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Wednesday, April 2, 2003

A 'terrible, bloody' miscalculation
Former envoy to Iraq expects U.S. to win war, lose on many other fronts

Senior editorial writer

Having talked to him on the phone a day or two before, I knew that former Ambassador to Iraq (well, actually, chief-of-mission, for obscure legislative and civil service reasons that he explained to me at some length, though they don't make a functional difference) Edward Peck would be provocative at the World Affairs Council last Thursday. He was.

Peck, a UCLA grad who spent 32 years as a diplomat, was careful to preface his remarks with the information that he had served two hitches in the U.S. Army as a paratrooper and had faced war, disease and riots as a diplomat, so he takes a back seat to none in facing danger for his country. He was in Iraq from 1977 to 1980, served in other Middle East posts, was coordinator of covert intelligence in the State Department and deputy director of the Cabinet Task Force on Terrorism in the Reagan White House.

Not exactly a wimp or a pacifist.

He also peppered his talk with humor - a good diplomat is "somebody who can convince his wife she looks terrible in diamonds" - to leaven what for many had to be an unpleasant message.

Noting that George W. Bush's approval rating was 52 percent on Sept. 10, 2001, and 90 percent on Sept. 12 when he was a president under foreign attack, Peck suggested a similar phenomenon might be at work for Saddam Hussein, as despicable as he is. He said that when you invade a foreign country, the people there just might view you as invaders rather than liberators.

Peck thinks the United States will probably win this war eventually, but it will be harder than our leaders anticipated and will cost us dearly in national morale, solidarity and international prestige. And we'll be paying a high price for a long time to come in increased Middle Eastern instability and acts of terrorism.

The notion that Islamists hate us because of our freedom or "because Britney Spears has a bellybutton" is "terribly stupid," Peck believes.

Most Americans don't want to face the fact that we've been killing Iraqis for 12 years, through sanctions and bombing, and that we're constantly in the world's face.

But if we don't stop to consider honestly what really drives the terrorists of the world we'll have to deal with them for a long time to come.

The idea that attacking Iraq will end terrorism is a little hard to square with the fact that we've called up 25,000 reservists to protect the homeland, and Colin Powell has asked for $6 billion to turn every American embassy into a fortress, all to coincide with the beginning of the war.

"I hope to the depths of my being I am wrong," Peck said. "But I'm afraid we will pay a terrible, bloody price for this miscalculation in Iraq."

How did the World Affairs Council audience in conservative Orange County respond to this message? By my count, he got four hostile questions, three friendly ones and a couple simply seeking more information, all quite thoughtfully put. A few people, obviously upset, walked out toward the end of the talk, but most people stayed.

Former World Affairs Council president Sir Eldon Griffiths made it clear that he agreed with much of what Ambassador Peck had said but disagreed with parts of the talk. He believes the evidence on dangerous weapons and intention to use them is strong enough to justify this war.

Whatever you think about the war, there's little doubt that it's stirring provocative and thoughtful discussion here in Orange County.


In a Guest Column ["Davis should heed history"] in Sunday's Commentary section, author Veronique de Rugy incorrectly wrote that Gov. Gray Davis wants to increase state taxes on cigarettes in addition to his plan to raise California sales and income taxes by $8.3 billion. The cigarette-tax increase is actually part of the overall $8.3 billion plan. The Register regrets the error.

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