DATE September 12, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: The Washington Post's military correspondent Tom
Ricks on General Petraeus' testimony before Congress and the state
of affairs in Iraq
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. So, where are we headed now in Iraq, and
what are the possible exit strategies? We've invited The Washington Post's
military correspondent, Tom Ricks, to analyze the last two days of
congressional testimony by General David Petraeus, the top American commander
in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the American ambassador to Iraq. And we've asked
Ricks to compare their conclusions with other interpretations of current
developments in Iraq. Ricks has made several trips to Iraq and is the author
of the best-selling book "Fiasco," which examines how false conclusions were
used to lead us into the war and how the occupation was mishandled. "Fiasco"
has just come out in paperback.
Tom Ricks, welcome back to FRESH AIR. What are some of the major bullet
points that you took away from the last two days of hearings?
Mr. TOM RICKS: I don't think we got the big policy divide that a lot of
people expected, but I think we may have gotten something equally significant,
which was a mood shift, a tone shift. No one is talking about Iraq as a
success story anymore. No one is talking about it as someplace that's going
to become a beacon of democracy that trumps war in the Middle East. What we
got in these hearings on Monday and Tuesday was a description from Bush
administration officials of Iraq as a place teetering on the edge of disaster,
where we have very few options and where we have to really cross our fingers
and hope for the best. Essentially they've thrown the war to the dissenters.
General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker are both people who were very
skeptical of the way this thing was conducted for the last few years, and now
these people are saying, `OK, you've given it to us. Let's see what we can
GROSS: What did you find most interesting about the questions that members of
Congress did or did not ask?
Mr. RICKS: I thought the two hearings were distinctly different. The Monday
hearing, which was a huge joint session of the House Foreign Affairs Committee
and the House Armed Services Committee, was kind of chaotic, sprawling and
circus-like. The first day of these much-anticipated hearings.
The second day of hearings was much more focused. You had two Senate
committees operating separately so senators had much more time to speak.
Their questions were much more focused, and especially I thought the Senate
focused on the issue of time much more than the House did. `How long are we
going to be in Iraq?' And this was asked in a variety of ways by a number of
senators, and it was really striking that Petraeus simply would not answer the
question. He wasn't going to answer it. Partly, I think, because as he said,
he really has no good idea. Partly, I think, because he and Crocker came in
determined not to make promises that they felt they couldn't keep. And they
fault the US officials who preceded them for making promises that, you know,
that they couldn't keep, for writing checks that bounced. And I think they
were coming in--they didn't want to have to come back in six months for the
next scheduled assessment in March and have a lot of explanations about why
their promises couldn't be kept. Instead, they simply wouldn't make them.
GROSS: I'm sure you probably read this article. The New York Times, to
measure in an alternative way how things were going in Iraq, sent in a group
of reporters to Iraq that visited 20 neighborhoods in Baghdad and surrounding
areas and visited them repeatedly over time. And let me just read some of the
things that were reported in this article. `Iraq's mixed neighborhoods are
sliding toward extinction.' Ethnically mixed, that is. `During the troop
increase, Shiite militias have continued to drive out Sunnis in at least seven
neighborhoods of Baghdad. The Mahdi army, loyal to the radical cleric Muqtada
al-Sadr, is turning into what many describe as a shadow government while
desperate Sunnis have come to rely almost exclusively on American troops for
their protection. In Huriya'--am I pronouncing that correctly?...
Mr. RICKS: I think so.
GROSS: ...`there's been a Shiite takeover. The Sunni mosques there are
empty, burned and broken. And Sunni militants were driven out of Dora and
into a place called Saydia, where they began attacking Shiites. So after Dora
became peaceful, Saydia descended into chaos.' So what the Times reports
create is a picture in which, because of all this, like, ethnic fighting, some
neighborhoods become safe because one ethnic group is driven out, so there's
no more ethnic fighting there, but the ethnic group driven out goes into
another neighborhood that descends into chaos.
