Ex-general speaks out on course of Iraq war

Former commander condemns `failed strategy' in TV ad

May 13, 2007|By New York Times News Service

ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- John Batiste has traveled a long way in the past four years, from commanding the 1st Infantry Division in Iraq to quitting the Army after three decades in uniform, and now, from his new life overseeing a steel factory here, to openly challenging President Bush on his management of the war.

"Mr. President, you did not listen," Batiste says in new television advertisements being broadcast in Republican congressional districts as part of a $500,000 campaign financed by VoteVets.org. "You continue to pursue a failed strategy that is breaking our great Army and Marine Corps. I left the Army in protest in order to speak out. Mr. President, you have placed our nation in peril. Our only hope is that Congress will act now to protect our fighting men and women."

Those are powerful, inflammatory words from Batiste, a retired major general who spent 31 years in the Army, a profession sworn to unflinching loyalty to civilian control of the military. Many senior officers said privately that talk like this makes them uncomfortable. When you pin that first star on your shoulder, they say, your first name becomes "General" for the rest of your life.

But Batiste said he has received no phone calls, letters or messages from current or former officers challenging his public stance, although he occasionally gets an anonymous e-mail message with the heading "Traitor." Having quit the Army in anger over what he calls mismanagement of the Iraq war, he said he chose a second career far from Washington and the Pentagon so that he could speak freely on military issues.

"I am outraged, as are the majority of Americans," Batiste said over sandwiches in a blue-collar diner here. "I am a lifelong Republican. But it is past time for change."

A White House spokeswoman, Emily Lawrimore, said in response to the advertising, "We respectfully disagree." Lawrimore said Bush conferred routinely with senior officers, citing a three-hour meeting Thursday with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a conversation earlier in the week with Gen. David Petraeus, the senior U.S. commander in Iraq.

"The decisions the president has made have been based on information he receives from commanders and generals on the ground," she added.

A conversation with Batiste offers one more window into the debate on Iraq. While some former commanders, like Batiste, have been speaking out against the war, others, such as Gen. Jack Keane, the retired Army vice chief of staff, have offered advice to the White House on Iraq.

Batiste said he chose to go public with his critique of the war effort after 30 years of honoring the Army's rules of silence. He said it was during that time, commanding 22,000 troops in combat in 2004 and 2005, that convinced him that American fighting in Iraq was short on vision as well as troops.

"There was never enough. There was never a reserve," he said. "Again and again, we had to move troops by as many as 200 miles out of our area of operations to support another sector. We would pull troops out of contact with the enemy and move them into contact with the enemy somewhere else. The minute we'd leave, the insurgents would pick up on that, and kill everybody who had been friendly."

Batiste was among a handful of retired generals first calling last year for the resignation of Donald H. Rumsfeld as defense secretary. He said he realizes that lending his name to television advertisements aimed at the president and Republican members of Congress in an election cycle is different.

Officials of VoteVets.org, an Internet-based veterans advocacy organization, said the television spots will run in the home districts of more than a dozen members of Congress, among them Sen. John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican who, as former chairman of the Armed Services Committee, is considered one of Capitol Hill's experts on the military.

As described by Batiste, the message is not anti-war. It argues against continuing the war in Iraq as a civil, sectarian conflict that cannot be won by outside forces, and that the effort to do so is crippling the Army and the Marine Corps. It does not deny the danger of violent Islamic extremism, he said, but contends that the war in Iraq prevents the military from preparing to battle other global security threats.

And it says that if terrorists, and especially terrorists armed with unconventional weapons, truly threaten America's survival, then the rest of the country - not just the military - should be called to sacrifice.

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