Thomas E. Ricks, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of five books on American warfare, is a self-proclaimed fan of President Obama, but ask him about Obama’s performance as commander-in-chief and you’ll get an earful.
Ricks, author of the 2006 bestseller “Fiasco,” which named names while scorching the Bush administration’s handling of the war in Iraq, isn’t impressed with Obama as a wartime president, either. Now a senior advisor in the New America Foundation’s National Security Program, Ricks told The Diplomat that many of Obama’s military advisors are political “hacks” who don’t understand that generals aren’t political pawns. He blatantly says that former National Security Advisor Thomas E. Donilon, a longtime Washington operative and lawyer who served Obama from 2010 until June of this year, was “awful.”
“I still am a fan of Obama, but I think he’s handled the military establishment very poorly,” Ricks said in a wide-ranging interview. “I have been bothered for a long time by the very narrowness of the background of Obama’s national security people. To a surprising degree, they are political hacks and [Capitol] Hill rats — former congressional staffers who see the world though a political lens and probably think Congress is much more important in national security affairs than it really is,” complained Ricks, who has reported on U.S. military activities in Somalia, Haiti, Korea, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Kuwait, Turkey, Afghanistan and Iraq.
“I don’t see diversity in the national security people and I see a highly politicized lens through which these people look at national security issues,” he continued. “You have domestic advisors — hacks out of [Obama’s hometown of] Chicago — much more involved in national security issues than in the past.
“I think that Obama has been quite disappointing in national security issues,” Ricks said.
The former Washington Post reporter isn’t optimistic about Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s tenure either. Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, was narrowly confirmed by the U.S. Senate in February, but only after a bruising and embarrassing confirmation hearing that left him fumbling for answers on Iran, Israel and other subjects. Ricks called Hagel “a weak secretary of defense who had a horrible confirmation hearing” and said his nomination reflected ambivalence about the job from the Obama administration.
“The signal it sent is basically we don’t really care,” Ricks argued. “I was surprised at how rough Senate Republicans were on Hagel. It showed a lack of thoughtfulness — [Obama advisors] weren’t talking to enough people to find out how Hagel would be received on the Hill.”
Ricks doesn’t mince words or serve up political niceties. The reporter recently grabbed his own headlines during a Fox News interview in which he said the U.S. consulate attack in Benghazi had been “hyped” for political purposes, especially by Fox News, which he called “a wing of the Republican Party.” However, the old-school former newspaper reporter doesn’t seem to take sides in Washington’s partisan warfare. He told Melinda Henneberger of the Washington Post that MSNBC had invited him to speak but he declined, telling them, “You’re just like Fox, but not as good at it.”
Ricks’s no-nonsense writing has propelled him to the top of the media echelons. In addition to covering the Pentagon for the Washington Post from 2000 to 2008, Ricks wrote about defense for the Wall Street Journal for 17 years. When The Diplomat caught up with Ricks by phone, he was holed up in his “writing house” in Maine, where he is working on his sixth book, an analysis of the ways Winston Churchill and George Orwell helped shape the 20th century. The book, tentatively titled “Churchill, Orwell and the Making of the 20th Century,” is a departure for Ricks, whose previous books all focused on military affairs.
“One’s on the right, one is on the left — they’re very different people — but they agree that there must be a way beside fascism and communism,” he said of the two subjects in his latest book. “They helped preserve liberal democracy.”
Ricks also maintains a regular and award-winning online presence, penning the popular blog “The Best Defense” on Foreign Policy’s website. The blog is a compelling compendium of his thoughts on U.S. military policy, links to articles he finds interesting, and contributions from guest bloggers, including current combat veterans.
The book that catapulted Ricks to literary fame was “Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq.” Published in 2006, at the height of the Iraq War, “Fiasco” was a devastating indictment of the U.S. military’s handling of the conflict, and especially its failure to anticipate the Iraqi insurgency while using conventional warfare that actually fueled escalating hostility and bloodshed. “Fiasco” was particularly noteworthy for its slew of on-the-record interviews with military officials and use of thousands of government documents to show that the United States had planned poorly for the war and its aftermath. The book reached the top of the New York Times bestseller list and was widely credited for helping to transform public opinion about the war.
