As it easy to expect (for a generation that has been able to watch the war
on tv as it evolved), the main protagonist of Rick's book on Iraq is incompetence.
It is well known now (and admitted even by allies such as Tony Blair) that
the two main reasons for Bush to invade Iraq
(the weapons of mass destruction and the connection between Saddam Hussein and
Osama Bin Laden) were both wrong or false (depending on what degree of deceit
one wants to imply). That would be passable because the good reason (that Bush
never quite used until these two proved to be bogus) was enough: Saddam Hussein
was hated by his people and would have been a disgrace for them until his death,
had he remained in power as France, Russia and assorted Europacifists wanted.
The "fiasco" was not so much the decision to go to war (although based on
flimsy assumptions) but the way the invasion was botched by an amazing
concentration of arrogant ignorance (Bush, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz), political
corruption (most of Congress), public indifference and gullability,
and hysterical reporting by dumb bloodthirsty media (Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter).
They all colluded in denying what was going on and depicting an optimistic
version of the facts that in no way corresponded to reality.
Ricks starts by examining what led to the war, and he may be oversimplifying when he claims that there was a deliberate attempt at using only the pessimist view of how dangerous Saddam Hussein was and the optimist view of how easy it would be to invade Iraq. This is an insult to allies like Tony Blair. Maybe there was indeed enough evidence of Saddam Hussein's danger (after all, he did invade two countries in 20 years and did try to assassinate a USA president, and there is no reason to believe that he would have abstained from attacking the USA had he had a chance). And maybe there was indeed a case to be made for a quick and painless invasion after the precedent of Afghanistan. At the same time, there is no doubt that George Tenet bears most of the responsibility for the false intelligence. People who fail so badly should be held responsible, not be sent to retirement on a millionaire pension.
Ricks is much better at analyzing what was and is unique about this war. One is left pondering on the simple fact that this is the first ground war fought by the USA with volunteer troops only. Past wars used the draft, which means that the USA army was an army of ordinary kids. This army is an army of patriots, fanatics and mercenaries. It is difficult to separate the patriots from the others. The others have caused as much damage to the USA as the enemy has.
One is left admiring the enemy: the insurgency (dismissed by Rumsfeld as a bunch of pathetic losers) consistently outsmarted the USA, employing an amazingly efficient and sophisticated strategy to peel off every possible ally of the USA from the USA troops. By consistently targeting any person or organization (whether the United Nations, the Jordanian embassy, the Italian barracks, ordinary police officers, oil workers, interpreters, drivers, etc etc), the insurgents forced the USA troops to isolate themselves from the population. This strategy worked wonders in alienating the population. The USA still has not come up with a counterstrategy to offset the damage caused by such isolation. At best, USA troops in Iraq are seen as the lesser evil, but never as the liberators they wanted to be. The insurgents thus won the most important battle. Now they are just waiting for the USA to tire of their isolation.
Ricks omits a study of how the Arab media helped the insurgency and damaged the USA. The Arab media consistently depicted the USA as the protagonists of a religious war. This reverberates in the psyche of millions of Muslims around the world who are brainwashed as children to think of history as a religious war between Islam and the rest of the world. The Arab media consistently presented the USA invasion of Iraq as a religious (not political) decision. Eventually, it worked. From the very beginning Al Jazeera focused on what was wrong with USA troops being involved in an Islamic country. Al Jazeera is also largely responsible for promoting terrorism against USA troops as a legitimate (in fact, patriotic) action. Al Jazeera is also largely responsible for stirring emotions among tribes and sects that eventually led to today's civil war. Ricks takes all of this for granted, when in fact this should be one of the main lessons to learn from Iraq: Al Jazeera "is" the enemy because it is the organ that creates the public perception of what is happening, regardless of what is actually happening.
Ricks' book shows how this war lacks a fundamental ingredient: real leaders. There are no Lincolns, Roosevelts or Eisenhowers. The USA is "led" by an imbecile who can't even speak English and who is derided the world over for his ignorance and stupidity; hardly the kind of leader that can inspire the nation or the world. His close collaborators in the administration and in Congress are mostly failed politicians or corrupt politicians. His closest allies had to resign or shut up after being involved in countless domestic scandals: those are the same politicians that took the USA to war. Nor are there any leaders in the opposition. The one man who could stand as a leader, Bill Clinton, has been badly damaged by the Republicans for his extramarital life. The system itself seems to be incapable of producing credible leaders that can galvanize the country with a new vision.
Ricks basically shows that this war has all the ingredients for an obvious recipe: defeat. He gives the USA very few chances of succeeding if it merely "stays the course". He sees more likely an outcome like Algeria (not sure why he chooses Algeria instead of Vietnam as an example of a defeat that does not dramatically alters the course of history). But he also warns that the "new order" (i.e., the instability) created by Bush's actions in the Middle East could lead to a new Saladdin, a new Arab leader who manages to unite the Arab nation into a superpower with weapons of mass destruction and oil money, and then strikes against the West the same way that great leader of the Middle Ages struck against the Crusaders and sent them home.
After all, the West is lucky that the only leaders the Arab world gets are people like Nasser (a serial failure), Saddam Hussein (a mass murderer) and Osama Bin Laden (a religious fanatic). What if they (not the USA) get the next Lincoln or the next Roosevelt?