Philip Graham, who published the Washington Post before his better half, Katharine, took over in the early 1960s, is credited with the aphorism, “Journalism is the first draft of history.” But that first draft is never detached from the events it relates. It becomes part of our history — preserving, among other things, a sometimes priceless record of what George Orwell called “the fashionable bunk of the moment.”
If there were a Pulitzer Prize for outstanding susceptibility to “fashionable bunk.” it would go hands-down to Bob Woodward of the Washington Post for his four trendy (mostly non-fiction) novels about the administration of George W. Bush. But his Post colleague Thomas Ricks, author of the Iraq war classic Fiasco, would deserve an honorable mention. His latest book — The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006–2008 — is better than the typical Woodward book in several ways. First, he does not try to color his narrative with the novelist’s omniscience of the inner feelings and motives of the characters, the most cloying and silly aspect of Woodward’s books. Second, he usually offers some indication of where he got his information. And third, he often presents his own opinions as his own opinions, a refreshing departure from today’s journalism.
Following the Woodward method, Ricks interviewed enough people that he can quote somebody saying pretty much whatever he wants said in support of his narrative, and he puts those who gave him the greatest access in the most favorable light. Ricks had surprising access to a lot of senior people. Gen. Jack Keane, one of the signal proponents of the surge, reports being surprised at how much information Ricks already had by the time of their interview.
But in the absence of archival research, this mountain of quotations fails to communicate so many critical aspects of what happened –andof how decisions were made — that it would risk incoherence if it had to stand on its own as history. Ricks solves that problem by weaving his reportage around the most familiar propositions of the conventional media narrative: 1) Rumsfeld and his senior generals stubbornly refused to implement a proper counterinsurgency strategy and nearly caused a disaster; 2) the surge has succeeded militarily but failed politically; 3) democracy is a pipe dream in Iraq, where “lots of little Saddams” have replaced the one we toppled; 4) the Iraq war has been most of all a victory for Iran; and 5) Obama will be fighting the Iraq war long into the future, with an uncertain outcome. Each of these propositions is seriously flawed if not completely wrong.
TIMING THE SURGE One of the principal myths of the Iraq war rests on the tendency, which Americans have shown in all their wars, to believe that a flawlessly executed war is a reasonable thing to expect and that anything short of perfection is evidence of incompetence or malfeasance. Donald Rumsfeld and the senior military command during the 2003–06 period (mainly Gens. Dick Meyers, Peter Pace, John Abizaid, Mike Sanchez, and John Casey) are commonly criticized for stubbornly ignoring the evidence that their strategy was failing, compounding the initial error of invading with too few troops. By the end of 2006, according to such critics as General Keane, the prevailing strategy of a light footprint, targeted counter-terror operations, and gradual transition to Iraqi control was leading America toward defeat in Iraq.
With characteristic hyperbole, Ricks claims that “in the fall of 2006, Jack Keane effectively became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.” Keane sees his role more modestly, of course, but he and the American Enterprise Institute’s Fred Kagan certainly had an important part in pushing for a new strategy. The Gamble’s disjointed narrative elides the fact that the National Security Council staff was already well advanced in its own review of strategy options, committed to rescuing the situation in Iraq.