With his ramrod-straight Marine bearing, close-cropped hair, and warm smile, Gen. Peter Pace steps out of his armored black SUV looking like he belongs on a recruiting poster.
In the 39 years since he graduated from the US Naval Academy, General Pace has seen it all: from Vietnam, to Korea, to Somalia, to duty now as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
At a Monitor-sponsored lunch with reporters Thursday, Pace offered a passionate argument for the US military's mission in Iraq, stressed the nation's capacity to handle a threat from North Korea, and defended his performance as America's top military officer.
Pace's polished performance was in contrast to the controversy surrounding remarks by Britain's army chief, Gen. Richard Dannatt, who said Thursday that British troops should be withdrawn from Iraq "soon." After triggering a storm of controversy in Britain, Dannatt gave interviews Friday saying that he meant a phased withdrawal over two or three years.
When Pace was asked why Americans should not be dismayed at the results on the ground in Iraq, he said the enemy has "a 100 year plan according to the map they published about a year and half ago. So anybody looking for a quick win in the war on terrorism probably hasn't read the enemy's published intent."
He argued that "if we were not in Iraq right now and if we were in Afghanistan ... the center of gravity would be in Afghanistan. And that is where the fight would be taking place. And I do believe that if we left both Iraq and Afghanistan that the fight would be taking place here in the United States because that is what they have said is their objective.... I believe the American people get the fact that this is fundamentally a threat to the survival of our nation and that we are going to do what we need to do to protect our children and our grandchildren. That does not mean we should not be learning from what we are doing on the battlefield."
The military alone cannot solve the problem of sectarian violence in Iraq, Pace said. "What has been less satisfactory is the difficulty in stopping the sectarian violence. Because fundamentally, you cannot have enough individuals under arms 24/7 on every street corner in Iraq to stop the hatred killings if someone wants to go out and do a hatred killing. And that is where the government's part comes in and where the political dialogue comes in and where the agreements and the guarantees come in amongst the various factions. So there is a lot you can do on the military side. You cannot lose this militarily, but it is not going to be 'won' militarily, either."
While Iraq is placing significant demands on the US military, Pace said that the nation has sufficient resources to fight a war with North Korea in the unlikely event that were to occur. Earlier this week, North Korea exploded what it said was a nuclear device. "We currently have just over 200,000 of our 2.4 million service members engaged in operations in the Gulf," Pace said, "which means just under 2 million are available to handle whatever other problem might come our way. That should not be lost on anybody. ... We have enormous capacity remaining, especially in our air and naval forces, to handle any potential problem."
But the general noted that dealing with North Korea while the US was still fighting in Iraq would not "be as clean as we would like." Various intelligence-collection systems are now devoted to Iraq. "So you wouldn't have the precision in combat going to a second theater of war.... You will end up dropping more bombs, potentially, to get the job done and it will be more brute force in a second [engagement]. But you can certainly get the job done anywhere on the planet with the forces we have available to us right now."
The threat of nuclear proliferation is a key worry, Pace said. "The real concern right now with North Korea is whether or not they would end up providing any weapons they may or may not have to terrorists."
Pace offered a spirited defense to charges in Bob Woodward's new book, "State of Denial," that top generals had not been blunt enough in presenting their concerns about the war in Iraq to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
"You are asking a judge if he runs a fair court when you ask me if I have been blunt enough," Pace said. "My answer is: Yes, I have been very upfront, very straightforward. I have multiple opportunities every day. I am with the secretary of Defense a minimum of 30 minutes a day, more likely three to four hours a day, [and] with the president several times a week."
"I have ample opportunity provided to me by the secretary of Defense and the president to express my views. And, in fact, they have listened to my views and, in fact, have asked me – and invite me – to speak about things that are not just purely military if they in any way impact on the military."
The public climate toward the military now stands in contrast to what Pace and other Vietnam veterans faced. It is "strikingly different, now than 39 years ago," he said. "I think the American people have made a distinction between their support for their military and what they believe personally about any particular fight that is going on. Even those who may be in opposition to things we are doing in the war on terror right now have been extremely warm and welcoming to the troops who are coming home. And that is well understood by the troops."