First, make lots of Iraqis really, really mad at us. Then convince them we can be
intimidated. That's in effect what the U.S. did in the disastrous first year of its
occupation of Iraq, argues Thomas Ricks, senior Pentagon correspondent for the
Washington Post, in his new book.
The book is entitled "Fiasco," which gives you an idea of what Mr. Ricks thinks of
what he terms "the American military adventure in Iraq." It's a must read, despite
"Fiasco" doesn't do as good a job of describing the planning for the Iraq war and
the march on Baghdad as did Michael Gordon, defense correspondent for the New York
Times, and Bernard Trainor, a retired Marine general, did in their book, "Cobra II,"
published earlier this year. But Cobra II ends with the fall of Saddam's regime.
The heart of Mr. Ricks' book is the guerrilla war which began afterwards.
As a supporter of the war and a defender of the Bush administration, I was put off
by the title. But Mr. Ricks marshals an impressive amount of evidence to justify
As Mr. Gordon and Mr. Trainor noted in greater detail, the Bush administration began
the war with rosy illusions, lousy intelligence, and virtually no idea of what to do
once Baghdad fell. Blame for the failure to plan is shared roughly equally by
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the Army, which suffered as massive an
institutional failure in Iraq as did the CIA and FBI before 9/11.
Mr. Ricks argues (as did Mr. Gordon and Mr. Trainor) that Coalition Provisional
Authority chief Paul Bremer made two huge blunders early in his tenure when he
ordered a massive de-Baathification program which stripped Iraq's government
ministries of most of its competent technicians, and formally abolished the Iraqi
By stripping tens of thousands of Iraqis of their livelihood, Mr. Bremer created a
huge pool of recruits and sympathizers for the insurgency, while making it harder
for the Iraqi government to provide basic services to its people, Mr. Ricks argues.
The Army compounded Mr. Bremer's blunders by its rough treatment of civilians in
Sunni Muslim areas. Thousands were arrested on flimsy pretexts in sweep operations
and sent off to Abu Ghraib prison, which swiftly became overcrowded. Many who did
not support the insurgency beforehand were inclined to do so afterward.
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After the CPA and the Army made most of Iraq's Sunnis mad at us, our "leadership,"
by wimping out in the first battle of Fallujah, gave the insurgents reason to think
they could win.
The Marines were ordered to take Fallujah after the grisly murders of defense
contractors there in March, 2004. But as they were on the verge of taking the city,
political pressures forced the Marines to halt their assault. The insurgents were
handed a victory. Their prestige and their morale soared. Thirty nine Marines and
soldiers died for nothing.
The list of lesser mistakes chronicled by Mr. Ricks is, regrettably, far too long to
mention in the space available in this column. Suffice it to say that in our first
year in Iraq, the U.S. violated every sound principle of counter-insurgency warfare.
Fortunately, the U.S. military tends, in wartime, to learn fairly quickly from its
mistakes. Virtually everything that was done so disastrously wrong in the first
year of the occupation is now being done right, or nearly so. Mr. Ricks thinks it's
too little, too late. But that remains to be seen.
"Fiasco" has two serious weaknesses. Mr. Ricks advances two theses: that the Iraq
war was unwinnable from the get go, and thus ought not to have been undertaken in
the first place.
But Mr. Ricks also implies the insurgency could have been put down fairly quickly
(or might not have gotten going at all) were it not for the blunders of Defense
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, CPA administrator Paul Bremer, and various Army generals.
He seems not to recognize there is tension between the two. If the blunders cost
us a relatively easy victory (and Mr. Ricks makes a persuasive case that they did),
then it's the blunders and not the decision to go to war that's the core of
The more serious weakness of "Fiasco" is Mr. Ricks discusses the enemy only to
illume U.S. mistakes, real and imagined. He sheds no light on the relative
importance of al Qaeda, the ex-Baathists, and Iran in this conflict, and how they
have interacted. He says nothing of the importance al Qaeda has placed on Iraq, or
of the losses it has suffered there. It's like reading a history of World War II
that mentions the Germans, the Japanese and the Italians only in passing.
So read "Fiasco" with a jaundiced eye. But read it. The book's strengths outweigh