The General Election
By Rachel Dry
His first revolt, two years ago today, was expository: a 1,054 word op-ed in the New York Times describing why Donald Rumsfeld had "shown himself incompetent strategically, operationally and tactically" and why Rumsfeld was "far more than anyone else responsible for what has happened to our important mission in Iraq."
Now, five years into that important mission, Retired Lt. Gen. Paul D. Eaton, who was in charge of training the Iraqi military from 2003 to 2004, is registering his concern in a different way. "I'm convinced that if Senator McCain is elected, a lot of the players of the last administration will roll over into next administration," he told The Trail.
So he is campaigning for Sen. Hillary Clinton.
Eaton is one of more than 30 former admirals and generals supporting Clinton, including retired Gen. Wesley Clark, the former supreme allied commander of NATO, who endorsed her in September 2007 and whom Clinton counts as a friend of more than 25 years and Army Major General Antonio M. Taguba, the officer who led the Army's investigation into abuse at Abu Ghraib.
These high ranking former officers have joined Clinton at rallies, headlined events of their own and recorded testimonials and ads for the candidate they believe is most suited to lead the country's armed forces. It's support that the campaign is aggressively touting in the long stretch until Pennsylvania voting, where Clinton is emphasizing her readiness to be commander in chief.
Though it was the administration's actions that led Eaton into public commentary, its mishandling of the war in Iraq ultimately led Eaton "into the arena of the Democratic candidates," he said. "[It was] the extraordinary incompetence of the current administration, which I lay at the feet of the Republican party as much as at this president," he said.
Eaton describes Clinton as "pragmatic, a realist, brave and very very bright" and he campaigned for her in Texas before the primary there.
He said he was happy with the impressive field of Democratic candidates, but found himself traversing Texas on behalf of Clinton because he believes she is most prepared to serve. "I find her to be the candidate who's most aligned with the way I view the world."
While none of the other generals who also spoke out publicly against then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumseld in what was dubbed "The Generals' Revolt" have yet joined Eaton in publicly backing a Democrat, several have left the Republican party, concerned that a McCain presidency will be more of the same leadership that they already rebelled against.
The generals, totaling roughly half a dozen, stress that their effort two years ago was not coordinated and certainly no one presumes to speak for the group. But, on the whole, they express concern on two fronts: the direction in which the Republican party -- the party most say they have been affiliated with their entire lives -- is moving, and, as all except for Eaton said, the high profile way former generals are being used in the current campaign.
Eaton has made the clearest break, but others seemed primed to follow. Retired Maj. Gen. John Batiste, who commanded the Army's 1st Infantry Division in Iraq, said he went to vote for a Republican candidate in his Rochester, New York precinct on Feb. 5, but couldn't bring himself to do it. "I walked in and ended up walking out without voting. I chose not to cast my vote. But I did go in and make an effort. I was there. I zeroed out all the levers and pulled it. I'm a very disgruntled Republican."
Batiste said he is still looking for a candidate who understands the challenge of "global Islamic extremism" -- using something very close to McCain's frequently used phrase "radical Islamic extremism" to point out what he perceives as the candidate's shortcomings.
Retired Marine Lt. Gen. Paul K. Van Riper, who spoke out against Rumsfeld in the spring of 2006 as well, said he has never publicly supported a candidate and has no plans to do so this year. He said he is "very encouraged" by the new defense team in place, but is critical of the current administration.
"After 48 years as a staunch Republican, I no longer consider myself a member of the party," he said. "Paraphrasing former President Reagan, the Republican Party left me; I did not leave it!"
Former head of the U.S. Central Command, retired Marine Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, has also not endorsed any candidate though, he said, a number have asked for his support.
Zinni said he is surprised at the number of retired generals who have endorsed and are actively campaigning. "Obviously, we can't help it. We have an ongoing conflict," he said. "It's just unusual that there's such a high number."
Zinni pointed to the nature of the ongoing conflict as part of the reason, perhaps, that the candidates are able to tout their lengthy lists of general supporters. "It's not resolved purely on the battle field. Something else has to go on politically and diplomatically."
And perhaps that's the message of campaign events where candidates are flanked by former high-ranking officers. But maybe the problem is that the stage isn't crowded enough. Retired Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold, who was director of operations at the Pentagon's military joint staff until late 2002, published an essay in Time magazine in April 2006 titled "Why Iraq Was a Mistake."
He said he doesn't believe that generals need to be involved in the political process, especially because the military must be, by its nature, loyal to all.
"In time of war, I can understand the emphasis on participating fully in the national security debate, but it still leaves me a little uncomfortable," he said. "I'd be more comfortable if the participants included ambassadors, a secretary of commerce, former intelligence officials and others. Those who equate strong national security strictly to defense are not thinking broadly enough."
Batiste agrees on that point:
"Quite frankly, I would have thought we would have learned long ago that the military can't do it alone," he said.
Washington Post editors
March 19, 2008; 4:50 PM ET
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