As often happens in Washington, a number of prominent journalists have also become attached to the think tank, and in a relatively brief period of time: Robert Kaplan, who writes for The Atlantic, is a senior fellow. David Cloud, a former New York Times and Politico journalist; David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times; and Greg Jaffe, Ricks’s replacement at The Washington Post, all spent time with the center as writers-in-residence. Ricks fits easily into this world, giving interviews, working on policy papers, blogging, researching a new book on the history of American
generalship, and attending events at which journalists and the new military establishment seamlessly mix, from panel discussions to softball games.

Perhaps not surprisingly then, a few critics have dismissed Ricks as a counterinsurgency advocate. “The reality, Tom, is that you’re no longer the traditional reporter we once counted on to deliver objective analyses of defense issues,” Military Reporters & Editors’ Carl Prine posted recently on the blog Abu Muqawama. “Over the past year, you’ve hawked a controversial book on the Iraq war, fired up your own blog and cashed paychecks from a partisan think tank.” (In fact, the center is an independent and nonpartisan research institution.) People who work at the Defense Department have also wondered about Ricks’s public role. “Is Tom a reporter, or is Tom an op-ed guy?” asks Colonel David Lapan, director of the Defense Department’s press office. “At some point, he became more of an author than a reporter, I think.” Similar questions have been raised on Ricks’s blog. Ricks pays attention to the criticism, but he believes it is misguided. “I’m trying to provide the honest comment,” he says. “I don’t really care how you label it.”

Counterinsurgency may turn out to be the right choice, and, in its newer, more humane version, the right approach for our dangerous times. But history shows that success in such warfare is difficult to come by. Algeria and Vietnam, in particular, stand as hard lessons. And even when counterinsurgency is handled in a more sophisticated way, and emphasizes the protection of the local civilians, it remains bloody and expensive to fight an enemy on his own terrain over an extended period of time. A successful strategy requires language and cultural skills. And usually the enemy can play the game better, settling disputes, building schools, and providing other social services. An invading force may have more equipment and money, but the insurgents will always have the advantage of place. As some insurgents have put it: you
have the watches, but we have the time.

When journalists place too much emphasis on how to fight an insurgency, their work can obscure the larger question of whether to fight one. One hopes that the journalists assigned to monitor the doctrine’s progress are able to report on it, as well as on the larger question of America’s role in the world, judiciously and maintain their distance from its proponents.

At the moment, they aren’t. Instead, many journalists have been sold on counterinsurgency and are simply reporting on the doctrine’s repercussions, such as President Obama’s efforts this summer to scale back on F-22 fighter jets, a symbol of the cold war military, or his plans to put additional resources into low-intensity warfare in South Asia and other regions. Concerns about the fact that counterinsurgencies last for decades, incur tremendous costs, and yet rarely work have been set aside. Granted, there never was much debate over counterinsurgency in the media, but at this point the discussion, however sporadic it was, seems to have ended.

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Tara McKelvey is the author of Monstering: Inside America's Policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War and is a 2011 Guggenheim Fellow. Research assistance was provided by Jed Bickman of the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, which also provided financial support for preparation of this article.