In Fiasco: The Military Adventure in Iraq,
Washington Post reporter Thomas E. Ricks uses the certainty
of a Pulitzer Prize winner to pass judgment on President George W.
Bush’s administration for bringing on the Iraq War and then promptly
losing it. In the end, Ricks determines that America’s best chance
for claiming success is interminable occupation and insurrection in
Iraq and its worst nightmare a modern-day Saladin riding out of an
apocalyptic flame to settle an unsatisfied twelfth-century Muslim
score with weapons of mass destruction. Somewhere in the middle is
defeat and disgrace.
Ricks uses Fiasco’s 439 pages to mount
wickedly precise attacks on the Bush administration’s conduct of the
Iraqi war. The book follows his thirty-month campaign of hard shots
at Mr. Bush in the Washington Post for his reluctance to
admit there is a rampaging insurgency in Iraq. Ultimately Ricks
takes his best shot and the elephant still gets away, leaving this
reader wondering how an entire presidential administration could be
so stupid, unless there was some far more sinister plot lurking in
the murk at Foggy Bottom.
In Fiasco’s chaotic world, the clueless
generals in the five-sided Puzzle Palace get hijacked early on by an
oily gang of Republican elitists with an agenda suspiciously similar
to that of a previous administration. At the top of the
conspirators’ list is the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s despotic
regime in Iraq; standing in their way a handful of sage generals.
Under the mesmerizing influence of
ultra-conservative Defense Department hardliners Paul Wolfowitz and
Richard Perle, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld rids the
Pentagon of the high command’s recalcitrant generals and replaces
them with mediocre officers. In Fiasco’s twisted world, it
makes perfect sense: something has to be done to rein in the
reluctant generals and getting rid of the best of them is the way to
In spite of cautiously reasoned advice from the
remaining baleful generals and prescient colonels, Mr. Bush launches
his inadequate legions into Iraq. In six weeks the campaign is
nearly over, Iraq is deemed free. Confidence reigns for about six
months. Then the administration’s wild optimism is dampened by the
discovery that Operation Iraqi Freedom has triggered a war between
theocracies that has been alternately simmering and boiling for
Led by the deaf, dumb, and blind, the entire
effort falters. In less than a year, the inept Coalition Provisional
Authority Bush created to rule Iraq is trapped inside an
impenetrable green zone in the middle of Baghdad, watching its
instant empire crumble under the guns of merciless Muslim martyrs.
Ricks uses the situation to thoroughly baste the Bush administration
over the giant smoking holes that used to be Iraq.
Fiasco might have earned more credibility
with some readers had Ricks consulted with military analysts like
Andy Bacevich, the military scholar Robert M. Citino recently called
a “bulldog” thinker in this journal (2006.07.01).
In The New American Militarism, Bacevich determines that the
rest of the world hates the United States simply because most people
reject “the notion of perpetual American dominance.” Bacevich’s
reasoned explanation might have rung a bell if Ricks had stepped
outside his own polarized view for another opinion.
Fiasco charges that everything bad in
Baghdad is symptomatic of American imperialism—badly disguised as
inept adventurism—conducted by an army of sycophants. Saying this
may not be a stretch in many mouths, but Ricks’s supporting
“evidence” is often wild or presumptuous speculation. Throughout his
book, Ricks assumes the enemy is simply reacting to American
ineptitude without a plan of its own. Nowhere does he credit the
cunning and diabolical inventiveness of the Islamic fundamentalists
who blew up high-value American targets all over the world for
twenty years before Bush intervened. Arguing about linkage between
Saddam’s Iraq and the “Global War on Terror” at this juncture will
not settle the question whether that intervention was the right
decision or not. It is all part of Bush’s war. In the meantime,
Ricks never makes clear whether he is warning the reader that the
conclusions he draws in Fiasco could materialize or agonizing
over the fact that they already have.
Ricks is always kinder and gentler to those who
agree with him, but he stays on target with everyone nonetheless.
The book is based on hundreds of interviews with major and minor
witnesses who apparently—and often complicitously—participated in a
sinister scheme to bushwhack Saddam Hussein’s regime with a lethal
dose of Joint Direct Attack Munitions before introducing democracy.
Thirteen years ago, a Croatian diplomat characterized American
foreign policy as “bomb now, think later.” Ricks validates that
assessment with pointed and precisely choreographed testimony.
Too bad Fiasco’s belabored conclusions
become obvious so soon. A little intrigue would have been nice.