Mr. RICKS: I thought that was good reporting. It was a good article, and it
really captured the feel of Baghdad today. One of the things that actually
really struck me on my last visit there was, just because a neighborhood is
quiet doesn't mean it's good. Sometimes a neighborhood is quiet because it's
been ethnically cleansed and there are no longer contending militias. And
that's what happened, I am told, in many neighborhoods where US forces have
gone in and successfully cleaned out Sunni extremist militias, Shiite
extremist militias have simply fallen in behind them. And so you are seeing
clearing and holding, which was the US approach, but the holding is not being
done by Iraqi security forces. It's being done by militias. And so, in some
ways, we're fighting on both sides of a civil war. In Anbar province, we have
empowered the Sunni militias. In Baghdad we have effectively empowered the
Shiite militias as Baghdad increasingly becomes an ethnically cleansed city,
dominated by the Shiites.
Mr. RICKS: And it may be a prelude to a full-blown civil war.
GROSS: Yet, are we claiming these areas as success stories?
Mr. RICKS: Yeah, because they look quiet at the moment. And this is
something that really terrifies the Shiite government in Baghdad, kind of
their sense that we don't fully understand what we're doing. They're very
worried about us cozying up with the Sunni militias, the Sunni tribes in Anbar
province and now elsewhere. As one Iraqi politician said recently, `Baby
crocodiles are cute, but you can't keep an adult crocodile in the house.' And
they're worried that what we're doing by allowing these militias to exist and
actually giving them badges effectively is growing a lot of baby crocodiles as
we head toward the door. And then after we've left, the Baghdad government is
going to have to deal with them.
GROSS: A related thing that you've written about is granting amnesty to
insurgents so that we could work with them. You describe it as a variety of
handshake agreements with Iraqi insurgents and militias groups, sometimes
resulting in the release of fighters who were detained originally for
attacking coalition forces. You describe this as a `don't ask, don't tell'
Mr. RICKS: Yeah. It's being presented as a great success story, and it is
good to see former insurgents coming over to the American side. The question
I've heard some people in the US military ask is, `Are they shifting
allegiance or are we?' Are we simply changing our tune and saying people we
used to declare enemies, people who were opposed to the government of Baghdad,
we're now saying we don't care about that; as long as you won't fight us in
your neighborhood, that's cool. The analogy might be the LAPD deciding on its
own to go into South Central LA and hand out badges to the Crips without
telling the mayor of Los Angeles and saying, `Oh yeah, South Central LA is
quiet. The Crips are now the police force down there.' And the mayor saying,
`What are you doing?' That's the situation you really have in Iraq right now.
GROSS: My guest is Tom Ricks, military correspondent for The Washington Post
and author of the book "Fiasco" about how we got into Iraq and what happened
after, and that's just come out in paperback.
Let's get back to the hearings in the past couple of days with General
Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. There have been questions raised about
General Petraeus' independence, or lack of independence, from President Bush.
You know, there's that now-famous Move On ad that was headlined "General
Betray-us," in which he was described as cooking the books for the White
House. Jon Stewart last night on "The Daily Show" showed General Petraeus
saying the same things that President Bush had said, as if to show that
Petraeus was repeating what Bush wanted said. What's your assessment of how
independent General Petraeus is?
Mr. RICKS: I have to say I was appalled by the Move On ad. I've known
General Petraeus a long time and I'll probably get criticized for denouncing
the ad. I thought it was unfair and not accurate. I think General Petraeus
is a good soldier in a very difficult position. It was striking to me that
every time Republican politicians on the Hill tried to take advantage of the
Move On ad by denouncing it, he ignored that. He simply was not going to wade
into partisan waters for either party.
I was struck this morning--I was looking at something else online, it had a
headline "Betray-us: The Paris Hilton of Generals." The attacks on his
integrity, on his person, I don't think are really where the debate should be
going right now. I don't think he's really carrying water for the White House
as much as the White House has just tossed the whole thing to him and said,
`You do it,' partly because he has the credibility. But to try to tear him
down personally, it bothers me and it worries me. I don't think it's where
the debate really should go. It's not the best way for this country to
proceed. Iraq is a really horrible, terrible mess, and he senses that, I
think, and is trying to present it in a nonpartisan way. And to attack him
for that bothers me.
GROSS: When you say that he has credibility, what are his accomplishments so
far in the war in Iraq that gives him the credibility?
