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FIASCO by Thomas Ricks

May 5, 2010

The title of this book pretty much says where it’s coming from. Ricks, a long-time military reporter for the Washington Post, gives credit where credit is due and doesn’t fault the administration for their ideologies. Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, leading the charge to war, sincerely believed that their actions were the best thing for the country. There was no grand conspiracy or a power grab for Iraq’s oil. It was mostly just incompetence.

One might argue that any war has unforeseen circumstances, but in Iraq, many of the very basic things that could and should have been anticipated were not. The architects of the war—namely Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Cheney and Bush—repeatedly displayed a stunning hubris, lack of sound strategic military planning, lack of understanding of the region and repeated misreading of the intelligence, all which contributed to the loss of lives, global reputation and money.

Leading up to the war, it was the administration’s myopic analysis of the intelligence that led them to believe in, subsequently persuade the public, and justify the war based on three fallacies –1) that Iraq had WMDs and biological weapons, 2) that Iraq had ties to Al Qaeda and 3) that Iraq had played a role in 9/11. All of these were proven false.

After the initial invasion, the U.S.’s lack of a sound counterinsurgency strategy, a misunderstanding of the local populations, and a misappropriation of military forces toward tasks for which they were not trained allowed the war to continue on as insurgencies flared up from city to city across the country. Soldiers returning for second tours of duties encountered insurgents that were much more sophisticated than they had been the first time around. It was only the U.S. military’s superior training that allowed them to achieve victories in Fallujah and Najaf.

And although Fiasco has plenty to offer for those looking for more reason to disdain the Bush administration, what I found most interesting were the human stories. There were the goats—Ricks is rightfully harsh on Paul Bremer, Ricardo Sanchez and Dick Myers—and the tragic figures (Powell laments that for everything he dedicated to his country, he will forever be remembered for his deceptive performance before the U.N.) But the most interesting stories were those of military genius—David Petreaus’s brilliantly executed hearts and minds campaign in northern Iraq and the creative problem solving of the soldiers on the ground as they faced ever-evolving tactics from the enemy. For all the incompetency of the top U.S. leaders, the soldiers were what kept the war still winnable.

Even those who argue that the elimination of Saddam was worth the cost or those who were politically aligned with the Iraq campaign cannot honestly argue, after an examination of the facts, that on a tactical level the execution of the initial military assault and occupation was anything other than what the title suggests—a fiasco.

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