Last year, Ricks released his latest book, “The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today.” The tome takes aim at a U.S. military culture that Ricks says tolerates, and even rewards, mediocrity in its leadership ranks. In the book, Ricks examines why more U.S. military generals aren’t fired or demoted for poor performance. His research led him to the policies of revered military icon Gen. George C. Marshall Jr., who served as chief of staff of the U.S. Army, secretary of state and secretary of defense and is widely credited for the Allied victory in World War II. Ricks found that of 155 men who commanded Army combat divisions in World War II, 16 were fired for their job performance under Marshall.
“You had a removal rate of better than 10 percent,” Ricks pointed out.
After the Vietnam War, only one U.S. general was fired for subpar performance.
“The tradition was lost and didn’t come back,” Ricks said, lamenting that poor planning and bad decisions should have resulted in multiple firings during and after the Iraq War.
“Coming out of Iraq, nobody got fired for anything and mediocrity was kind of a core value among American generals,” Ricks charged. “If you believe the U.S. Army, it’s like Lake Wobegon — all of our generals are above average. We know that’s not true. We’ve just fought two endless wars — our longest wars go on forever. They don’t seem to be resolved, people come and go, they rotate in and out, nobody wins the war, and nobody owns the war.
“What do we have now?” Ricks asked. “We have a situation where being an army general is like being a university professor with tenure. You can be professionally incompetent but as long as you don’t embarrass the institution you won’t be fired.”
That point leads the conversation naturally to David Petraeus, the former four-star general who resigned his post as CIA director one year ago after he acknowledged having an extramarital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. That rankled Ricks, who credits Petraeus with helping to clean up some big messes after the initial botched occupation of Iraq. He said Americans’ obsession with punishing sexual indiscretions deprives them of some otherwise supremely competent leadership.
“What gets people fired nowadays tends to be zipper problems,” Ricks said bluntly. “The professor who boffs an undergraduate or the general who sleeps with a junior officer. You can be a lousy teacher in the classroom or a lousy commander in the battlefield and you don’t get fired for that. That strikes me as kind of screwy. It’s not just a hit on the Army; it’s also a hit on the American people. We care more about the private love life of our generals than we do about whether they are good combat leaders.”
Critics of that thinking point out that the U.S. military claims to uphold the highest standards and should practice the values it preaches. But more important, Petraeus was in charge of the CIA, and affairs are frowned upon in the intelligence world precisely because they leave officers vulnerable, possibly compromising national security. Broadwell reportedly enjoyed unprecedented access to Petraeus while writing his biography, raising questions about whether she was privy to classified information; in one speech she even appeared to divulge sensitive details about the consulate attack in Benghazi.
But Ricks said Petraeus, whom he knows well, could have weathered the political firestorm over the Broadwell affair if Obama had backed him despite the circumstances.
“I think what Obama should have said was, ‘Hey Dave, you screwed up big time. Take some time off, go home, make it up to your wife as best as you can and then get back to work,’” Ricks said. “But I don’t think Obama had any interest in expending political capital on the part of Petraeus partly because they didn’t trust him and partly because they suspected that Petraeus had political ambitions. I don’t think he had any political ambitions.”
Regardless, Petraeus has found his post-scandal footing, teaching at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and working for the investment firm KKR.
But Ricks says many other top — yet subpar — American military officials fly under the performance radar. He suggests that the lack of accountability among the top ranks might be solved, at least partially, by reinstating the draft and making military service compulsory.
“If you want to support the troops, one of the best ways is to make sure they have good leadership,” Ricks said. “We owe it to the enlisted men to give them good leadership, but we don’t necessarily give it to them these days. That’s one reason I favor a draft.”
A draft might also restrain politicians eager to rush to war, Ricks says. “If you had a draft, then American families would care and that would make congressmen care and they’d begin asking questions like they did in World War II,” he told us. “Harry Truman came to prominence in the U.S. Senate by leading a commission looking into military acquisition problems. Nowadays nobody seems to want to ask a lot of questions of the military.”
