Thursday, February 25, 2010

Tom Ricks Policy Brief on Iraq: Expectations Met

CNAS just released a new "policy brief" by Tom Ricks entitled The Burden: America's Hard Choices in Post-Election Iraq. Basically, it is a 6-page version of his NY Times op-ed from yesterday with pretty graphs and maps (ostensibly to give some semblance of 'analysis'). I don't think this violates my New Year's resolution because it was emailed to me and is not on his blog.

I think there are quite a few things wrong with this brief, but I'll just focus in on a couple points. First and foremost is the complete and utter lack of analysis used to derive his recommendations. Ricks recommends keeping 30-50K troops in the country to prevent another civil war from breaking out. This fails in two ways. First, he does not adequately show that a civil war is likely in post-election Iraq. Saying that there was a lot of violence over a couple of key issues, and that those issues are not yet resolved, and considering the last year of relative calm in spite of this is "isolated", does not prove, suggest, or even hint at the fact that violence will break out again. Secondly, he does not tie his recommended troop levels to any concept of how they might actually prevent his imminent civil war, other than by sheer presence. Where did he get these figures from? I'll guess a random number generator because I don't see the connection. As a side point, if 110K U.S. troops weren't enough to stop the 2006 civil war (requiring the surge of 30K additional troops), what the hell are 30K going to do to stop one? And if their mere presence doesn't stop an outbreak of violence, what are those troops supposed to do?

Second is his recommendation to renegotiate the SOFA. Unlike his op-ed, at least here he says it needs to be Iraqi driven. "Sending signals, early but privately" that the U.S. might stomach staying longer has been done very publicly this week by GEN Odierno. The Iraqis know they can ask for more help if they need or want it - but this completely ignores the fact that Iraqi politics probably prohibit their asking for more help unless significant violence does break out.

Third (and I'll end on this instead of beating a dead horse), is the complete lack of sources. I know: this isn't a dissertation. But the constant use of "observers", "leaders", footnoting his own two (somewhat dated) books, and anecdotes is not a substitute for rigorous research and analysis. Ricks is just screaming into his own echo chamber.

Should you chose to read this briefing, just keep these things in mind. This is not analysis. These are not serious policy recommendations based on anything tangible. This paper is using anecdote to support preconceived beliefs. In other words, it's a piece of Tom Ricks' recent work.


  1. But it helps to validate running a 43-part (and counting) series on the blog called "Iraq: The Unraveling," so who cares!

  2. I think it most certainly violates the spirit of your NEw Year's Resolution, but I don't care because one of the more amusing features of this blog is its fascination with Tom Ricks.

    See also Gian Gentile, C.J. Chivers (he's soooo dreamy), the daily ploddings of Andrew Exum (natural born kilter), the stuporous topic of military acquisitions and procurement and things that might be said in French about people who no longer are subjects of Paris.

    As I write this, there's actually a panel transpiring at AUSA's winter confab. It features the Army's top logistical guru explaining how we're going to draw down Iraq.


  3. A blog's idiosyncracies - or a blogger's idiosyncracies - are what make blog reading entertaining.

    A question about policy papers and think tanks! So, um, what exactly is a policy paper supposed to be? I ask the question out of genuine curiosity as opposed to feigned curiosity. Now, why would anyone feign curiosity about that?

    I get that a think tank thinks really hard about public problems and then offers some sort of policy advice. I'm talking the format of the papers themselves. Are there different types, some more traditionally academic than others? Is there a generally agreed upon style or framework?

    I think that logistics is a very cool subject. And how sad that I am letting the entire world know that. Or however many people read this thing.

  4. SNLII:

    Indeed, C.J. Chivers is dreamy. But don't forget Fred Kaplan. I find him to simply ooze sex. Not sex appeal, but sex. Raw, passionate, no-holds-barred sex.



    Desperately seeking...and wildly over the top,


  5. Whoops.

    Caught up in my extreme infaturation with Fred Kaplan, I posted the wrong URL for Point 2. It is (I hope):


  6. Madhu:

    Have you seen this book:

    I actually doubt it will satisfy your interest in logistics - you might do better taking a course or program in supply chain management at a university - but I thought I would at least bring it to your attention.


  7. @Madhu - I don't think there's a set format for these things. Different think tanks title the products differently (monograph, policy brief, white paper, whatever) and present information in differing ways. Since CNAS generally calls theirs policy briefs, they suggest that their briefs should be used to drive policy - or at least inform policy. But every think tank's is different. They all, usually, have a lot more work put into them than this particular one.

    @SNLII - It might very well violate the spirit of my resolution. But dammit, I can't help myself!

  8. @ADTS:

    Thanks for those links, especially the logistics one. I'm not planning on signing up for any classes, though, life is full and my area of study - when I'm not working full time! - is supposed to be medical education. To that end, I'm setting up a blog for the students, residents, etc. to use. Focused on my subspecialitly. My interest in logistics is more practical and day-to-day, I mean, anyone involved in a hospital lab will have a feel for the problems of how to get A to B, etc. Cool links, though :)

    @ Gunslinger:

    Thanks. I always wondered about that.

  9. I'll just add - and to be honest - one of the many reasons I hang on some of these blogs is to steal the best ideas from people who are much smarter than me. I observe how you explain your subjects of interest to laypersons, and note what I think works. The, I STEAL FROM YA'LL :)

    It's a compliment!

  10. Reading military analysis from Tom Ricks is like reading legislative analysis from Sarah Palin. Palin writes it on her hand. Ricks pulls it out his ass.