Mr. RICKS: He's on his third tour in Iraq. The first tour was quite
successful. He commanded the 101st Airborne Division during the invasion of
Iraq, and then in the first year of occupation up in northern Iraq. I
remember being up in Mosul and being struck at how different his operation
felt from other divisions. I wrote about this in "Fiasco." The 101st really
stood out for taking a very difficult situation--Mosul was a tinderbox,
because it had tens of thousands of Kurdish fighters and also a lot of former
Baathist party members and Saddam Hussein loyalists. Remember, this is where
Saddam's sons went to hide when they were on the run. And he kept Mosul
quiet. He operated quite artfully. And he posited some rules that are
enforced now nationally under him, such as `don't do anything that creates
more enemies that it stops.' Another one of his rules was, `we are on a very
short fuse here. We don't have a lot of time. Let's try to do things now
rather than try to do things later, because eventually we'll be perceived as
an occupation force.'
It would have been good had General Petraeus been able to apply those things
nationally in the spring of 2004 rather than the spring of 2007. But it took
three or four years for the Bush administration and top US military officials
to say, `you know, what we're doing here isn't working.' And effectively they
said, `OK, General Petraeus, you're so smart, you do it.' And it really was
the dissidents who were given control of policy.
Ambassador Crocker, for example, comes out of the State Department Arabists,
who were kind of declared public enemies by Bush administration early on.
These were the people who supposedly pursued the failed policies that led to
9/11. Suddenly the Bush administration is listening to Arabists like
Ambassador Crocker again. Ambassador Crocker invoked Beirut several times and
the decline of Lebanon several time in the course of the hearings, calling on
his background of the decades he has spent in the Middle East.
So suddenly, experts are in vogue again, an Arabist expert or a General
Petraeus, a counterinsurgency expert. These were the people who were swept
aside by ideologues in the Bush administration early on. And so to attack
these people who I think are trying to talk about it in a mature and
knowledgeable fashion is really unproductive right now.
GROSS: My guest is Tom Ricks, military correspondent for The Washington Post
and author of the best seller "Fiasco" about how the occupation of Iraq was
mishandled. It's just come out in paperback. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Tom Ricks, and he's military correspondent for The
Washington Post and author of the best-seller "Fiasco" about how we got into
the war in Iraq and what happened afterwards, and that book has just been
published in paperback.
What are General Petraeus' goals now?
Mr. RICKS: What he is trying to do--and there's no real sign of it
succeeding so far--is conduct military operations in such a way as to lead to
political reconciliation in Iraq. That sounds very abstract, but to put it in
concrete terms, a fighter for Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric,
knows what he is fighting for. A soldier in the Iraqi army is better trained
and better equipped, but lacks the core motivation that the militia man has.
He doesn't quite know what he's fighting for frequently. He doesn't even know
if there's going to be an Iraqi government or really an Iraqi army a year from
now. And so until you have the political situation straightened out, all that
military strength is kind of a body without a brain. There's no central
direction to it.
What he is trying to do is figure out a way to get an Iraq stable enough for
us to get out. And I would say, probably in his heart of hearts, he knows
it's a minority chance, but he's saying--effectively what he and Crocker were
saying at these hearings over the last couple of days was, `Look, we don't
think this is great, but we don't see any better alternatives. If you guys
do, speak up now.' And I think that's why, essentially, they won these
hearings and the Democrats lost them, to put it in partisan terms. The
Democrats weren't able to mount a credible alternative. They kind of
floundered around and said, `OK, fine, see you in six months.'
GROSS: When President Bush announced the surge in January, he said that the
goal was political stability in Baghdad, and some people are saying, well, the
emphasis has shifted. Now that there's more stability in places like Diyala
province and the Anbar province, those are the places that the Bush
administration is holding up as success stories, but these critics are also
saying these places really have nothing to do with the surge. What's your
take on that?
Mr. RICKS: I think it's a pretty credible take. The shift in the tribes
began well before the surge began. But as I said, the shifts in the tribes, I
think, needs a lot more examination because it's not clear quite who's
shifting, whether the tribes are shifting or the United States is shifting.
This whole bottom-up thing also, I think, has been inadequately examined. I
had hoped the hearings would get more into that. There's a couple of problems
GROSS: What do you mean by bottom-up thing?
Mr. RICKS: Oh, this is the notion of bottom-up reconciliation, which is how
the Bush administration for the last several months has quietly been giving up
on the Baghdad government. For years we emphasized a central government.
