Journalist Thomas Ricks assesses America’s armed forces

Tom Ricks is a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of Fiasco, a New York Times best seller. His most recent book, The Gamble, explores the effect of the 2007 troop surge on the war in Iraq.

HARVARD POLITICAL REVIEW: How did your views of the U.S. military change between the time you were writing Fiasco and The Gamble?

THOMAS RICKS: Fiasco, which is a very angry book, an indictment, was driven by my admiration for the military. How could this institution, that I really had come to know pretty well, have screwed up so badly? These were smart, dedicated, hard-working people I knew in the military. How could this have happened? And that’s what stunned me. I mean it really was a mess in the first years in Iraq. So why was the institution so slow to respond? And that’s the question I sort of puzzled through.

The Gamble is actually a story of reclamation, wherein a minority of the military sees a new course and pursues it over the objections of the majority. People forget that the vast majority of the U.S. military leadership vigorously opposed the surge. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the head of the Army, the top American officer in Iraq, and the head of Central Command were all against it. So The Gamble is very much a story of a minority view being promulgated and going around the chain of command and the White House jumping on it. I’m not a Bush fan, but I do think that Bush’s approval of the surge and the speech he gave about it was his finest moment.

HPR: You wrote in The Gamble that the events for which the Iraq war will be remembered have not yet occurred. What will be remembered from 2010?

TR: 2009 was kind of a year of drift. I call it the unraveling in the afterword of The Gamble. But it’s a slow unraveling. The mistake I made was thinking it was a fast unraveling—especially last spring, spring ’09, when you started seeing former Sons of Iraq and awakening groups fighting the Iraqi army in the streets of Baghdad.

But now I think the big events will be in 2010. We’ll have the election, and the formation of government after the election is the crucial period. And American troops will also be leaving during this same period, so that will be important. If you don’t have a government formed by June and you’re withdrawing 10,000 troops a month, you’re going to start taking troops out of areas that are quite unstable. How Iraqi forces then perform without American support and American oversight will be crucial.

HPR: What is your opinion of the course President Obama took late last year in Afghanistan?

TR: I’m an Obama fan, but I thought the process by which he handled Afghanistan was very worrisome. There was a lot of dithering. If the characteristic flaw of George Bush was macho-bullshit, the characteristic flaw of Obama is professorial dithering—thinking that if we just go around and around one more time we’ll come up with a better answer. Time is important, and that took a lot, a lot of time. Also, it’s still not clear to me quite what they intend to do about the biggest single problem in Afghanistan, which is the Karzai government. The Taliban is a tactical problem, but the Karzai government is the strategic problem. The Taliban we can handle militarily. The Karzai government, through its abuses and corruption, is driving Afghans into the arms of the Taliban. And until they figure out what they are going to do about it, you are not solving the basic problem.

HPR: President Obama announced in his State of the Union that he intends to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” What do you think the effects of a repeal would be?

TR: My guess is there will be some initial turmoil, and ten years from now people will wonder what the fuss was about. We have allies that have openly gay soldiers. The question is not whether you are going to have gay people in the military. You have thousands of gay people in the military. The question is, will they be punished for their sexual orientation? And there will be some initial problems. You’re dealing with 18-year-old psyches, in vulnerable states in boot camp and stuff. But I think the military will handle it with surprising ease. It’s a question whose time has come and gone. It should have been dealt with ten years ago.

Robert Long ’11 is the Books & Arts Editor.

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