After a litany of testimonials by self-immolating converts, Ricks
offers a final gloomy scenario in which Saladin rides out of the
twelfth century through apocalyptic fires to take on the current Mr.
Bush in an ultimate nuclear duel to decide whose god is greater.
Even if Ricks has gilded the lily and the
witnesses he depends on have seasoned their recollections with bile,
Fiasco is a compelling indictment of every motive, purpose,
and mission of the United States government in Iraq for the
forty-two months it has been dropping our nation’s children and
treasure into the cauldron there. Ricks doesn’t take prisoners.
The Vietnam War was the last time a controversy
boiled over like the tempest cooking in the ancient Mesopotamian
desert where Ricks is stirring the pot. His revelations become even
more relevant with the publication of fellow Pulitzer Prize
recipient and colleague Bob Woodward’s latest book, State of
Denial: Bush at War, Part III.
Perhaps not since the last Crusade has a dynamic duo argued so
convincingly that the divisions between peoples and faiths are
insurmountable. Both reporters have already conceded to the
chimerical practitioners of Fourth Generation warfare now igniting
World War III. Neither allows that some people still believe
Americans are better than that. If their prognostications ultimately
prove true, Bush’s failures could be fatal to American foreign
policy for generations to come.
In Ricks’s world, those leading Mr. Bush into
Iraq are a select committee that began its conspiracy in January
1998 when the Project for the New American Century Group called upon
former President Bill Clinton for diplomacy by other means to incite
regime change in Iraq. Ricks describes the assemblage as an
“advocacy group” of Republican elitists led by the sinister Mr.
Wolfowitz, a former Defense Department appointee in the elder Mr.
Bush’s Cabinet, a career military officer, and scholar who presumed
to urge President Bill Clinton to take action in Iraq before America
embarked on “a course of weakness and drift.”
Fiasco identifies all the usual suspects.
Bush’s brigades of opponents will wallow in “I told you so” moments
while they turn the pages. If Ricks were writing fiction instead of
knee-jerk non-fiction, he couldn’t have picked more poignant scenes
to drive home his carefully honed attacks on Bush’s Iraq policy.
There is never any doubt he thinks the war is dumb, its execution
grievously flawed, and the people charged with implementing its
malformed strategies invariably stupid. But Ricks ultimately indicts
a bad policy without explaining why it exists. One by one, he
identifies and castigates the culprits. Through it all, the only
thing on President Bush’s mind is a dogged certainty that America
needs to get rid of that Saddam fella before he gets hold of some of
them “nucular” bombs Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Wolfowitz are always
To put a face on the enemy, Ricks goes to a
Sunni-dominated neighborhood in Baghdad where he encounters Mohammed
Abdullah, a wise Sunni man defiantly insisting in front of his
neighbors that he will fight the Americans trampling his honor. Mr.
Abdullah, in the best tradition of Ali Baba, remembers the invasion
of Hulagu in 1258, when the grandson of Genghis Khan sacked the city
and ended Iraq’s glorious reign. There is “a hint of humiliation in
his words,” Ricks notes, apparently scribbling it all down.
Down the street at 11:30 a.m., it is 103 degrees
in dangerous Sunniville as Ricks and his armed American patrol are
creeping up on the Rami Institute of Autistic and Slow Learners.
Under a spreading lime tree, the men decide to visit the unfortunate
children. They leave their weapons outside the school in order not
to alarm the little tykes. The soldiers linger for thirty minutes
before leaving, well pleased with themselves. Ricks again manages to
scribble it all down. It is a scene so sublime that one soldier
decides it will end in the patrol leader’s court-martial for being
so dumb in front of a Washington Post reporter. Little do the
soldiers know that Mohammed Abdullah’s watching neighbors are having
unkind, prurient thoughts. Only Ricks knows … and records it all.
Despite his transparent efforts to demonize Mr.
Bush and his advisors with disingenuous objectivity, Ricks’s best
pages resonate with apt (if sometimes overconfident) warnings big
and small. Whether the reader believes Bush and his minions are
well-intentioned idiots or the lackeys of a conniving elitist
conspiracy, the reader only gets Hobson’s choice. Ricks leaves no
room for other conclusions.
Fiasco left this reader nearly convinced
that the United States has a government out of control in a nation
so complacent it can’t see that its foreign policy is on an express
train to doom. Despite Ricks’s unabashed pessimism, Fiasco is
a fascinating read and a remarkably scary one as well. The reader
will definitely go away with hackles in the air. Stephen King, eat
your heart out!
St. Charles, MO