"If You Cannot Be Loved, Be Feared"

That's just one of the lessons historian Ralph Peters sees in Baghdad's fall -- a U.S. triumph that shows preemption has been vindicated

Ralph Peters may be as close as the American military gets to a Renaissance soldier. He's certainly not one to mince words. The former lieutenant colonel served in the infantry and Army intelligence and holds a degree in international relations. With a razor-sharp analytical style and a historian's grasp of warfare, he has emerged as a leading exponent of the 21st century military. It's a U.S. fighting force that Peters believes will be leaner, faster, smarter, and more lethal than anything seen before.

And increasingly, he contends in books such as Beyond Terror: Strategy in a Changing World and Fighting for the Future: Will America Triumph?, it's a military that will be called on to intervene in seething hot spots against global terror networks and Third World tyrants armed with weapons of mass destruction (see BW Online, 4/10/03, "Two Myths of the War in Iraq"). On Apr. 7, Peters took time out from meeting with U.S. Green Berets to talk to BusinessWeek's Washington Bureau Chief Lee Walczak. Here are edited excerpts from their conversation:

Q: In the early days of the Iraq war, some military analysts insisted the U.S. went to war against Saddam Hussein without enough armor. What's your take?

A:

If we had more ground troops, taking Baghdad would have been easier. And with another mechanized division in place, we would have secured Baghdad and be moving on [Saddam's ancestral home of] Tikrit by now. So more ground troops would definitely have helped. But the Army and Marine units that [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld once scorned as superfluous have managed to pull his cookies out of the fire in Iraq with a strong performance. The plan wasn't perfect, but they adapted well.

Q: Are you referring to Rumsfeld's head-banging with the military Establishment over his vision of a slimmed-down fighting force?

A:

I see Rumsfeld as a brilliant yet tragic figure. He could have been the great Defense Secretary we needed to transform the military. But his arrogance undermines his effectiveness. He thought the Iraq war could be done on a shoe-string because of high technology. But in the end, [Central Command General] Tommy Franks managed an ill-tempered compromise on troop strength, and that proved sufficient.

Q: What about Rumsfeld's influential No. 2, Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz? Many opponents of the war see him as a master strategist plotting future interventions...

A:

I see Wolfowitz as a kind of sober visionary who gets it right. He gets into trouble when he strays into tactics.

Q: Both men are associated with the doctrine of Digital War -- basically, using America's technology advantage to gain a decisive edge on the battlefield. Has the experience in Iraq supported the Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz vision?

A:

The strategic air campaign disappointed us. We bombed [a leadership bunker in] Baghdad, but the results on the regime weren't decisive. When air power turned to supporting the troops, its effectiveness soared.

High-tech weapons are great, but the Iraq war really demonstrated the need to have balanced forces. The technology that worked best was not the flashy strategic stuff, but the enhanced battlefield communications that permitted the Army, Air Force, and Marines to talk to each other. Close air support in Iraq, for example, worked better than it has before.

Q: Do you think the Secretary of Defense has absorbed this lesson?

A:

I'm not sure Rumsfeld learns very much. He will view all this as vindication. For instance, in his dealings with generals, he could have listened to them and made them feel a part of plans [to modernize forces]. Instead, he called them yesterday's men and sent them out of his office. That was just stupid.

Q: So what will happen to Rumsfeld's campaign to overhaul the military and reduce reliance on Cold War weapons?

A:

Our military is at austere levels. This war will prevent Rumsfeld from cutting troop strength further.

Q: Given the decrepit state of Iraq's military, does U.S. dominance in this war really prove much?

A:

Believe it or not, Iraq had one of the more able armies we're likely to face. We still managed to put a kind of impenetrable envelope over our infantry columns. Syria has an air force, but it wouldn't last a week.

In reality, no war provides a model for a succeeding war. In the Balkans, we saw strategic bombing. In Iraq in 1991, we saw a classic armored war. In Afghanistan, we saw troops on the ground, special operations, and an indigenous rebel force. Now, we may see urban warfare and counter-terrorist operations figure prominently in the outcome. We have a huge number of special operations forces in Iraq fighting an invisible war. I have always predicted the fight for Baghdad would not be another Stalingrad. Saddam isn't that smart -- and we're not that stupid.

Q: Overall, what lessons will the American military draw from the fall of Saddam's regime in Iraq?

A:

This is going to sound cold-blooded, but the war has been a great training opportunity and an attempt to try out new doctrine. The guys on the ground now have a chance to really write some new rules for future warfare.

Q: Why has world opinion been so hostile to America's role in Iraq?

A:

I won't do BBC interviews any more because they're so anti-American. I think the British press can't get over Graham Greene, basically. I think the Russians are simply embarrassed, because they can't even do Chechnya. The French can't pull off a minor intervention like the Ivory Coast. So there is a tendency to jump to conclusions about the war.

Q: In many quarters of the world, there is a strong feeling that despite what happens on the battlefield, a U.S. that stormed into Iraq without U.N. support is bound to "lose the peace." Your view?

A:

We're not going to lose the peace. People have to be patient. Over the next few months, we will face car bombings and other suicide attacks and guerrilla action in parts of the country. Iraq is not going to turn into Kansas overnight. But will it be better than it was under Saddam? Yes.

Q: What do you say to Europeans who are convinced that a preemptive war on Iraq is merely a dress-rehearsal for a string of other U.S. interventions?

A:

The technical answer is: F*** 'em! We are the new Rome, and Rome does not ask permission of Gaul or Thebes. In essence, Rumsfeld was right when he referred to the "Old Europe." The war was a watershed event, and we are not going to be able to work with France on strategic matters in the future. The French will get some contracts in Iraq, but nothing big.

In Alliance terms, France committed Great Power suicide over Iraq.... The Europeans' fears are groundless in the short term. In the long term, the doctrine of preemption has been vindicated.

Q: So you don't expect the U.S. to start confronting other Axis of Evil nations?

A:

North Korea tried a two-bit blackmail attempt. We're not going to start a war on the Korean peninsula that could cause tens of thousands of casualties. On the other hand, I think if you're the leader of Syria or Iran, you may be worried about supporting terrorism now. What we have done is make the other 20 dictators in line very nervous. Fear is incredibly important to the whole outcome. I have always felt that if you cannot be loved, be feared.

Q: What about prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian accord?

A:

There will be a Palestinian state set up in the next few years, but I think when it's done, people are going to be disappointed that it doesn't stop terrorism. The Arab regimes desperately need someone to blame for their failures, and they will continue to blame Israel and the U.S. The last thing they want in the region is a state with a rule of law and freedom of speech, because that is not their model.