Two award-winning authors, each of whom has composed a definitive history of a major war, joined former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for the seventh annual symposium on public policy and the media at the Law School Auditorium on Thursday night.
This year’s talk, “The Road from Algiers to Baghdad,” organized by political-science lecturer Stanley Flink, featured Sir Alistair Horne and Tom Ricks ’77, who joined Kissinger in exploring how the lessons of France’s mid-century war in Algeria might apply to the America’s current war in Iraq.
Kissinger suggested Horne’s history of the Algerian war, published in 1977, to President George W. Bush ’68 because he thought it could inform Bush’s foreign policy. Bush subsequently assigned the reading to several White House staffers, Kissinger said.
Ricks was a military correspondent for the Wall Street Journal for 17 years before joining The Washington Post in 1999. He has reported from Somalia, Korea, Kosovo, Kuwait, Turkey, Afghanistan and Iraq.
His 2006 book, “Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq,” topped The New York Times bestseller list and has become required reading at the Army War College, Flink said.
Horne, who began his remarks by describing his last visit to Yale 60 years ago — during which he passed out at The Game alongside William F. Buckley Jr. ’50 — surveyed his framework for understanding the Algerian war and identified five similarities to the war in Iraq.
In both wars, he said, a conventional army struggled to battle against insurgents; the guerillas targeted local police officers, relegating the foreign army to force protection that neutralizes the effectiveness of both the army and the police; porous borders reinforced the insurgency; torture was used counterproductively; and extrication from the conflict proved challenging.
“When I started writing, I had not the least thought that it might find new relevance in modernity,” Horne said. “It does have implications very much in the wider world of Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Ricks, who began by saying Horne’s book was “like a gift falling from the sky” that he used as a model for writing his own war history, drew on his research and extensive experience in Iraq to predict the progression of U.S. involvement in the country.
Ricks said he fears that a narrative similar to that told by French soldiers after the Algerian war is taking hold among American soldiers in Iraq.
“I worry about a similar ‘stab in the back’ in the coming years if the Iraq war ends badly, which I believe it will,” he said. On two recent trips to Baghdad, Ricks said, officers told him “ ‘the American military has done everything we were asked to do here. We bled and sweated. But the rest of the U.S. government didn’t show up. The politicians betrayed us, the media undercut us and the American people lacked the guts and patience to see it through.’ ”
Although Ricks said each charge was inaccurate, he fears the military will remember the war that way.
The “surge” strategy, which deployed 20,000 additional troops to Iraq last spring, has led to tactical advances, lowering civilian and American casualties, but those gains are relative, Ricks said.
“It doesn’t mean that it’s peaceful,” he said. “It means that we’ve moved from the eighth circle of hell to the fifth circle of hell.”
But the surge has still failed to accomplish Bush’s stated objective — to “create breathing room for a political breakthrough,” Ricks said, quoting Bush’s Jan. 2007 speech. Ricks said the surge, by improving the security situation and easing the pressure on the Baghdad government, may actually have been counterproductive.
“We’re in a twilight zone,” he said. “What we see is not emerging peace but an emerging ceasefire. Gen. [David] Petraeus and Ambassador [to Iraq Ryan] Crocker are pursuing a policy of Rodney Kingism: Can’t we all just be friends? And the answer they’re getting from Iraqis is no.”
During the speech, Ricks laid out four options for America in Iraq: leaving now, reducing troop levels, trying to contain the civil war from becoming a regional conflict and preserving the status quo. In each case, the disadvantages far outweigh the potential benefits, he said.
But Democrats will not “pull the plug on this war,” Ricks predicted, and it will be up to the next administration to resolve the situation.
“The war is rapidly becoming a problem for the next president,” he said. “No matter who is elected — Democrat or Republican, Obama or Hillary — I think the American policy will shift from rather grandiose goals that the Bush administration took into Iraq and will take in negative goals — what I call the three ‘no’s: no genocide, no regional war and no safe haven for al-Qaida.”
In his bleakest prediction of the night, Ricks said he expects American involvement in Iraq to continue past 2010, and possibly until 2020.
“When I was writing ‘Fiasco,’ I would look every day at this group of kindergartners walking across the street to a day care center and I would think, one of those kids is going to fight and die in Iraq,” he said. “I still think that’s true.”
The talk was preceded by a dinner in the Law School faculty dining room, at which the principal speakers were joined by Yale College Dean Peter Salovey and professors John Lewis Gaddis and Charles Hill who, with professor Paul Kennedy, co-teach a seminar entitled “Studies in Grand Strategy.”
Past speakers in the series have included Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean and former British Prime Minister John Major.