For Democrats, Welcome Words on Rumsfeld -- if Not the War

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Maj. Gen. John Batiste, the former commander of the Army's 1st Infantry Division in Iraq, had complained loudly about the handling of the Iraq war since he retired 11 months ago -- but no one invited him to present his views to Congress.

"I find that outrageous," the general said. "I have a sense for what I'm talking about."

Yesterday, Batiste got his moment -- sort of. Shunned by the Senate Armed Services Committee, Batiste and two other retired officers spoke before the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, a rump group with little legislative clout but access to a proper Senate hearing room. And Batiste made up for lost time.

"Donald Rumsfeld is not a competent wartime leader," said Batiste, wearing a pinstripe suit, calling himself a "lifelong Republican" and bearing a slight resemblance to Oliver North. "He surrounds himself with like-minded and compliant subordinates who do not grasp the importance of the principles of war, the complexities of Iraq or the human dimension of warfare. . . . Bottom line: His plan allowed the insurgency to take root and metastasize to where it is today."

Further, Batiste charged, Rumsfeld "reduced force levels to unacceptable levels, micromanaged the war" and created an environment where U.S. troops "are doing unconscionable things."

"Our world is much less safe today than it was on September 11," Batiste said, echoing the administration's newly leaked intelligence estimate.

Batiste, who retired in protest rather than accept a three-star promotion, was a persuasive witness -- and Democrats were joyous. "Your statement, I believe, defines the word 'courage,' " Sen. Byron Dorgan (N.D.) gushed. Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.) pumped his fist and gave Batiste and his colleagues pats on the biceps. And Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) proclaimed, giddily: "This hearing today could change our country."

Perhaps. But Democrats, while celebrating Batiste's criticism of the administration, exercised some selective listening at the hearing when Batiste and his colleagues offered their solution: more troops, more money and more time in Iraq.

"We must mobilize our country for a protracted challenge," Batiste warned.

"We better be planning for at least a minimum of a decade or longer," contributed retired Marine Col. Thomas Hammes.

"We are, conservatively, 60,000 soldiers short," added retired Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, who was in charge of building the Iraqi Security Forces.

That last remark caused Schumer to shake his head, indicating he was not so sure. And, indeed, the retired officers' recommendations were off-message for the Democrats. Six of the seven Democrats at the hearing supported legislation calling for the start of a troop withdrawal from Iraq this year. One, Richard Durbin (Ill.), voted for the pullout to be mostly complete by next summer.

The officers' bipartisan scolding disappointed some of the antiwar activists in the crowd, who wore colorful shirts with messages such as "Troops Home Fast" and "Say No to War."

"Peace is the solution, not more war," one activist shouted as the session ended.

But on balance, the retired officers' strong words about the war's conduct outweighed their calls for a greater commitment to Iraq. "Secretary Rumsfeld built his team by systematically removing dissension," Batiste said. "At one point, he threatened to fire the next person who talked about the need for a postwar plan."

Rumsfeld "has tried and continues to fight this war on the cheap," Eaton added. "The Army is in terrible shape, and the Marines aren't much better."

"It is time for him to provide the nation the last in a long series of services and step down," Hammes said coolly.

Rumsfeld himself, meeting with Afghanistan's president yesterday, answered the dissidents' calls for his resignation with a two-word answer. "I'm not," he told reporters, and then he asked for a different question.

But those at the hearing practiced no such economy of words. Dorgan twice referred to William Manchester's "Glory and the Dream." Antiwar Rep. Walter Jones (N.C.), the lone Republican participant, quoted Rudyard Kipling: If any question why we died/ Tell them, because our fathers lied.

In between literary allusions, senators worked to squeeze every possible criticism out of the witnesses. When Batiste spoke about the need for strong leadership, Durbin tried to lead the witness. "What I hear you saying," Durbin said, "is we're talking about political competence, too."

"Absolutely," Batiste complied.

The questioners skillfully directed the witnesses toward past failures rather than their expansive prescriptions for the future. A notable exception was the relatively hawkish Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), who, as the last questioner, invited the officers to comment on the effect of a specific withdrawal date.

"The result will be a civil war of some magnitude that will turn into a regional mess," Batiste said without hesitation.

As he stood to leave, Batiste worried that this last point -- the need to stay in Iraq -- might be overlooked. "The hard part," he told reporters, "is moving forward."

Did he detect any enthusiasm for making a bigger effort in Iraq?

"God help us if there's not," the general said.

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