Meet the Press   |  January 01, 1910

What does 2009 hold for Iraq?

Feb. 8: Tom Ricks, author of the new book, "The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008," discusses the future of the conflict in Iraq with NBC’s David Gregory on “Meet the Press.”

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This content comes from a Full-Text Transcript of the program.

MR. GREGORY: And we're back and joined by Tom Ricks for his first interview on his new book "The Gamble : General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq , 2006 through 2008 ."

Welcome back to MEET THE PRESS .

MR. TOM RICKS: Thank you.

MR. GREGORY: This was the first book, "Fiasco," about Iraq . It speaks for itself. And just to hold it up, this is the new book. It is " The Gamble ." And here was something striking that you wrote from this book, looking forward now to President Obama and his leadership test: " 2009 could prove to be a particularly difficult year in the war. `In many ways, the entire war was a huge gamble, risking America 's future power and prestige on a war that, at best, is likely to be inconclusive,' commented Shawn Brimley , a former Canadian infantry officer who became a defense analyst at the Center for a New American Security . He predicted that Bush 's gamble will force Obama into a series of his own gambles and trade-offs -- between the war and domestic needs, between Iraq and Afghanistan , between his political base and his military. In sum, the

first year of Obama 's war promises to be tougher for America 's leaders and military than was the last year of Bush 's war." How so?

MR. RICKS: I think a lot of people back here incorrectly think the war is over. What I say in this book is that we may be only halfway through this thing. In fact, my favorite line in the book is the last line. Ambassador Crocker , a very thoughtful diplomat, says that the events for which the Iraq war will be remembered have not yet happened.

MR. GREGORY: That is an amazing statement. And a lot of people have to be listening to that, thinking, "Well, what's the other shoe to drop, then?"

MR. RICKS: There's a whole lot of shoes out there. A whole lot of shoes to be thrown, actually. This, this year we're in now, '09, is going to be, I think, a, a surprisingly tough year. You've got a series of elections in Iraq . Meanwhile, you've got American troops declining. General Odierno says in the book that the really dangerous withdrawals come at the end of this year. We're doing the easy troop withdrawals now, but down the road you start taking them out of areas that aren't so secure, that aren't so safe, that you're, that you're worried about. So they're going to be holding national elections in Iraq just when we have fewer troops there.

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

MR. RICKS: And finally, none of the basic problems that the surge was meant to solve have been solved. All of the basic issues facing Iraq are still there.

MR. GREGORY: You suggested -- while the administration has said the surge was successful, undeniably violence has gone down, you suggested kick the can down the road. What do you mean?

MR. RICKS: Well, basically the surge succeeded military, failed politically. And that was its purpose; not just to improve security, but to create a political breathing space in which national reconciliation, in which major change could occur in Iraq that hasn't changed. What General Odierno says in the book -- he's the U.S. commander there now. What Odierno says is that Iraqis, many of them use the breathing space we created to step backwards, to become more sectarian. They've become more divided.

MR. GREGORY: The issue of troops is what everybody's focused on, certainly politically, when troops come home. This is what President Obama said before he was president, on the campaign trail. This is October 2007 .

(Videotape, October 27, 2007 )

PRES. OBAMA: I will promise you this, that if we have not gotten our troops out by the time I am president, it is the first thing I will do. I will get our troops home, we will bring an end to this war. You can take that to the bank.

MR. GREGORY: And yet by July of 2008 on the campaign trail, he spoke about it somewhat differently.

(Videotape, July 3, 2008 )

PRES. OBAMA: My 16-month timeline, if you examine everything that I've said, was always premised on making sure that our troops were safe. And my guiding approach continues to be that we've got to make sure that our troops are safe and that Iraq is stable.

MR. GREGORY: You write in the book that Obama will be torn between what his supporters expect and what his generals advise.

MR. RICKS: I think that's right, and I think we may see a confrontation between Obama and the generals by the end of this year. American voters, many of them, think we're going to be out of Iraq in 16 months; when he talks about having combat troops out of Iraq , that somehow no more Americans troops will die. Well, the news flash for Obama here is there are not such thing as noncombat troops . We don't have a pacifist wing of the U.S. military . All our troops are ready for combat. We're going to have American troops fighting and dying there for many years to come. What General Odierno says in the book is he would like to see 35,000 American troops there in 2015 .

MR. GREGORY: In 2015 .

MR. RICKS: Yeah. So, which means that Obama 's war in Iraq may be longer than Bush 's war in Iraq . So bottom line here, I think Iraq is going to change Obama more than Obama changes Iraq .

MR. GREGORY: Where are troop levels now?

MR. RICKS: We're about 155,000.

MR. GREGORY: And when do we get to that bottom-out level of 30, 35,000 that Odierno 's talking about?

MR. RICKS: Well, that's going to be the fight all year long. When do you come down? How fast do you come down? Do you come down a brigade a month, as Obama indicated on the campaign trail? Or do you plateau it out this year and then bring it down early 2010 ? No matter when you do it, though, you're going to come to a point where the generals are going to say, "You know, this is not something I really want to do here. This is dangerous. We're taking troops out of a place where things are going to start breaking loose."

MR. GREGORY: But that's the question, which is how much danger do Americans face? Because what you write in the book about the surge is that it was the first time that Iraqis took the lead in this war effort . If U.S. troops are there, but they are not in harm's way in the same manner than they've been before, perhaps Americans can live with that long-term commitment. Do you expect that'll be the case?

MR. RICKS: If you're in Iraq , you're in harm's way, first of all. The second thing is I think people here -- and this is a major theme of the book -- people here don't understand quite how tough the surge was. Those first six months of 2007 were the hardest six months of the war, and it was a near-rung thing. The generals who were there were not confident it was going to succeed. There were several months there -- April, May, June 2007 -- where U.S. casualties are increasing, no signs of success. So one of the last things they want to do is roll the dice again and say, "Sure, you know, it might not -- it might blow up in our faces, but let's try it." No, they feel they have made huge sacrifices, that they have had friends die and sons bleed, and that they don't want to throw that all away on the -- you know, because some guy said on the campaign trail, "We're going to get all these guys out."