Commentary Magazine


Tom Ricks, Standing Firm on a Fallacy

Over at, the web site highlights this recent statement by Tom Ricks, one of its contributors and author of The Gamble: General Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq 2006-2008.

I think that invading Iraq preemptively on false premises, at the time that we already were at war elsewhere, was probably the biggest mistake in the history of American foreign policy. Everything we do in Iraq is the fruit of that poisoned tree. But I think also that there are no good answers in Iraq, just less bad ones. I think staying in Iraq is immoral, but I think leaving immediately would be even more so, because of the risk it runs of leaving Iraq to a civil war that could go regional.

There’s a lot of silliness and sloppy thinking in these four sentences. To begin with: arguably Iraq would rank among the bigger mistakes in the history of American foreign policy if we had lost the war. It’s worth adding, I suppose, that we would have if we had followed the council of such informed voices as…. Tom Ricks, who, I think it’s fair to surmise, opposed President Bush’s surge. In January 2007, for example, Ricks said this in an interview:

The problem here… is that two aspects have characterized the American approach in Iraq over the past three years.  One has been official over-optimism in which institutions fail to recognize the basic reality on the ground.  The second is a rush to failure with Iraqi forces.  I think the concern of a lot of people in the military right now — especially officers who have a tour or two in Iraq — is that the new plan combines both those flaws:  official optimism about what Iraqis are willing to do, and a rush to failure in pushing Iraqis too soon to do too much.

These concerns appear to be largely Ricks’s own. And even a year after the surge was announced and progress was undeniable, Ricks appeared on “Countdown with Keith Olbermann” insisting that the “theory of the surge [improving security in order to promote political reconciliation] is now demonstrably false.” In fact, political reconciliation has taken place; the theory of the surge has been vindicated, not subverted.

Fortunately, the surge went forward and a war that was on the verge of being lost is now, by almost every metric, succeeding. As I pointed out last week, U.S. combat deaths in Iraq have flattened at the lowest level since the war began six years ago and Iraq is now a functioning democracy, a vastly more peaceful and whole nation than it was.

So to still insist, as Ricks does, that Iraq is a bigger mistake than, say, losing the war in Viet Nam, is evidence of a rigid and ideological mind at work, one that decided long ago the Iraq war was a failure and has remained impervious to evidence (including heartening evidence) ever since. None of us knows for sure what the future holds for Iraq. But we do know what the present situation is: Iraq is a self-governing nation, at peace with its neighbors, and the birthplace of the Sunni revolt against bin Ladenism (a revolt which has thankfully spread beyond Iraq). It is a nation which rose up against Shia militia and now acts as a counterweight to Iran. One of the most destabilizing figures in the Middle East, Saddam Hussein, is dead and gone. And Iraq is a country on the mend.

One can argue that the war wasn’t worth it, in large part because of the opportunity costs. One can also argue that the war was worth the sacrifice and that as time goes on, it will become increasingly clear that it has advanced our national security interests. But to continue to argue, as Ricks does, that it is “the biggest mistake in the history of American foreign policy” is, I think, evidence of a closed, inflexible mind.

Beyond that, to say that “staying in Iraq is immoral” is an example of a journalist disfiguring the meaning of words. Immoral means “deliberately violating accepted principles of right and wrong; contrary to conscience or the divine law; evil; morally objectionable behavior; acts in violation of moral law.” Now one may argue that staying in Iraq is counterproductive, though that argument seems unsustainable. Even so harsh a war critic as Barack Obama has rejected it. So, apparently, has Ricks himself. For him to therefore argue that it is “immoral” for the United States to maintain a presence in Iraq, in order to keep that nation from descending into violence and chaos, is ludicrous. What would have been immoral was leaving Iraq prematurely, allowing it to become a Mesopotamian killing field.

Tom Ricks, like other reporters-turned-authors on the Iraq war, appears to have been radicalized by it. It has distorted his analytical abilities. Fortunately progress in Iraq continues apace, even as Ricks and others remain stuck in the past, repeating slogans that long ago ceased to apply.

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