He added: “I think it would reconnect the American military to American society and one of the benefits is yes, it would inject more accountability into the system.”
While Ricks is critical of Obama’s handling of the military generally, he came to the president’s defense on the question of Syria, where he says Obama has thoroughly considered the ramifications of a U.S. intervention in that war-torn nation.
“To Obama’s credit, I think he’s been a very deliberative president,” Ricks said. “George W. Bush was one of our least deliberative presidents, who tended to shoot first and ask questions later. It’s not a bad idea to be deliberative. I think Obama’s done OK on Syria partly because I don’t think there are any good answers there.
“We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t,” he said. “If we support the Syrian rebels, it raises the question of if the rebels win, what happens to the Syrian minorities, the Armenians, the Christians, the Jews and others? Do we create a new refugee problem? I don’t see good answers on Syria.”
Likewise, while the recent deal struck with Iran could herald a major breakthrough in the long-stalled talks over the country’s nuclear program, it could also lead to unintended consequences.
The landmark interim deal negotiated by the P5+1 to curb aspects of Iran’s nuclear program for six months while a more comprehensive agreement is hashed out has infuriated Israel and much of the American Jewish community. It’s even fueled speculation about a joint Israeli-Saudi strike on Iranian nuclear installations, a possibility Ricks does not discount.
“It wouldn’t surprise me to see a joint Israeli-Saudi Arabian operation against Iran,” he said. “It would make it militarily so much easier to do if you could fly Israeli aircraft out of eastern Saudi Arabia…. I could see a large strike that not only hit nuclear sites, but also air defense sites and missile sites because of course you’d be worried about retaliatory missile shots at Riyadh, Jeddah and Tel Aviv.
“You could also see Iran retaliating with Hezbollah getting frisky in Lebanon and various other Shiite disturbances in eastern Saudi Arabia. It would run the danger of a general war breaking out in the Middle East.”
Ricks also said he doubts it would be possible to pull off such a bold strike without at least tacit approval from the United States. However, he envisions Secretary of State John Kerry — whom he compared to the depressive, downer character Eeyore in “Winnie the Pooh” — “getting up there and calling all parties to cease fire.”
“Frankly, I don’t think they could really pull it off without us knowing, especially if it was a joint Saudi-Israeli operation with Israeli aircraft flying into Saudi Arabia to do it,” he said. “The real worry would be twofold: Would such a strike lead to a general war in the Middle East?” he asked, “and would the United States somehow get dragged into the consequences of a strike?”
That leads the longtime military observer to warn that U.S. soldiers can’t be the only tool in America’s foreign policy arsenal — and military intervention can’t be used as a constant fallback option. Diplomacy, he says, should be bolstered.
Ricks said he thinks the U.S. government should give the State Department a bigger budget, and sometimes a bigger role in overseas conflicts. Walter Pincus, a Washington Post reporter, found in 2010 that the U.S. Army had more musicians than the State Department had Foreign Service officers, a fact that Ricks pointed out in making his case for more spending on diplomacy.
“The State Department clearly needs more money,” he said, referring to annual international affairs spending, which is roughly one-tenth the Pentagon’s base budget. “It’s tiny compared to the U.S. military. I think there should be more cooperation between the military and other parts of the government. We need a military that is sometimes going to be taking orders from Foreign Service officers.”
While he’d like to see more money flowing to Foggy Bottom, Ricks advocated slashing spending across the river at the Pentagon. Despite dire warnings from Pentagon brass that sequestration will hollow out the military, the latest bipartisan budget deal will blunt some of the harshest cuts, and defense spending for fiscal 2014 is still set to clock in at roughly $600 billion, including the war in Afghanistan. Ricks said the defense world needs less money and more critical thinking.
“The American military between World War I and World War II had almost no money, but they did a lot of thinking and in that time they produced a great generation of generals,” he said, citing Marshall, Dwight D. Eisenhower and George S. Patton. “They did that because those guys did a lot of reading, writing and thinking. I think our military leaders can do a lot more of that and a lot less spending money.”
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.