Build the government in Baghdad and then somehow it would seep out across the
rest of the country and hold the country together. For the last couple of
months, the Bush administration has talked a lot about local reconciliation at
the village, town and provincial levels, thinking that somehow it'll bubble up
through the system and eventually lead to political reconciliation in Baghdad.
The first problem with that is it's not clear how long that takes, but it
probably is many years. The second problem with it is it might actually help
tear the country apart. One suspicion I had listening to the hearings over
the last couple of days was that we are kind of tiptoeing towards a policy of
breaking up Iraq. When you emphasize bottom-up reconciliation, you empower
the local level. When you empower the local level, you undercut the central
And there are strong pressures in Iraq towards breaking up the country, and
power at the local level might mean effectively just pushing it towards three,
four, or even five or six chunks. A Sunni-dominated area, a Shiite-dominated
area and a Kurdish-dominated area with an ethnically cleaned Baghdad that's
basically Shiite. You may get more than three parts, though, because there
already is fighting in the south among three different Shiite factions, and
they may wind up controlling different chunks of the south as well. So I
think, in these deals with the devil we're making, like a lot of things in
Iraq, they look kind of appetizing in the short term but may carry very
difficult long-term consequences.
GROSS: Well, there are some Democrats, including Joe Biden, who favor what
they describe as a soft partition of Iraq. What is that?
Mr. RICKS: Soft partition is, `OK, we're not going to actually break up the
country and sell it off for parts, but we will have powerful regional control
and weaker central control.' This is described as a kind of federalist
approach, and I think that's kind of maybe what we may be back sliding toward.
One of the comments you heard a lot out of Petraeus and Crocker over the last
couple of days was Iraqi solutions for Iraqi problems. Now, on the one hand,
that's very honest. It's saying, `Look, we're not smart enough or local
enough to really know where this is going and to control the flow of it.' On
the other hand, it's a little bit of a smokescreen because it says, I can't
tell you where things are going but see.'
I was struck for example, when General Petraeus was finally asked about events
in the south, which I think are quite troubling. He put a very smiley face on
it, and he said, `Oh, yeah, you have, you know, factional fighting down south.
A couple of provincial governors assassinated lately, but these are Iraqi
solutions for Iraqi problems.' Assassination and factional fighting? I'm not
sure that's a solution, but he seemed to think it was, that essentially things
in the south will sort themselves out.
GROSS: Tom Ricks is the military correspondent for The Washington Post and
author of the best seller "Fiasco" about how the occupation of Iraq was
mishandled. It's now out in paperback. Ricks will be back in the second half
of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Tom Ricks, military
correspondent for The Washington Post. We've asked him to analyze the
congressional testimony of General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker
and to compare their reports with other evaluations of the situation in Iraq
and other exit strategies. Ricks is the author of the best seller "Fiasco,"
about how the occupation of Iraq was mishandled. It's just come out in
The British recently withdrew a lot of their troops from Iraq and only have
what you've described as a token presence left. What is the significance of
the partial withdrawal and the way it happened?
Mr. RICKS: Well, the first significance is that a key ally of the United
States essentially is finished in Iraq. They are no longer having an effect
on the south. The 5500 troops they have remaining are on the outskirts of
Basra and are not really relevant to where southern Iraq is going. Southern
Iraq is now subject to fairly vicious infighting among three different Shiite
factions, and this is not about sectarian divisions. They're all Shiite.
It's certainly not about al-Qaeda, which is not present down there. It's
really about oil and the enormous oil revenues from the export business out of
It's odd to look at the south and worrisome to look at the south. As one
official said recently, `If you want to know what Baghdad looks like next
year, look at Basra now.' And I say "odd" because the British and General
Petraeus are presenting this as a solution, but it doesn't look like a
solution for Iraqis. It just looks like a way for us to bug out and let the
GROSS: It sounds like the British also withdrew a lot of their forces because
they were under siege?
Mr. RICKS: Yeah, and they still are. I've been told that the British are
getting mortar or rocket fire on their base every night, and when they have
pulled out of other areas, it has been under fire. That the bases have been
looted almost immediately upon the departure and they've been fired at as they
move out. This is what they call transfer of security control to local
forces. If that's the future for US forces, I think it's going to be kind
of--very hard watching.
