The ambivalence at the core of my book

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.