I'm going to resist the temptation to go hypothetical here and play the "Iraq without the surge" game. But since we're already at Thursday of our book week, I thought I'd excavate some of the more revealing passages in Tom's book that seem to be crying out for further discussion:
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
by Stephen M. Walt
Like his 2006 book Fiasco, Tom Ricks' The Gamble is a gripping read. It is also a useful preliminary account of the shift in U.S. tactics that helped stop the escalation of violence in Iraq in 2007. To call it a "preliminary account" is not veiled criticism, because even the best journalism amounts to "instant history" and is subject to revision once more sources become available and once scholars are able to take a more detached view of these events.For me, the book's main lessons are not about Iraq. Rather, it tells us a lot of useful lessons about military organizations, about the oft-neglected relationship between tactics and strategy, and about America's capacity to shape events in unfamiliar societies. Yet the evidence Ricks provides suggests a different conclusion than the one he draws; namely, that the United States has to stay in Iraq for many more years. Let's start with the lessons, and then consider the disconnect between Ricks' own account and his (surprising) bottom line.
First, The Gamble clearly shows that America's armed services are not immune to the various pathologies that can compromise military leaders and undermine effectiveness in the field. After the United States defeated the Soviet Union in the Cold War and won lopsided victories against a set of third-rate opponents (Iraq in 1990-91, Kosovo in 1999, the Taliban in 2002), some people began to think our armed forces were almost magical: that a combination of technology, training and far-sighted commanders meant we could take on any opponent and win quickly, easily, and on the cheap.
The Gamble disabuses us of that notion. While painting a vivid picture of individual dedication and heroism by numerous soldiers and junior officers, it also presents a devastating picture of blind civilian leaders and rigid, unimaginative, and overly politicized senior commanders. Other writers have made the same point -- notably Lt. Col. Paul Yingling in a much-discussed essay in Armed Forces Journal -- but Ricks' account will do nothing to repair the reputations of the civilians and generals who mismanaged the war from the beginning. Ricardo Sanchez, Donald Rumsfeld, Tommy Franks, and Peter Pace will not be giving copies of this book to their friends.
Second, and following from the first point, The Gamble also shows how difficult it is for military organizations to change course, particularly when it involves rethinking basic tactics, rules of engagement, and the core values and world-views informing how it approaches battle. Although it was clear by 2005 that the U.S. effort in Iraq was failing, it took nearly two years for that realization to sink in and for a new approach to emerge. Getting the Army and Marines to pursue a different approach ultimately depended on interventions by an ad hoc coalition of retired officers (e.g., Jack Keane), academics, intelligence advisors, and a commander (David Petraeus) who had served in Iraq but was state-side when the reappraisal began.
A third lesson involves the relationship between tactics and strategy. In a sense, both Ricks's earlier book (Fiasco) and this new volume remind us that tactical success and strategic victory are very different things. In 2003, the United States won an overwhelming tactical victory over the overmatched Iraqi forces, occupying the country in record time and at very low cost. But as the earlier book showed, that impressive display of tactical and operational expertise did not translate into strategic success. Similarly, the new book argues that the tactical achievements of the 2007 surge -- a dramatic reduction in the level of violence in Iraq and the apparent defeat of jihadi groups like al Qaeda in Iraq did not produce the political reconciliation that it was intended to achieve. Indeed, of the eighteen "benchmarks" outlined by President Bush in his speech announcing the surge, only three had been achieved a year later and most remain unfulfilled to this day. Hence Ricks's depressing conclusion: the United States will have to stay in Iraq for many years to come.
Unfortunately, it's at this point that the argument breaks down. As Marc Lynch points out in his own comment in this forum, a key omission (possibly due to publication deadlines) is any discussion of the November 2008 Status of Forces Agreement. If the United States observes the letter and spirit of that accord, an end to major U.S. involvement will come much sooner than Ricks predicts.
A second omission is the lack of any significant discussion of the alternative explanations for the surge's success. The Gamble focuses on the various things that the U.S. military did to bring the violence under control, but other accounts suggest that the killing declined because ethnic cleansing was nearly complete by the time the surge began, so there was less incentive for sectarian violence. In this view, the success of the "surge" was partly the result of fortuitous timing. Similarly, the reversal of fortune in Anbar province may have been due in part to the new American approach, but also to the split between the Sunni/Ba'ath insurgency and al Qaeda in Iraq that occurred after AQI overplayed its hand.
To be sure, the debate about the relative contributions of these different factors undoubtedly reflects political biases -- those who supported the surge think it is solely responsible while some who opposed the surge are reluctant to give it any credit at all -- but there is a genuine analytical question here: how much of the reduction in violence was due to increased numbers and smarter tactics, and how much was due to other features of the overall situation? Ricks does not really attempt an answer, and we will have to wait for a more thorough and dispassionate assessment of this question before we know exactly how much credit to give the architects of the surge and the brave soldiers who implemented it.
Most important of all, the evidence in The Gamble points to a different conclusion than the one Ricks advances. His account shows is that even after the United States got the right commanders in charge, employed the right approach, and adopted more realistic goals, it was still unable to achieve its broader strategic objectives. Thus, Ricks's belief that we must stay for another ten years or more doesn't really follow from his own account: if we couldn't win under the best circumstances we can reasonably expect, why linger on?
And let's be clear about what staying in Iraq entails. Keeping U.S. forces in Iraq indefinitely means we will continue to hemorrhage our power and wealth on behalf of a government that has 1) already forced us to sign an agreement to withdraw, 2) is openly hostile to Israel, 3) friendly to Iran, 4) lukewarm about us, and 5) increasingly uninterested in Washington's desires. And this is the regime on whose behalf we should expend more blood and treasure?
Indeed, Ricks offers one final lesson for how the United States should deal with clients that is at odds with his conclusion that we should stay there for the long haul. As he recounts, another reason the surge worked was the willingness of U.S. officials to play hardball with the Maliki government and demand that Maliki appoint competent commanders and begin to crack down on Shi'ite and Sunni insurgents alike. The lesson is clear: U.S. forces cannot prop up venal, incompetent, or corrupt leaders, and threatening to go home and leave them to their fate is often the best leverage that we have. And if a government we are trying to help cannot help itself, then exercising that exit option is the right response. I hope Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Zardari are paying attention, but I hope Obama is, too.
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