And this really points toward something that Petraeus was hinting at without
really talking about during the hearings. The key moment is going to be in
the spring and the summer of next year when US forces necessarily start
drawing down simply because there are no replacement forces for these surge
forces. That means areas where the US is now present in force are going to be
turned over to Iraqi troops. And without Americans present, how will Iraqi
troops behave? Will they behave like Shiite militias? Or will they act like
an arm of the national government? Well, what if there isn't really a
national government for them to be the arm of? What if they are really
directed by Shiite factional sectarian leaders?
So it's going to be really interesting to see how '08 unfolds in the areas
that American forces leave. And we're going to be pulling out those five
surge brigades all next spring and summer. That's what Petraeus ratified;
supposedly that's what the president is going to talk about in his address
tomorrow night on national TV. And an Iraqi unit that has American advisers
present might operate in a more even-handed way than the same unit without
Americans around. So it's going to be really interesting to see how those
Iraqi forces behave.
GROSS: President Bush predicted that if we withdrew from Iraq that Iran or
al-Qaeda would take over. Now, there have been skirmishes in the north of
Iraq between Iraq and Iran, and Iran has been upping its rhetoric, and I
wonder what you see, keeping an eye on Iran, about the possibilities there for
Mr. RICKS: Two things. First, in terms of President Bush's rhetoric, one of
the things that was striking and not much commented upon in the hearings was
the departures in the rhetoric of Petraeus and Crocker from the White House
line. Jon Stewart made fun of how Bush and Petraeus used similar phrases, but
what I think was more significant was what Petraeus and Crocker didn't say.
They didn't cast Iraq as part of the larger war on terror. It was only when
John McCain really pushed them and reminded them of the presidential rhetoric
that they got in line with national policy.
Nor did they say that `if we leave, Iran and al-Qaeda will take over,' which
is what the president has said. Rather they said the country would
essentially descend into a cauldron of chaos and fragments and factional
fighting. They said those are the real drivers in Iraq, not these outside
That said, Petraeus especially brought up Iran a lot. He said one of the
biggest shocks to him on his third tour in Iraq is the influence Iran is
having, and I think they are very worried at how Iran is present not only in
helping Shiite militias but also inside the Iraqi government that we created
and ostensibly are supposed to be cooperating with.
GROSS: What role is Iran playing inside the Iraqi government that we helped
Mr. RICKS: Well, especially you hear about the ministry of interior, which
controls the police forces. The national police--which the commission run by
General Jones on Iraqi security focused on--the national police have been
described essentially as a giant government-supported Shiite death squad. And
I would say that Iran probably has more influence over them than the United
States does. Iran has been very effective in its operations in Iraq thus far.
On the other hand, Iran has been hubristic in a way the United States has as
well. It's funny, actually. Ambassador Crocker, in casting about for straws
of hope, at one point in the hearings said essentially that he hoped Iran
would overplay its hand in Iraq. And that's kind of what we're counting on,
that eventually they'll step on so many Iraqi toes that they will trigger the
xenophobia that seems to be part of Iraqi culture and the Arab nationalism
that's also very present in Iraq, and that eventually Iraqis who are currently
cooperating with the Iranians would revert back to type and reject the Iranian
GROSS: Do you think that there's a possibility for more, like, armed conflict
between Iran and Iraq?
Mr. RICKS: In this part of the world, I think you can bet on violence and
fighting, especially where Iraq is now. I mean, I'm kind of in a somber mood
this morning, coming out of those hearings. It's quite striking that the best
argument that could be mounted for the US staying in Iraq was not anything to
do with democracy or liberation or ending terrorism in the Middle East. It
was, `Hey, if we leave, you will have a humanitarian disaster of monumental
and catastrophic proportions and perhaps a regional war.' And as Senator James
Webb rightly pointed out, he said, `Hey, that's what the opponents of invasion
were saying before you guys invaded.' We were predicting this was going to
happen. And so now the anti-war arguments of 2002, 2003 have become the last
defense of the American presence in Iraq, which is quite sad.
GROSS: Ramadan begins in a couple of days. What will you be watching for?
