In Fiasco, Thomas Ricks told the story of American military involvement in Iraq through 2005. His new book is based on a series of interviews with General Petraeus and other military staff conducted in Baghdad and Washington concerning events from 2006-2008. Although the "Surge" is often characterized as an unqualified success, Ricks argues that the final grade for this part of the American adventure in Iraq is a "solid incomplete." He also suggests that the details of this military reformation and counterattack are, to date, barely known.
The author describes the transition under General Petraeus from traditional warfare to counterinsurgency which is "founded on the concept that the civilian population isn't the playing field but rather the prize." This change represented both an implicit criticism of past military practice in Iraq and "a major intellectual, cultural, and emotional shift" for American forces. Petraeus' unusual advisors in this effort include an Aussie counterinsurgency specialist, a British expert on the Mid-East who opposes the war and a "pacifistic Arab turned New Yorker."
In a brisk narrative, Ricks describes changes in strategy and tactics that aim at creating security for Iraqi civilians rather than racking up body counts of insurgents. Violence is reduced and confidence is built by the provisional government culminating in the Maliki led attack on Basra in March of 2008.
In the end, Ricks agrees that the most that can be achieved in Iraq is Petraeus' vision of "sustainable security." The best case scenario, he projects, is that "in the long run, Iraq would calm down, be mildly authoritarian, and probably become an ally of Iran, but, with luck, not one that threatened the rest of the Arab world." He argues that McCain's campaign rhetoric describing Iraq as a future beacon of democracy is at odds with the General's more realistic hope as well as with all we have learned in the last 5 years of partially successful nation building. Ricks goes as far as to describe McCain's view as verging on fantasy.
In sum, says the author, "the surge was the right step to take, or more precisely, the least wrong move in a misconceived war." The ultimate result of the Iraq war according to Ambassador Crocker is still very much in doubt and "is going to be a very, very long time in unfolding." Petraeus' efforts as recounted by Ricks were both bold and well-executed but their benign impact was circumscribed by the complex nature of the challenges facing Iraq.
Although a more detailed and nuanced analysis probably awaits us in the future, Ricks delivers a timely and convincing narrative of how an intellectual in the military used a non traditional approach to bring the US and Iraq back from the brink of disaster to the edge of "sustainable security."