Tom Ricks' new book The Gamble, his second book on the Iraq war, is a remarkable contrast to his first, Fiasco, which was almost as depressing as the war itself. The Gamble is principally about General David Petraeus, the "surge," and the changes in strategy and tactics that have turned around the war in Iraq -- at least for the moment. There is so much great reporting and succinct analysis in this book that it's hard to know where to begin. But here are some of the points that stay in my mind:
- The Rumsfeld/Pace Pentagon really had no strategy in Iraq, except basing US troops away from population centers and sallying forth to chase the bad guys, no matter the consequences for the Iraqi populace, who lived in a sort of no-man's land.
- One key to re-setting strategy were the successful (though off-doctrine) counter-insurgency efforts of two innovative U.S. Army officers, McMaster and McFarland, in Tal Afar and Ramadi. They both dealt effectively with local tribal leaders, secured the local population, and saw violence decline dramatically. That was long before the surge, and their approaches were studied carefully by Petraeus and others.
- The push to change strategy and military leadership in Iraq came from forces outside the Pentagon and the joint chiefs -- it was lead by a motley crew of think tankers, colonels like McMaster and McFarland, a key retired general, the number two commander in Iraq (actually undermining his boss) and Petraeus. They eventually persuaded Bush and key figures in the administration (Cheney, but not Rumsfeld or Pace) that strategy had to change.
Ricks is too experienced a journalist to argue that it's game over; in fact, he argues that the Iraqi political situation is still headed for major upheavals. At the same time, he is a deep admirer of Petraeus and the men and women who re-wrote a U.S. strategy and, far more difficult, hammered it in place despite the depressed morale among the US troops in Iraq and outright hostility in the US Congress. The Gamble is really a great work of journalism about that most American of traits -- determination and ingenuity in the face of enormous challenges. It's a painful story but, in the end, a very rewarding one.