Mr. RICKS: Every year that we've been there, the Muslim holy month of
Ramadan has brought a sharp spike in violence. And much more than anything
that was said at the hearings, I think a real test of the current US approach
will be whether we see another one of those spikes. The intriguing part of
this is we've gone from late fall Ramadans, when the weather is much cooler,
to a late summer Ramadan now for the first time, because it moves forward
about four weeks in the calendar each year. So this is going to be a tougher
Ramadan than in the past. In Ramadan, observant Muslims don't eat or drink or
smoke from sunup to sundown. And so, the longer the day, the harder it is to
make that observance and the more tempers fray.
I remember living in Kabul, Afghanistan, during a summer Ramadan, and it was
striking to me just how many arguments you'd see breaking out among people on
the street. Also because you can't eat during the day, people stay up at
night to eat and so, as the month progresses, they're tired, they're sleepless
and they're cranky. And so you can get a mixture of casual violence just from
people being irritable. Combined with an increase in Muslim consciousness,
especially on a couple a nights of the month when people go into the mosque at
night to observe key moments and then emerge from the mosque in the morning
kind of fired up.
GROSS: My guest is Tom Ricks, military correspondent for The Washington Post
and author of the best seller "Fiasco" about how the occupation of Iraq was
mishandled. It's now out in paperback. We'll talk more after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tom Ricks. He's the military
correspondent for The Washington Post and author of the best seller "Fiasco"
about everything that went wrong after the invasion of Iraq, and that book has
just come out in paperback.
According to the GAO report, you know, the Iraqis have met only three of 18
congressionally-mandated benchmarks. President Bush has evaluated the
situation a little more differently, a little more positively. Tom, do you
have benchmarks that you're measuring the progress in Iraq with?
Mr. RICKS: Yeah, I really think the only benchmark that really matters is
Iraqi civilian deaths with a parenthesis after it, Iraqi internal
displacements or refugees leaving the country. That really tells you the
bottom line situation. And Iraqi civilian deaths continue to be
extraordinarily high, while US ambitions, actually, as laid out by Petraeus
and Crocker, are extraordinarily low. If you listen to them closely, really,
what they're saying is `we hope to get back to the level of violence of early
2005.' That is certainly not utopia. Early 2005, I remember in Iraq, was the
Hobbesian state. The war of all against all. It was terrible. So they're
not holding out anything particularly hopeful. It's a rather bleak vision,
but that's what they're trying to say. That's where we're trying to get to.
GROSS: You're saying your benchmark is how many Iraqi civilians are dying,
and I know you're also concerned about how many American soldiers are dying.
And there's some deaths...
Mr. RICKS: But...
GROSS: Go ahead--yeah.
Mr. RICKS: American soldiers dying is not a good indicator of progress or
the lack of it, or success or the lack of it. If you want no American
soldiers to die, all you need to do is pull them back onto the US bases, which
is where the US military posture was in early 2005. They were on these big
bases, they were isolated from the population, and it was striking to me how
little they knew about what was happening in the streets of Baghdad when I
went to visit them on those bases.
Mr. RICKS: A larger thing on benchmarks. As I was listening to the hearings
over the past couple of days, I kept on thinking of a line from Groucho Marx,
`Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?' The Bush administration
presented the surge in term of benchmarks and said, `We're going to try to
meet those benchmarks.' When the benchmarks weren't met, they said, `Oh, don't
pay attention to those stupid benchmarks.' Again and again, the Bush
administration has kind of laid down markers and then, when they weren't met,
walked away from them, going back to, `oh, there is no insurgency' and then it
was, `it's just a few dead-enders and when we capture Hussein they'll
disappear and then as they stand up we will stand down.' None of these things
has been met and they simply sort of move on to a new standard. And when the
standard's not met, they say it was the wrong standard. `You're so 2005, now
2006, if you're talking about benchmarks.' Now it's bottom-up reconciliation.
As a couple of senators pointed out, OK, six months from now if bottom-up
reconciliation doesn't pan out, they'll probably come out with some other new
line about what we're trying to do out there.
I was struck by that phrase "Iraqi solutions for Iraq problems," which is
probably a polite way of saying, `Let's stand back and groove on the rubble.'
GROSS: President Bush will probably hand over the war to his successor, and
the next president will have to deal with it. Do you get the impression that
the Bush administration is playing for time now, knowing that things
won't--are very unlikely to resolve before this presidency ends?
