General Objections

Retired General Merrill A. “Tony” McPeak, who commanded the U.S. Air Force during the first Gulf War in 1991, believes the Bush administration will pay a hefty diplomatic price for its handling of the buildup to war in Iraq. America, he says, is indisputably the world’s pre-eminent power, but that doesn’t mean it’s run by anyone who’s “smart.” In Iraq, he says, the U.S. is “seen as unilaterally trying to run a game for the house. If you do that, you cannot be a great power, a pre-eminent power, for long.”

Since the outbreak of war in Iraq, McPeak has offered freethinking opinions, not calculated to please anyone, especially the Bush administration or its critics. Asked recently if, in the age of terror, the United States wasn’t forced to go it alone, McPeak said, “You can fight a war on terrorism and do it legitimately… without sacrificing civil liberties in the United States, but it requires a certain intelligence and sophistication. So maybe we ought to start grading presidential candidates for an IQ. Although it’s hard to see why anybody that’s very smart would want to run.”

In an interview with the Weekly’s GREG GOLDIN, McPeak exhibited the same irreverence. “I’m not sure this is the opinion your readers wish to hear,” he said by phone from the road in Tulsa, Oklahoma, “but from my point of view, the world is better off rid of Saddam Hussein.”


L.A. WEEKLY: You favor the war in Iraq?

GENERAL MERRILL A. McPEAK: Well, they deserve it. I’m not arguing against the intervention. I’m arguing against the amateurism of the White House. By virtue of our position in the world, we have no choice but to lead. But that means that somebody in the White House has to understand the basics of leadership. I’m not talking about Ph.D.-level sophistication here. I’m just talking about ordinary, everyday “do you know what it takes to keep people all moving in the same direction?”


So what do you think is wrong with the war?

I think it was a miscalculation. The North Korean problem is much more important than the Iraq problem. It is more important strategically. It is a case where a country has declared that they will pursue a nuclear program. They may already have weapons. They certainly have the capability to produce enough plutonium for about one weapon a month. They are developing a delivery capability that could reach the West Coast of the United States. They’ve thrown out the inspectors and renounced the proliferation regime. We’ve got 40,000 troops on the peninsula. They share a border with China and Russia, and Japan is right across the sea. It’s an international problem, not a regional problem, like Iraq. The administration miscalculated on the simple issue of “what is it we should be working on?”

In the foreign-policy context, I think the administration also failed really quite spectacularly. If you look at the run-up to this intervention, we have deeply divided NATO, the oldest and most successful military alliance in history. We told the United Nations Security Council they could either agree with us or they were irrelevant. We’ve taken Tony Blair, who looked a few weeks ago like the most popular and secure prime minister in a century, and now he’s hanging on by his fingernails. The Australian government, similarly, faced a very adverse reaction. Our closest geographic neighbors, Canada and Mexico, are sitting on their hands. There is now talk, and I don’t know how serious this is, that France, Russia and China will try to get together on some sort of informal combination to balance our power. Whenever one state gets what looks like overwhelming power, inevitably the contestants look to confederate against them. So that’s an unfortunate development.


Are you saying that, even if the cause is just, the U.S. should never go to war?

No. If somebody stages an amphibious operation off Long Beach, then we’re not going to give a shit who says what. We’re going to defend ourselves. That’s obvious. But, by and large, if we want to live in a reasonably well-ordered world, we have to pay attention to the regimes of international law. We can’t go around unilaterally discarding the Kyoto Global Warming Protocol or the ABM Treaty.

My objection is to the ham-fisted way in which we [began] this war. The nearest example I can think of is the way the Soviets tried to run the Warsaw Pact. It lasted only until everybody could figure out a way to let the air out of it. We don’t want to get ourselves in a position where, for 30 years, we’re a big guy and we push everybody else around and our balloon gets deflated. All of this unilateralism, that’s my problem.

You believe that danger is real? The Bush administration perceives that unilateralism has no such downside.

I would regard it as good news if the Bush administration is acting on rationale at all. In other words, if they thought it through, and they decided that unilateralism is a safe course because of the following reasons, “a,” “b,” “c” and “d,” I would be much more comfortable.


You are looking for a sound, logical reason for the policy behind the war.

I don’t care if it’s even sound. Or logical. I would regard it as good news if they’d thought about this at all, and arrived at a wrong conclusion. I’d be happy. The best explanation here is that they haven’t thought about what they are doing — either through lack of intelligence or lack of education, or they’ve never been out of Waco, Texas. I don’t know. I would think that anybody who has a passport and has traveled at all would understand the limits of unilateral action.


But we’re winning the war, so who cares if we didn’t get a U.N. endorsement? Won’t victory retroactively confer legitimacy on our policy, especially since, as you say, a brutal regime will rightly be toppled?

Bombs and bullets will win at the end of the day, but, believe me, when your actions are seen as legitimate, it makes a big difference to the morale of our guys in the foxhole, and it does a lot to spike the opposition. In Vietnam we had this situation where, rightly or wrongly, the North gained heart, they gained courage, from the fact that our action there was seen as illegitimate. And the same is true here in Iraq.


You’re not implying that a guerrilla war, akin to a war of liberation, will erupt in Iraq?

I doubt that we would see a lot of irregular opposition. If we were operating as we did in 1991, with Syria and Egypt alongside us, and a very broad international consensus, I think it would be a lot easier to handle the post- intervention occupation period, and all the rest of the problems we are going to have. So that’s the question of legitimacy.


Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright commented last year that if the U.S. invaded Iraq, it would own Iraq. She meant, I suspect, that the difficulty might not be in winning a war, but in maintaining a peace. The administration seems to publicly share this view — and has repeatedly said, in effect, “We’re outta here.”

I don’t understand the administration’s point here. I would think we will be in Iraq for a long time, and I don’t regard that as an unhappy development. We’ve been in Germany for 50-plus years, we’ve been in Korea for 50 years. That’s sort of what great powers do. This will be our first Middle East occupation, and probably not our last.


What about democracy in Iraq?

I would think that we can’t afford to test the theory that George W. Bush is more popular than Saddam Hussein. There is no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein is not liked in Iraq. But the question we’ve put to Iraqis is, “Do you like him better than you like George Bush?” That sort of election we would lose.


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