The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008

The Gamble:

General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008

Author: Thomas E. Ricks

Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated, 2009

Thomas E. Ricks is The Washington Post's senior Pentagon correspondent, where he has covered the U.S. military since 2000. Until the end of 1999 he held the same beat at The Wall Street Journal, where he was a reporter for seventeen years. A member of two Pulitzer Prize- winning teams for national reporting, he has reported on U.S. military activities in Somalia, Haiti, Korea, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Kuwait, Turkey, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

In his equally powerful and illuminating new book, "The Gamble," Ricks, who covered the military for The Washington Post from 2000 to 2008, takes up the story where he left off in "Fiasco" - #1 New York Times bestseller. This volume recounts how Iraq came close to unraveling in 2006, how the Bush administration finally conceded it was off course, and how a new set of commanders , headed by Gen. David H. Petraeus and Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno , began putting a radically different strategy in place.

That strategy, often referred to as the surge, not only involved the addition of some 30,000 troops but also, more important, featured new counterinsurgency tactics (which made the protection of Iraqi civilians a priority) and a new realpolitik approach to dealing with insurgents.

While the author praises General Petraeus's success in helping the military regain the strategic initiative in Iraq as an "extraordinary achievement" , reducing violence and reviving "American prospects in the war" , he also reminds us that the surge was meant to "create a breathing space that would then enable Iraqi politicians to find a way forward," and that that outcome is still unclear. "The best grade" the surge campaign can be given, he says, "is a solid incomplete."

This book went to press before the recent elections in Iraq, which largely took place peacefully and which appear to have strengthened the country's more secular and centrist parties, and the author warns that the United States goal of achieving "sustainable security" there may still prove elusive , or at the very least require a long-term American presence. Although Thomas E. Ricks writes that he is saddened by the war's "obvious costs to Iraqis and Americans" and by "the incompetence and profligacy with which the Bush administration conducted much of it," he adds that he has come to the conclusion that "we can't leave."

As Ricks sees it, the regional and global repercussions of failure in Iraq would be far more dire than those incurred by the United States withdrawal from Vietnam  ranging, in this case, from a full-blown civil war to "a spreading war in the Middle East," from a stronger Iran presiding over a Finlandized Iraq to the rise of a brutal new Iraq led by "younger, tougher versions" of Saddam Hussein, who "by the time of the invasion was an aging, almost toothless tiger."

This volume leaves the reader with an understanding of the hard-won military dynamics of the surge and the professionalism and competence of the generals who designed and executed it. But the dominant impression left by "The Gamble" and "Fiasco" is one of the devastating consequences of an ill-conceived and ill-planned war , an unnecessary war of choice, waged with too few troops and no overarching strategic plan, a war that was going badly but was allowed to continue along the same unfruitful path for three years by a White House "in denial" about its downward trend. It is a war, Thomas E. Ricks writes, that may well become "America's longest war, passing the American Revolution and even the Vietnam War."

"No matter how the U.S. war in Iraq ends," he writes at the conclusion of this important and chilling book, "it appears that today we may be only halfway through it. That is, the quiet consensus emerging among many people who have served in Iraq is that we likely will have American soldiers engaged in combat in Iraq until at least 2015 , which would put us now at about the midpoint of the conflict."

In other words, he adds, "the events for which the Iraq war will be remembered probably have not yet happened."


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