Mr. RICKS: Very much so. This is really becoming the next president's war,
and that was ratified by these hearings. The US Congress heard Petraeus and
Crocker present a plan for essentially staying in Iraq until 2010 and beyond.
And while they questioned some of those impulses about timing, they never
really mounted any attempt to present an alternative or to stop that. And so,
yeah, what you saw was the Bush administration getting at least a yellow
light, and I think really a green light, to proceed until January 2009 pretty
much as they are now.
GROSS: You know, we've been talking about Iraq and what happens next, what
General Petraeus is saying, what President Bush is saying. Are there exit
strategies that you've been hearing from alternate places that you think are
interesting and have possibilities that America should be considering?
Mr. RICKS: Well, there are four basic strategies available to us, and I was
a bit surprised there wasn't more discussion of them in the two days of
hearings, especially in the Senate hearings where the senators have longer
times to raise questions. Basically, what you saw was ratification of "stay
the course." That's one strategy. The second one would be a total pull-out.
That was discussed in terms really raised by Petraeus and Crocker to denounce
it and say it would lead to this humanitarian disaster. A third strategy
would be soft partition or partition breaking up the country in some form.
There were hints of that, but it really wasn't pursued. And the fourth, which
is something I think we ultimately may wind up with and I think deserves more
discussion, is falling back to some form of containment, not leaving the
country altogether but standing back. And as one soldier once said to me,
`letting them have the civil war they seem so much to want to have.'
None of these are particularly appealing strategies, and containment, the
strategy I think we're going to wind up with, has huge problems attached to
it. It's something that we really need to be very careful about endorsing
because the downsides are enormous.
GROSS: Wait, wait. So you're talking about containment--standing back and
letting them have the civil war that they seem to want to have. So
containment would be just preventing that from spreading to other parts of the
Mr. RICKS: Yeah. There was a good study recently by a new think tank, The
Center for a New American Security, that essentially argued for this. And
it's especially worth paying attention to because it kind of speaks for
national security Democrats, I think, and so it's likely to be the policy at
least seriously considered by any Democratic administration in 2009.
Essentially it said, `Let's fall back. Let's redeploy, get out of combat in
Iraq, but not leave the country altogether. Let's pursue a negative strategy.
Not the quote unquote "positive" goals of the Brush administration of
liberation and democracy, but negative goals, essentially three nos. What we
want to do is have no genocide in Iraq, no safe havens for al-Qaeda and no
Now, that's far less ambitious than the Bush administration goals, but still a
prescription for a pretty difficult and long presence in Iraq. How do you
prevent genocide? How do you prevent the war from spreading across the region
and spilling over across Iraq's borders? How do you prevent safe havens for
al-Qaeda? All of those require a lot of American troops, a lot of American
money, and are going to result in the deaths of American troops for many
years. I mention it because it was hardly discussed at all in the hearings,
but I think it is probably the policy that ironically we're going to wind up
with in two years.
GROSS: You've presented several pretty unappealing alternatives.
Mr. RICKS: Yeah. I think this is why I thought Senator Obama's comments
were particularly interesting, because he got to the bottom line pretty
quickly. He said, `There are no good options left.' And I think that's really
where the debate should begin at this point. Any policy option you put in
front of me, it's pretty easy to show that the downsides, the risks, are far
greater than the potential benefits. But that's true of every single policy.
There are no good solutions. There are only bad solutions. And what we need
to do as a nation is discuss what is the least bad solution available.
GROSS: Tom, when are you going back to Iraq?
Mr. RICKS: Next month.
GROSS: Well, I hope to talk with when you get back, and I really appreciate
you talking with us today.
Mr. RICKS: You're welcome. I always love coming on your show.
GROSS: Tom Ricks is the military correspondent for The Washington Post and
author of the best seller "Fiasco," about how the occupation of Iraq was
mishandled. It's now out in paperback.
Coming up, our critic at large, John Powers, recommends the war novels of a
British writer who flew in the Royal Air Force. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: John Powers reviews the World War I and II books by
English writer Derek Robinson
TERRY GROSS, host:
Our critic at large, John Powers, recently came across an English writer of
novels about World War I and II that are popular in England. John was
surprised that these books by Derek Robinson could show him so much about the
experience of war.
