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How Bad Can the Iraq Situation Get? An Expert Weighs In.

An Interview with Thomas E. Ricks


With Iraq's Sunni insurgents taking over increasing amounts of territory, and with splits among Shiite factions in the country, I called up Thomas E. Ricks, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who became well known for his work covering the war in Iraq. Over the course of numerous newspaper articles and two books, Ricks traced the conflict from its beginning all the way until the American withdrawal. Currently the National Security advisor at the New America Foundation, he also writes the blog The Best Defense for Foreign Policy magazine.

Over the course of our conversation, we talked about the possiblity of a regional war, Iran's role in the conflict, and why he thinks Joe Biden's absence is a good thing for Iraq.

Isaac Chotiner: I just wanted to start by asking you about a tweet of yours I saw yesterday. I will read it: “What if everything that has happened in Iraq since 2003 is just preamble to the main event?” Can you just talk a little bit more about that? 

Thomas E. Ricks: The background of that thought is that there consistently has been a failure of imagination in the American approach to Iraq. It's all encompassed by the testimony given by Paul Wolfowitz down at the Pentagon during the runup to the war, in which he was asked a question about occupation or something like that and he said something like, "Hard to imagine that we’d need more troops for occupation than we did for invasion. Hard to imagine that Saddam would be doing X, Y, Z." And that failure of imagination haunts me and makes me think, as we consider the situation today, that we should step back and use our imaginations about different scenarios. I was also thinking there about a failure of my own imagination. After the surge I thought we should keep a small residual force of US Troops in Iraq, maybe 10,000 or 15,000. And I think my failure of imagination was that I didn’t see a scenario like this in which we have an Iraqi government we don’t like being attacked by a force we don’t like. If we had troops in Iraq now, I think we’d be in a horrible position of using them on behalf of Maliki in a way we don’t want to.

IC: Let me just ask you about that because, as you know, one of the critiques of the administration has been that if we had this force there, this could have all been prevented.

TR: That’s nonsense. If we had the force there, what we’d be doing now is facing this question: Do we retreat ignominiously and get the troops out of the country, or do we use them in a way—or do we find ourselves forced to use them—in a way we don’t want to, supporting Maliki without reservation? Or do they just sit there inside their camp gates and everybody mocks the Americans for doing nothing? So I think by not having troops on the ground there it greatly simplified the issues for the United States and actually gave the United States more leverage rather than less, because clearly Obama does not simply want to act on Maliki’s behalf. I think Obama sees Maliki more at fault here than he does the Sunnis.

IC: This may sound slightly Machiavellian, but as you were mentioning about leverage, now we can say that the precondition for us doing something is a different government.

TR: Exactly. And I think, that’s exactly why I was surprised how quickly the Obama administration arrived at a position and implemented it. Now you may not like the position. I actually think it was a pretty smart position, and I thought the process was much better than I had seen it in previous foreign policy crises. Now this may be because Joe Biden was preoccupied with the World Cup. Biden’s absence may have actually made the process work better. And I’m serious there. I mean, remember Joe Biden was the supposed Iraq czar. He’s just gone radio silence on Iraq and Obama’s been handling it with no words from Biden. And I think the policy has been hammered out quicker, faster, and also probably better than it would have been with Biden.

IC: Is there something specific you think Biden has screwed up?

TR: I agree with Bob Gates: pretty much everything he’s touched for the last 20 years in foreign policy. I think he’s consistently been wrong on Iraq, was against the ’91 war, for the ’03 war, was against the surge, and for Maliki. I mean he’s zero for four on the major Iraq policy decisions. 

IC: Well I don’t need a follow up question to that. Do you know Maliki at all? Did you ever have any dealings with him?

TR: No. I’ve never done any dealings with him.

IC: You must know people who have though. 

TR: Yeah, I do. 

IC: And what’s your general sense of him?

TR: A small-minded, suspicious-minded man who has never run anything and still hasn’t. Who sees the Iraqi situation in sectarian terms and who basically blew it the minute he started attacking Sunni tribes in the west of Iraq.

IC: Two critiques have been made of the administration. The one we talked about earlier was the residual force, but the second was going all in on Maliki. I mean do you think that was where we made a huge mistake?

TR: Yeah. In September 2010 I’m told that we basically mulled the situation, heard the advice of some American officials saying that we should just cut ourselves loose from Maliki, and instead the administration decided, "no, we may not like Maliki, but he’s the only guy we’ve got so we’ve gotta back him."

IC: And you think there could have been an alternative.

TR: I don’t know. I think we should have explored one. 

IC: Yeah.

TR: But you know in many ways, the Obama people are handling a situation they didn’t create. A lot of this is all fruit of the poisoned tree. Maliki is the result of a botched political process that began under Bremer. We went in and said, "we’re going to hold national American-style elections, one man, one vote." And the country had three profoundly different groups who are at each other’s throats. It was insane. At that point, when we wanted one man, one vote, we turned control of that country over to Iran and that’s why it appalls me when you see Cheney and Wolfowitz and Elliott Abrams saying the Obama administration blew it. No, the Obama administration was trying to clean up the mess these guys made, and Maliki results directly from that mess. We should have grown the politics slowly. You start with town councils, district councils, then you go to provincial elections. And then you go, a couple of years later, to national elections. And that way you grow a new generation. Instead, we basically thrust the old class of exiles into power. Maliki is a low-grade Kerensky.

