I’m please to report The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008 by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Thomas E. Ricks did not cause me nearly the heartburn as his previous work on Iraq, Fiasco (my review). Don’t misconstrue that as criticism of the author: it is the facts of the matter, not the teller of those facts that causes my blood pressure to rise.
For many reasons I opposed the war in Iraq (hence the gastric distress), but after shattering the fabric of that country — a tenuous fabric holding in check three distrustful and vengeful groups: Kurds, Shia and Sunni — I felt we had an obligation to stay the course. My mother always said: you break it, you bought it. And boy, did we break Iraq.
From shortly after the ill-conceived invasion in 2003 to the arrival of General David Petraeus in 2007, the U.S. floundered in Iraq. An insurgency was ignited, sectarian groups squared off in what for all intents was a civil war, and our military tactics only made things worse. Thousands of Americans and Iraqis died or were injured, with the numbers increasing month by month, while the futility of Washington’s “strategy” was revealed.
Eschewing the heavy-handed tactics which were not working, Petraeus and his corps commander General Odierno, and their support staffs, used the hard-won surge of five brigades of additional troops to implement a classic counter-insurgency (COIN) approach whereby the people of Iraq were viewed as the prize to be won.
Ricks rightly calls the surge a tactical success — violence and deaths were radically reduced, but not eliminated — but grades it as incomplete overall as the strategic goal of fostering political reconciliation between Iraq’s religious and ethnic groups was not achieved. In fact, by paying former Sunni insurgents to stop fighting us and overlooking the ethnic cleansing of whole neighborhoods by Shia militias, the events of 2007 really represented a somewhat unsavory gamble that could have blown up in our face at any time, and still might. Realpolitik, indeed.
It is interesting to note, too, that as the level of violence in Iraq began to come down, events in the U.S. began to overshadow public interest, notably the presidential election and financial meltdown. One shudders to think what would have happened if the shift to COIN operations had not worked and a wartime loss, divisive election and crippling recession occurred simultaneously.
Some reviewers have noted the somewhat pessimistic view of many quoted in the book that US presence in Iraq would likely continue for decades is out of step with the reality of our withdrawal in 2011. Realize this book was published early in 2009 (although the Afterword appears to have been included later in the year), and therefore it is a point in time and doubtless those interviewed were giving their best estimate at the time.
Ricks’ prose is sharp and to the point, and I’d argue the point with those reviewers who think there was a “liberal bias” showing through. Facts are facts, and Ricks sticks to the facts in his reporting but through interviews with key persons and experts all sides of the political spectrum are aired. At the risk of producing groans, I’d say it is fair and balanced. The Gamble is an important addition to understanding the events of that period and I highly recommend it.