Wednesday, August 2

Aw, Thomas Ricks can go sit on a tack

I was irritated last night to hear Larry Kudlow caterwauling on John Batchelor's show that Iraq is a debacle and that unless the Bush administration does something fast to fix the situation the sun will fall from the sky. Then again, if Kudlow caterwauls about something he's not picking it from thin air.

Kudlow was reacting in part to an interview he heard on C-SPAN with Thomas Ricks, whose book on Iraq has just been published with a splash. To get you in the ballpark if you haven't kept up with Ricks' Iraq reports for The Washington Post:
Iraq `Fiasco': New Books Target Dumb Ideas, Corporate Greed by Edward Nawotka.
Aug. 2 (Bloomberg) -- Publishers are releasing an unprecedented number of books that cast a critical eye on the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq.

The most scathing critique yet comes from Thomas E. Ricks, senior Pentagon correspondent for the Washington Post. In "Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq" (Penguin Press, 482 pages, $27.95), he writes that the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 "ultimately may come to be seen as one of the most profligate actions in the history of American foreign policy." Not only was it "based on perhaps the worst war plan in American history," but it "confused removing Iraq's regime with the far more difficult task of changing the entire country."

Though Ricks covers some of the same ground as earlier books, notably ``Cobra II'' by Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor (his counterparts at the New York Times), this account -- based on hundreds of interviews and the review of 37,000 documents -- is insightful on the origins of the deadly insurgency and failure of the reconstruction.

Ricks argues that U.S. policies and tactics, especially Paul Bremer's de-Baathification order and disbanding of the Iraqi army -- which put half a million armed and skilled men out of work -- provided the insurgency with all the capable recruits it would ever need.

Few are spared the author's criticism. Congress is rebuked for being too passive: ``In previous wars, Congress had been populated by hawks and doves,'' Ricks writes. Now ``it seemed to consist mainly of lambs who hardly made a peep.'' In a chapter entitled ``The Corrections,'' journalists, including former Times correspondent Judith Miller, are held equally accountable.
Read the rest of the review for other recently released books critical of the US handling of the Iraq invasion and occupation.

In 2005, maybe three years before it will be fashionable to do so, Thomas P.M. Barnett (The Pentagon's New Map) made short work of the Iraq invasion naysayers in his Blueprint for Action:
The Big Bang strategy [in the Middle East] was never about decreasing international terrorism but about localizing it right where it belongs. [...] In the end, it was almost impossible for the Iraq occupation to go too badly, because the worse it became, the more it transformed the region.
If Congress bleated like lamb in response to the Bush war plan it was because they had ceded leadership of their country to the European Union during the decade running up to 9/11. If they don't like the Bush plan, which was thrown together within days, they can join Thomas Ricks in sitting on a tack.

Of course there were many mistakes -- and worse than mistakes, a cynical decision on the part of the US Department of State to allow Iraq to fall apart until President Bush woke up and read the riot act to Paul Bremer and his puppeteers at State. But the invasion of Iraq was not a goal in itself; it was a campaign in a larger war and part of a grand strategy to carry the war to the enemy's home ground.

From that point of view the Iraq invasion and occupation carry a cheap price tag in terms of dollars, and the nearly countless gains from the Big Bang strategy overwhelm the mistakes.

John Batchelor has warned many times that there is no good news during war; as with his dictum that the first three reports in war are wrong, it should be taken to heart. Yet when resolve weakens in the face of bad news it helps to step back far enough to view the changes in the region since the Iraq invasion. Thomas Barnett pointed to a small but telling part of the big picture in his 2005 book when he analyzed the problem of huge numbers of unemployed Muslim youth in the Middle East:
[. . .] there's no reason to assume that the only outcomes to such pressures are either increased authoritarianism or failed states leading to large-scale instability. [ . . .]

Another logical response to the Middle Eastern youth bulge is actually facilitated by the U.S. decision to invade and occupy Iraq: job creation. [. . .] foreign direct investment flows into the region since the invasion are close to doubling in volume, and a significant inflow of previously expatriated capital has begun. Stock markets grew significantly across the region in 2004, rising over 30 percent and adding almost half a trillion dollars in capitalization.

Why have not only regional but also global investors become so suddenly bullish on the Middle East? Investors are willing to take risks so long as they see major powers such as the United States being committed to regional security -- and despite the difficulties [. . .] America's firm commitment to following through on its takedown of Saddam Hussein's regime sent exactly that signal.
Maybe this war would be easier to understand for the naysayers (the sincere ones among them) if they thought in terms of Pick Up Sticks rather than the game of Chess. Pick Up Sticks is a terribly frustrating game for players with shaky resolve.

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