IC: Yeah, and Kerensky himself couldn't do much.

TR: He was more of a democrat than these guys. 

IC: Then let me ask you about the Iran stuff. Do you have any hope that the U.S. and Iran can work together here? Do you have any optimism on that front?

TR: No, because I think Iran has played the long game very well and in 2002 and 2003, they faced the ugly prospect of having American surrogate states, American supported states, on their western border and eastern border. And they have managed, through diplomacy and through the Revolutionary Guard's actions, to ensure that that didn’t happen. I’m told that they basically went around and threatened a lot of Iraqi politicians in recent years. "You mess with us, and you may leave with an accident." I’m told that they paid a lot of people a lot of money to ensure that the Status of Forces Agreement would never pass the Iraqi parliament. And I think Iran has achieved its goals. It doesn’t want to control Iraq. And if it winds up with control of a Shiite rump state and all of Iraq’s—or most of Iraq’s—non-Kurdish oil, that’s not a bad deal for Iran. You wind up with a Shia-stan extending from eastern Baghdad the whole way down to Kuwait and perhaps eastern Saudi Arabia, which is predominantly Shiite. And that’s not a bad calculation for Iran. That’s more than they ever hoped to get from the Iran-Iraq war. I mean if you can control Baghdad to Basra, and the possibility of extending that state down the western shore of the Persian Gulf, that’s a great strategic gain. So I think what we did in Iraq was knock down the bulwark that stopped the western expansion of Persian power, and now we’re seeing that play out.

IC: Does all this alter what you think the United States should do now? You seem cognizant of what this will mean for Iran. 

TR: Our strategic interest is that there not be a major war in the Middle East between proxies of Saudi Arabia and proxies of Iran. That is the course we are on now. The question is how do we avoid that from happening.

IC: Right. And what's the answer to that?

TR: I think the answer is to encourage Iraq to arrive at some sort of federal system. Now, Biden’s people are walking around saying, "boy, Joe was right." No. Joe was wrong, because the only way you’re going to get to that federal system is the way they’re doing it now. It couldn’t be imposed from outside, it had to be—it has to be—fought out on the ground because in Iraq there’s still a major question. The Shias’ attitude is, "we’re the biggest group inside Iraq, we should run the country." The Sunnis’ attitude is, "we’re the biggest group in the region, we should run the country." And they have decided to fight out this question on the ground.

IC: Do you have a sense of who at the Pentagon and who at the White House is really making policy here? You said Biden’s sort of been sidelined. 

TR: Well, I don’t know what’s gone on inside, but certainly Biden has not been the public voice on Iraq that he was a couple years ago. I think you have a U.S. military that’s very cautious, and I think you have a president operating on fairly well pronounced principles. He does not like dictators. He doesn’t see Maliki as our guy. And he thinks Maliki has made a series of bad decisions that have led to the current situation, so you don’t want to install your own puppet, but I think you do want to withhold most of your aid to anybody in Iraq until you get people who are saying, "let’s work out some sort of bargain, some sort of compromise," and I think you do anything you can that helps contain this mess and lessens the chance of a general war in the Middle East.

IC: And the general war would mean what? That other actors in addition to Iran would start to take more of an active role in what’s going on there?

TR: Yeah. I think you could see fighting, all the way from Beirut to western Iraq. General war also might be things like airstrikes by one country inside another. There are rumors today that the Syrians have conducted air strikes in western Iraq against ISIS. I don’t know if they’re true or not, but once one country starts bombing, I think you could see other countries start bombing, or attacking the bombing aircraft, and then you’re kind of off to the races.

IC: What’s been your sense of how the debate has gone in Washington this time? I heard what you said about Cheney and Wolfowitz and Elliott Abrams, but I’m just curious what your take on it is.

TR: It’s a good question. I hadn’t thought about it. But as I listen to the question I’m really struck by the difference. In 2002, early 2003, the atmosphere was very fevered. And top American officials like Condi Rice were saying things that struck the panic of the American people. They were talking about nuclear weapons and mushroom clouds. They were talking about Weapons of Mass Destruction. And they themselves believed the worst case intelligence rather than the most reasonable and best-sifted intelligence. I think there was a national panic after 9/11 that was encouraged by people like President Bush and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, and I don’t see any of that now. I don’t sense a panicky atmosphere, I sense a very sober atmosphere. I’ve been really strck by in many ways how quiet the debate has been this time with the exception of these kids who are like babies who make a big mess—these guys like Cheney and Wolfowitz who make a big mess and then yell at their fathers for not cleaning it up faster.

IC: This stuff about people who supported the war the first time being told that they shouldn't weigh in: I don’t know that as a general rule it is good or helpful, but seeing some of these guys mouth off again is just enraging.

TR: Well, you know, I’m all for them having a voice, being heard, but I think that nobody’s buying it this time. And I think that’s a good thing. I think it’s a good thing for these voices to be heard and a good thing for their views to be rejected in the marketplace of ideas.

This interview has been edited and condensed.