STEVE INSKEEP, host:
A prizewinning military writer thinks President Obama will not be able to leave Iraq as soon as he'd like. Tom Ricks' latest book is "The Gamble." Like his previous book, "Fiasco," it's based on many interviews with the people who fight in Iraq. If you think the war is a disaster and the U.S. cannot leave soon enough, Ricks offers you no comfort. If you think the surge of troops lead to victory, Ricks will not comfort you, either.
As we're about to hear, his book presents the war very differently than it looks in the headlines.
If you don't mind, I'd like to begin at the end.
Mr. TOM RICKS (Author, "The Gamble," "Fiasco"): Sure.
INSKEEP: You have a much noted quote at the end of the book, which is…
Mr. RICKS: The events for which this war will be remembered have not yet happened.
INSKEEP: What does that mean?
Mr. RICKS: It's actually a thought that came from Ambassador Ryan Crocker, top diplomat in Iraq, who said it to me first in January 2008, and then when I did my last interview with him in November. The prism through which we view this war has not yet been built. We don't know how this thing comes out. So we don't know how to view this.
INSKEEP: When I hear that quote, the first thing that comes to my head is after almost six years, it's just beginning?
Mr. RICKS: I think we may just be halfway through this war. I know President Obama thinks he's going to get all troops out by the end of 2011. I don't know anybody in Baghdad who thinks that's going to happen. I think Iraq is going to change Obama more than Obama changes Iraq.
The plan the had in Baghdad last summer was for about 35,000 troops to be there for several years. General Odierno says in the book that he would like to see 35,000 troops there in the year 2015, and that would be well into what is Obama's second term.
The point is as long as you have American troops in Iraq, no matter what you call them - you can call them, you know, non-combat troops, you can call them Mouseketeers - they're going to be fighting and dying, some of them.
INSKEEP: I want to explore the implications of that. But first, to understand why the military people that you're talking with would think this way, because it's been observed from Washington and in fact it's observed in your book that the so-called surge of troops was in many ways successful. The amount of violence is down dramatically in Iraq. They're electing people. Things are happening in Iraq. Why should we not feel that the war has been concluded, whether you want to say victory or not, that it's over?
Mr. RICKS: The surge worked tactically. It improved security enormously. But it didn't succeed strategically, politically, and that was its larger goal. What you see in Iraq is a lot of people who think that Obama, by talking about getting out of Iraq quickly, is not departing from Bush but repeating Bush's mistake.
I think Bush's core mistake in many ways was persistent, unwarranted optimism about Iraq. The original U.S. war plan was to be down to 30,000 troops by September 2003. And so by Obama saying August 2010, he's very much on that same path, I think.
INSKEEP: I think that some people may be listening to this and trying to figure out where you're standing politically here. And I have a feeling it's going to be difficult for people to figure out because you've written quite critically of the war, but you're saying that the president is not right to try to get out.
Mr. RICKS: I don't know if there's a political label to be put on it. I think you can call it uncomfortable more than anything else. I do think this war was the biggest mistake in the history of American foreign policy. I think it's a tragedy. I think that George Bush's mistakes are something we're going to paying for for decades.
We don't yet understand how big a mistake this is. And I think because it was such a tragic mistake, everything that flows from it is the fruit of the poison tree. So the question is: What is the least bad solution? And I think staying in Iraq with a smaller force probably is that answer.
INSKEEP: Let's come back to Ambassador Crocker's suggestion that the most dramatic events of this war have not happened yet. I'm trying to think through the implications of that. For one thing, President Obama is hoping to get troops out of Iraq and put some of them in Afghanistan. Is that going to be practical?
Mr. RICKS: See, I don't think that's going to happen. I think by being overoptimistic about Iraq, you not only hurt yourself in Iraq, you also hurt your effort in Afghanistan. I think the most likely outcome in Iraq is that it's not going to be an American ally. It's not going to be a democracy. It's going to have a surprising level of violence, and it's probably going to be an ally of Iran. And it's probably going to be ruled by some sort of dictator, some sort of little Saddam.
INSKEEP: Sounds nightmarish. But if you're the president of the United States, can't you make a difficult decision to say keeping troops in there has done all the good it's likely to do? We need to get out and approach this in a different way. And whoever rules Iraq is going to rule Iraq.
Mr. RICKS: I actually think that's where a lot of Americans are at. The problem is a strong man ruler, as I said, is probably the best-case scenario. There's a lot of worse things that could happen. If American troops left tomorrow morning, you probably would have a surge in the violence resembling a civil war. It also could lead to genocide against the Sunnis.
There are a lot of bad things that could happen. But you're right. I think Americans are really sick of the Iraq War. Americans remind me of someone who gets wildly drunk, careens down the highway, clips a bunch of cars, crosses the median and smashes into the showcase window of a business, hops out of the car and says you really should clean this mess up, but I'm bored. I'm leaving. And, by the way, I don't have enough money to pay for this mess. You better clean it up.
I was speaking in California last week, near liberal Mill Valley, California. And I said, look, if you leave right now, this could lead to genocide. And somebody in the audience said: So what? And somebody else said genocide happens all the time. And I thought, my God. Americans are willing to take genocide in Iraq and just leave.
INSKEEP: But let me come back to the implications here, because one of the reasons that President Obama wants to withdraw - but, of course, now he says in 19 months - is to free up resources for Afghanistan. You're saying that that's not likely to happen.
Mr. RICKS: I think he's not going to have as many resources available for Afghanistan as he would like. I think he's more stuck in Iraq than he recognizes. But at the same time, I'm not that worried about Afghanistan because, yes, more troops would help in Afghanistan, but ultimately the answer in Afghanistan is political, not military.
INSKEEP: Well, let me come to another implication: the president released a budget plan last week, and it includes $2 trillion in savings in various areas over the next decade. Most of that appeared to be savings from winding down the war in Iraq over the next decade. You seem to think that's not going to happen.
Mr. RICKS: I think it's going to be very expensive, much more expensive than he recognizes, because even if you're able to bring down the U.S. combat presence, you're still going to need a substantial U.S. military support presence for Iraqi forces.
INSKEEP: So if we're just thinking through some of the implications here of what you assert - the idea that getting out in 19 months or a couple of years is not very realistic - there are serious implications for Afghanistan, although you can deal with them. There are serious implications for the budget, although maybe you can deal with those. And there are serious implications for Iraq, which sound grim in any case, as you forecast them.
Mr. RICKS: The bottom line is that President Obama has my sympathy. He has inherited the worst foreign policy situation that any new president has ever taken on. And what's really scary about that statement is it's not even his number one problem.
INSKEEP: Tom Ricks is author of "The Gamble." Thanks very much.
Mr. RICKS: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: And you can hear Tom Ricks talk about U.S. prospects in Afghanistan and read an excerpt of his book at NPR.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.