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POINT OF VIEW: General Discusses High Stakes In Iraq Plan January 16, 2007

Posted by notapundit in Commentary, Military News, US News.
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By Richard J. Levine
A Dow Jones Newswires Column

NEW YORK (Dow Jones)–“It’s been a heck of a week.”

So began Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at the outset of a 90-minute lecture and question-and-answer session at the Cornell Club in midtown Manhattan last Friday evening.

It was around 8 p.m., and the nation’s highest-ranking military officer was running more than an hour behind schedule after having been delayed flying up from Washington.

There, he had just finished a second tough day of appearances with Defense Secretary Robert Gates before skeptical – and in some instances hostile – congressmen and senators on President Bush’s new Iraq plan, which calls for dispatching 21,500 additional U.S. troops to secure Baghdad. The personable, 61-year-old ramrod-straight Marine had earned his pay, defending a strategy that much of the country opposes and whose outcome is highly uncertain.

He must have been tired, though he didn’t show it. And he probably would have preferred to be home relaxing over a drink rather than facing a largely Ivy League audience that, while respectful and appreciative of the general’s service and appearance, hardly was a bastion of Bush support. (The club had made sure there was a good scotch in the reception room, but he never had a chance to sample it.)

His appearance had been scheduled through the Oxonian Society months before, when no one could have anticipated that it would come a few days after a highly controversial presidential address to the nation on Iraq. He could have canceled, and most of the 175 in attendance would have understood. But he kept his commitment, perhaps the result of his 40 years in the Marine Corps and close ties to New York. He was born in Brooklyn and grew up in nearby Teaneck, N.J., before attending the Naval Academy. His father, an electrician, had emigrated from Italy.

The general spoke informally with intelligence, insight and warmth in unvarnished language that indicated he understands the high stakes and long odds facing this latest plan to avoid disaster in the heart of the Middle East.

He started by discussing the Joint Chiefs’ role in shaping the new policy, saying that younger combat commanders just back from Iraq were invited to join the deliberations in the search for new ideas. He explained how he hoped the U.S. and Iraqi military would work together on the mean streets of Baghdad.

But he readily conceded that neither he nor anyone else could “guarantee” that the president’s plan would succeed. He said it would work only if the military steps were accompanied by political progress (the creation of an effective national government that truly embraces both the minority Sunnis and Kurds as well as the Shiites) and economic progress.

So far, he added, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s word has been good. That was last Friday. By Monday news reports were circulating of wrangling between the U.S. and Iraqi military over the details of how to put the new strategy into effect – hardly an encouraging sign.

Gen. Pace didn’t confine his remarks to Iraq. Asked about the situation in North Korea, he responded by saying “four foot ten” before labeling it “dangerous.” He quickly explained to his momentarily puzzled audience that he had recently seen pictures of North Korean, South Korean and American soldiers and was struck by how short the North Koreans were as a result of widespread malnutrition in the country. Because North Korea is so poor and the only thing of value it has to sell is weapons, the obvious danger is that its weapons will end up in the hands of the enemies of the U.S.

As for the recent U.S. air strikes in Somalia targeting al-Qaida suspects, he defended them as carefully and fully authorized operations to “kill” high-value targets in a limited window of opportunity.

Surveying the global war on terrorists that the U.S. has been waging since 9/11, Gen. Pace said he worried that as time goes by Americans would tend to forget the horrific attacks on New York and Washington that day. And then he admitted that he didn’t know whether it was military action abroad, increased security at home or just plain “luck” that accounted for the absence of new attacks on U.S. soil.

Whether they agreed with him or not, the well-dressed and well-informed New Yorkers gave the plain-speaking, long-serving Marine a standing ovation at the end of a long, difficult week for him and for the nation.

It was hard not to believe that it was meant as appreciation not only of Gen. Pace but all who serve under him, even as the national debate over the war in Iraq intensifies.

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