VISION & VALUES CONCISE: Q&A with Ralph Peters (Part I)

Editor’s Note: The “V&V Q&A” is an e-publication from The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.  Each issue will present an interview with an intriguing thinker or opinion-maker that we hope will prove illuminating to readers everywhere. In this latest edition, the executive director of The Center for Vision & Values, Dr. Paul Kengor, interviews Ralph Peters, noted historian, columnist, and commentator, in the first of a two-part interview. This is the fifth in a series of special Q&As with participants in the forthcoming April 12-13 conference, “The De-Christianization of Europe: From Nicaea to Nietzsche,” to be held on the campus of Grove City College.

V&V: Ralph, before we get to the matter at hand, which is our forthcoming conference on the decline of Christianity in Europe, I can’t pass up the chance to ask you about the situation in Iraq, which you know as well, if not better, than anyone. Are we losing? We’re not losing, but we’re not winning, either. The situation is dire, but not yet hopeless. To me, the real tragedy is that the situation in Iraq did not have to come to this pass—the amateurish mistakes the administration insisted on making in 2003 and early 2004 did much to create the atmosphere of violence, lawlessness and unleashed hatreds we see today. I supported, and still support, the removal of Saddam Hussein. I only wish the administration had been less arrogant, had listened to the military, and had done it competently.

Ralph Peters:

We’re now faced with possible failure. The current surge (which may prove too small) is our last chance, given our domestic political environment. General Petraeus, the new commander in Baghdad, is doing the right things at last, but the situation may prove irremediable. We just don’t know. Yet, the stakes are so high that we all should support this last effort. Even should things go our way—and there are some positive signs, the first in a year—we’re not going to get the ideal situation for which we hoped; that said, there’s still a chance of a far more benign Iraq emerging.

Nor are we the only party to blame for the current, unnecessary mess. Once again, the Arab people, within Iraq and without, have failed themselves horribly. Their pettiness, their embrace of corruption, their social structures and their taste for internecine feuds and religious intolerance all have led them to make a hash of this unprecedented opportunity to build one rule-of-law democracy in the Arab world. Arabs have an ineradicable genius for failing themselves.

Now the best for which we may hope is that Iraq will muddle through to an acceptable level of rehabilitation. The only consolation is that, given the awful state of Middle-Eastern civilization overall, such a muddling through would almost equal a triumph. It’s very difficult to muster any optimism about the greater Middle East, where the culture of blame precludes a culture of progress.

V&V: It has become almost a cliché, even among Bush supporters, to concede that “mistakes were made” in the prosecution of the war. What were these mistakes? The mistakes are legion. To cite only a few: Not enough troops early on; the unwillingness to impose security in the streets after Baghdad’s fall (the administration feared the media would carp about any crackdown); trusting partisan émigrés who had narrow, selfish agendas; turning Iraq into a looting orgy for U.S. contractors; the refusal to listen to military advice in wartime; forbidding the military to plan for an occupation; failing to field a unified chain of command; the hubris of sending young, inept party hacks to Baghdad for brief, ticket-punch stints to reconstruct a complex country; the lack of seriousness about defeating the insurgency early on; the lack of resolve to kill Muqtada al-Sadr when he began his campaign of assassinating our allies; disbanding the Iraqi military and government, thus putting idle young males out of work and on the streets; allowing private security contractors to alienate the Iraqi population; and the general lack of courage and will in the administration after Baghdad fell—the dog caught the fire truck and didn’t know what to do with it. President Bush did a noble thing, but did it inexcusably badly.

Peters:

V&V: President Bush has recommended a troop surge. Do you think that’s the right move? I would have preferred no troop surge, or a larger troop surge. I’m concerned that we’ve sent enough troops to make a tactical, but not a strategic, difference. Nonetheless, I support the “mini-surge” because of what’s at stake. General Petraeus is the best man we’ve got for this situation. He’s got a fighting chance—but the real question is whether the Iraqis will step up to the plate. The foreign terrorists, Sunni insurgents and Shia militiamen are willing to die for their beliefs. If other Iraqis, in decisive numbers, will not risk their lives for a constitutional government—and they may not, given their culture—it just won’t work. Ultimately, for all of our efforts, we can only put the training wheels on the bicycle, but the Iraqis have to ride the bike themselves. Iraqi security forces are improving, but we honestly don’t know if they’ll improve sufficiently—and quickly enough.

Peters:

V&V: The Democratic leadership in Congress has authorized a timeline for a U.S. troop withdrawal. Vice President Dick Cheney says that informing the enemy of a deadline for withdrawal is a fatal move because the enemy will know that it merely needs to wait out the deadline before launching a major offensive or resurgence. Do you agree? I agree entirely with the vice president on this issue, but he’s lost all credibility with the American people and his words no longer register. Senator McCain is a far more convincing voice to most Americans.

Peters:

For all of my criticisms of the administration, the congressional Democrats are worse.Both parties are in appalling disarray, and the American people deserve better leadership on both sides of the political aisle.

That said, imposing a deadline for the withdrawal of our troops from Iraq amounts to a surrender. Period. Set a date, and you send our enemies the dual message that we’ve lost our will to fight and win, and that they only have to bide their time and we’ll turn over the keys.

V&V: As we criticize the Bush effort in Iraq, are we lacking a historical appreciation of how long it requires to stabilize a society—any society—after a major war? Consider our own American experience: it took decades before we had a stable democratic system, and France took even longer than that. We still have U.S. troops in South Korea and Germany—over 50-60 years after wars in those countries—and in the Balkans and elsewhere. Not to suggest that we not criticize President Bush, but are we holding the Bush administration to an unreasonable standard that doesn’t conform to historical experience?
The Bush administration defeated itself in this regard. Men who had never served in uniform—who had disdained military service—refused to seek military advice, having convinced themselves that anyone with an Ivy League degree could make war more effectively than the generals. Their arrogance was insufferable.

Peters:

In Germany and Japan, our enemies knew they’d been defeated beyond all hope of recovery. In Iraq, the Sunni Arabs who formed the core of Saddam’s support never felt the war directly—it occurred largely in the Shia south and partly in the north, with the Sunni-Arab center untouched. Then we failed even to show up in the Sunni-Arab cities with a demonstration of force and we declined to impose martial law—which is essential at the outset of every occupation.

The administration’s enemies are holding it to an unreasonable standard in expecting the total defeat of insurgents and terrorists in an abbreviated time-frame—but the administration did make the situation worse than it had to be.

Finally, we do not know what the future holds. Historical developments are rarely linear.No matter what becomes of Iraq in the short-term, the process of change which we ignited in the Middle East—which had to be triggered, given the disastrous condition of the region—may lead to surprisingly positive developments in a quarter-century or so.Or the results could be a plunge into the abyss. The only thing about which I feel certain is that we had to jump-start change. On that count, I give the Bush administration great credit. I only wish the administration’s key insiders had been competent at waging war and mounting an occupation—their ideals were fine, but their performance could hardly have been worse.

V&V: Thanks for talking to us, Ralph. We will hear your thoughts on Europe in the next V&V Q&A. I know that our conference attendees are excited about having a chance to pose their own set of questions to you on April 12 at the conference.