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Bush's Troop Surge, The 'Gamble' That Paid Off

By late 2006, with vicious sectarian violence wreaking havoc throughout Iraq, the old "well, it was a lot worse under Saddam" rationalization for Green Zone ineptitude had worn thin. Peace tended to come to Baghdad neighborhoods by default — after they had been purged of Sunnis by Shiite death squads, or rid of Shiites by Sunni militias. And American soldiers were endangered by both the increasingly sophisticated weaponry of their enemies and the unimaginative polices of their own promotion-eying officers.

Here, then, is where The Gamble, Thomas Ricks' follow-up to Fiasco, his 2006 chronicle — and denunciation — of mismanagement in the first three years of the Iraq war, begins. The "gamble" in Ricks' new title refers to George Bush and Gen. David Petraeus' ferociously debated counterinsurgency plan, known as the "troop surge" of 2007-2008. With this latest book, Ricks — the Washington Post Pentagon correspondent — brings his comprehensive and penetrating history of the Iraq war up to date.

Petraeus is The Gamble's nominal hero. Appointed by Bush to change U.S. strategy in a war that "[made] Vietnam look like a cakewalk," according to retired Air Force Gen. Charles Wald, Petraeus asked for and was begrudgingly granted additional combat brigades. But the most thought-provoking character to emerge from Ricks' story is Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, who, as Petraeus' immediate subordinate, was responsible for the day-to-day functioning of the surge.

As commander of the 4th Infantry Division during the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003, Odierno sustained heavy criticism (notably in Fiasco) for leading a reckless and abusive operation. In fall 2006, as he prepared for another deployment to Iraq, Odierno came to understand that a U.S. defeat would be seen as having occurred on his watch — anathema to a West Point-trained three-star.

When Petraeus came to Baghdad with his new counterinsurgency strategy, Odierno saw an opportunity to end the war's downward spiral. Indeed, such is the nature of Odierno's conversion from "kill and capture" to "classic counterinsurgency" commander that The Gamble might well be retitled The Education of Ray Odierno: One Man's Story of Adaptation and Blossoming Open-Mindedness in the Slums of Baghdad.

Throughout The Gamble, Ricks lets his own expertise and access to the American military shine. He introduces the enormous, multinational cast of characters — military, political, academic, civilian — who formulated the principles of counterinsurgency theory, and he provides maddening examples of the "clumsy micromanagement" and "blustery incompetence" that Petraeus and company were tasked with fixing.

On March 20, the U.S. will begin its seventh year in Iraq. Though Ricks gives the surge an academic grade of "solid incomplete," one senses that it is an assessment made with hope, not frustration — especially as America prepares for withdrawal and the transfer of power in the country. "After it has become conventional wisdom that the surge worked, at least tactically," Ricks writes, "[it is easy to forget] how audacious a venture it was." It's an audacity, the author implies, that an independent Iraq — and the American military — will need for decades more to come.

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Simon Maxwell Apter
Simon Maxwell Apter is assistant editor at Lapham's Quarterly, where he also runs the Web site. His commentaries and reviews have appeared in The Nation, The Guardian, The American Prospect, and the San Francisco Chronicle. He is also a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post.