One Ricks Makes a Wrong

by , May 26, 2009

Thomas E. Ricks, erstwhile journalist and author of The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008, has become the embodiment of the warmongery’s moral and intellectual duplicity.

Ricks’ most recent 15 minutes of fame involved an appearance at a FireDogLake.com book forum. In reply to a commenter who asked if "more deaths in Iraq are worth it," Ricks said, "I think staying in Iraq is immoral. But I think that leaving Iraq is even more immoral." In a nutshell, Ricks framed the core fallacy in the long-war philosophy: that two wrongs can make a right. This theme dominates Ricks’ work these days. The Gamble and the media blitz that accompanied its debut were dazzling examples of what Voltaire was talking about when he said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

Ricks continues to exalt Gen. David Petraeus, who he has known since Petraeus was a colonel or a light colonel (Ricks says he can’t remember which). Ricks became King David’s chief legend-maker when the Iraq surge began in January 2007. In a radio interview that month on WNYC in New York, Ricks described Petraeus as a "fascinating character" and "just about the best general in the Army." He specifically cited Petraeus’ "very successful first tour" as commander in Mosul after the fall of Baghdad, but he made little mention of the fact that the general tamed the city by handing out guns and bribes, and that months after Petraeus left Mosul the chief of police defected and the place went up for grabs again. (Mosul remains a major trouble spot to this day, and Petraeus is still arming and bribing militants.)

By August 2007 Ricks was waxing giddy over Petraeus’ persona. On NPR he called the general "a force of nature" and gushed as he described the sight of Petraeus engaging in pushup contests with privates less than half his age. A veteran Pentagon reporter like Ricks should have seen the pushup prank for the used chicken feed it was, but by then Ricks was already sleeping in the general’s field cot.

Freud would have a field day with some of Ricks’ latest disclosures. In The Gamble, Ricks flat out admits that Petraeus deceived Congress (and betrayed the country) by telling the House Foreign Affairs Committee he aimed to create "conditions that would allow our soldiers to disengage.” Petraeus’ plan all along, Ricks confesses, was "not to bring the war to a close, but simply to show enough genuine progress that the American people would be willing to stick with it even longer." How does Ricks view this Promethean abuse of power and trust? "The surge was the right step to take," he says. It was "the least wrong move in a misconceived war."

The "least wrong move" mantra might carry Petraeus’ water if Ricks backed it up with a sound argument, but his justifications are a logic lizard that consumes itself from the tail forward. Ricks warns that if we leave Iraq, things will almost certainly go back to the way they were under Saddam Hussein. But he also asserts that things are worse in Iraq than they were before we invaded because "Saddam was kind of an aging, toothless tiger" and "wasn’t a threat to anybody." So we have to stay to keep things from getting better.

Ricks also echoes the ghost story that if we leave Iraq, a regional war is a "live possibility." None of the countries in that region are capable of projecting conventional force much beyond their own borders, and the only nation in that part of the world capable of nuking anyone else is Israel. Terrorist organizations are already in place, and we’ve seen what they can do, which is nothing compared to the havoc we have wrought with our preemptive delusions.

Ricks judges that it was "quite noble" of surge proponents like Ambassador Ray Crocker who "allegedly opposed the initial invasion of Iraq" to "step into something they thought was a mistake." As if deliberately perpetuating a mistake could ever be a noble thing.

Ricks has evolved into such an incorrigible bull-feather merchant he’s taken to lashing out at anyone who presents a viewpoint different from the one he and his masters are shilling. He decries refutations of his rhetoric as "personal" attacks, and he harangues his critics with angry e-mails. At the FireDogLake forum, a guest asked Ricks to comment about criticisms of Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, our new commander in the Bananastans, made recently by my colleague Gareth Porter. Ricks replied, "If Gareth Porter is reporting it, then it’s probably wrong. ‘Nuff said?" ("’Nuff said" is one of those macho expressions guys like Ricks use when they want to sound like Ralph Peters.)

I am familiar enough with Porter’s methods to know he practices sound journalism. Ricks, on the other hand, has succumbed to the access poisoning that plagues most of the mainstream Washington media. He spent decades courting inside sources. They have now become the movers and shakers of American hegemony, and he is their court stenographer. The most blatant example of this was his "transformation" of Gen. Ray Odierno from the raging ox whose incompetence was the main cause of the insurgency to the genius who "conceived and executed" the surge strategy "by himself in Baghdad." The sources of this revelation were Odierno’s subordinates and mentors and Odierno himself.

In response to an Antiwar.com piece criticizing Ricks and his colleagues at the Center for a New American Security, Ricks growled: "This is what happens when someone writes about an area about which they know absolutely freaking nothing." What Thomas E. Ricks knows about national defense he learned from a flock of tank thinkers and Pentagon desk rangers who don’t know their centers of gravity from their elbows. If Ricks limits himself to writing what he knows about, we’ll never hear from him again.

Let’s hope that happens real soon.

Read more by Jeff Huber