We're having a little technical problem with that review, so we'll get that
for you as soon as we can. So we appreciate your patience as we work out the
bug that is haunting this review, and I think we'll have that for you
JOHN POWERS reporting:
A few months ago I stumbled across a 1971 novel called "Goshawk Squadron" by
Derek Robinson, which is about English pilots in World War I. Now, I've never
been a war fiction nut, and what I know about fliers on the Western front came
largely from Snoopy's battles with the Red Baron. But I started the book and
was instantly hooked. It was funny, exciting and powerful. It captured the
way that war devours young life. I passed the book onto friends, who in turn
passed it onto their husbands and wives, and everyone loved it. And they kept
asking, `Who is this Derek Robinson and how come we've never heard of him?'
The "who" is simple to answer. A 75-year-old Englishman, Robinson flew jets
in the Royal Air Force, went to Cambridge and worked as an advertising man.
Eventually he wound up writing books about rugby, cheery thrillers in the Ross
Thomas vein, and best of all, hugely addictive novels about wartime aviators
with titles like "Damned Good Show" and "A Good, Clean Fight." I suspect the
reason why his work is so little known here is that it's been caught in a no
man's land between genre fiction and so-called literary fiction. In fact, his
best books, "Goshawk Squadron" and the epic "Piece of Cake," make him the
equal of celebrated British writers like Martin Amis and Julian Barnes.
Robinson's war novels are set in different times and places, above the lines
in World War I France, over bombing targets in Nazi Germany, aloft in the
heat-dazzled North African sky. But the same story keeps unfolding. We meet
a bunch of pilots, some brave, some stupid, some fearful, some mean, who fly
and die violently, and they're replaced by more pilots who also fly and die
violently. It sounds repetitive, but that's what happened. Entire squadrons
would have to be replenished in a matter of weeks.
All this would be unbearably grim except for two things. First, Robinson is a
thrillingly good descriptive writer who makes you feel what it's like to fly,
to take off in a rickety bomber, engage in a dogfight, dodge neon-bright flak,
or plunge helplessly toward terra firma. At the same time, he can make you
laugh. His books contain some of the best comic scenes in contemporary
fiction and some of the funniest dialogue. Fending off death with wisecracks,
his characters talk in a patois every bit as sharp as anything in Elmore
But unlike Leonard, Robinson's book don't feature indestructible heroes who
invariably win. In fact, what's shocking about a novel like "Piece of Cake,"
which ends with the Battle of Britain, is that it captures the cruel
randomness of war. Robinson shows us that there were lots of ways for a pilot
to die: inexperience, bad equipment, pilot error, a more skillful foe, a
bungling commander or plain bad luck. Which means that nobody is ever safe.
From moment to moment, page to page, his books never let you know in advance
who's going to get killed. It could be the guy you think is the main
character. Suddenly, radically, he's gone. Or it could be the raw recruit
who you think is bound to last a few pages after being introduced. Kaboom,
And Robinson never falls into the sentimental cliche of endowing his
characters' deaths with some grand moral, intellectual or patriotic meaning.
You may recall that at the end of "Saving Private Ryan," the dying Tom Hanks
tells Matt Damon to "earn this." Nothing remotely like that happens anywhere
in Robinson. For all the pilots' courage, no overarching truth is ever
revealed by any individual's death. Except, perhaps, the darkest one. In the
great machinery of war, the individual means nothing.
Now, Robinson is not a pacifist, nor does he think that Britain was wrong to
fight against Hitler. But without ever being cynical, his books brilliantly
debunk the great myths of war that never seem to go away. He shows us that,
far from being the well-planned and well-organized activity we hear about in
the media, they're always an unpredictable mess. What one British officer
calls `more and more cock-ups.'
More humanely, he also reminds us that we shouldn't fall into the civilian's
comfortable belief that soldiers are heroes, a glamorizing cliche which lets
us sugar coat their actual flesh and blood sacrifice.
Robinson's books are not new, and they focus on battles that took place
decades ago. So you may wonder why I'm talking about him now. Well, our own
country's involved in a conflict that's gone on longer than the one known as
"the great war," and no matter how you may stand on the invasion of Iraq,
Robinson will teach you things you probably don't know about what it actually
means to fight in a war.
GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue.
If you want to catch up on interviews you've missed, you can down download
podcasts of our show by going to our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.