In a presidential campaign dominated by issues of war and warriors, perhaps it was inevitable that retired Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks would be heard from.
The commander in chief of the U.S. Central Command in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq -- the man whose angular face and deep voice became synonymous with those wars through his daily television briefings -- announced Tuesday that he supports President Bush and will say so at the Republican National Convention on Thursday night.
Sitting in a skybox overlooking the convention floor Wednesday, Franks said he is registered as an independent in Florida and would have felt more comfortable expressing his support of the president "in the quietude of the voting booth."
He decided to speak up, in his words, after "connecting the dots" -- a phrase from the war on terrorism, not coincidentally -- that reveal what he believes Bush and Democrat John F. Kerry are made of. In language that echoes the president's campaign literature, he said he decided the country needs Bush's "consistency, persistency, leadership and character" to fight terrorism that he sees as a threat to the American way of life.
"So I will become ever more vocal in my support for George Bush," said Franks, looking strikingly different in a gray suit and yellow patterned tie than in fatigues.
Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt had said Bush would announce in August the support of more than 100 retired "flag officers, generals and admirals," but the announcement has not yet come. Twelve retired generals and admirals endorsed Kerry at the Democratic National Convention, and retired Army Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke to the delegates there.
Earlier, Franks's predecessor as Centcom commander, retired Marine Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, made a speech criticizing the Iraq war as misguided and poorly executed.
Since then, analysts believe, television ads being run by the anti-Kerry Swift Boat Veterans for Truth have hurt voter confidence in Kerry as a potential commander in chief. In response, former Air Force Gen. Merrill McPeak, one of the 12 who endorsed Kerry at the convention, is featured in an ad defending Kerry's service in Vietnam. McPeak was among more than 80 retired officers who endorsed Bush in 2000.
Now comes Franks, perhaps the most famous general in the country because of his visibility during the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. His memoir, "American Soldier," is on the New York Times bestseller list.
In ways, Franks is defending his own legacy as well as Bush's because, as Franks said in the interview, he made many of the military decisions for which the president is being criticized. He said in his book that he agrees with criticism that the United States sent too few troops to Iraq to secure the peace, but said he also agreed with the troop levels at the time because he believed there would be more international cooperation.
He also vehemently defended the decision to send Afghan militias rather than U.S. ground troops to Tora Bora, where al Qaeda leaders were trapped after the Taliban government fell in Afghanistan. Kerry has attacked that decision -- to loud applause -- saying, for example, in Seattle in May: "Osama bin Laden is still at large because the Bush administration didn't finish him off at the battle of Tora Bora when they had a chance."
Asked about this attack on Bush, a clearly annoyed Franks said: "He didn't make that decision. I did." Franks said he relied on Afghans because of the Soviet Union's disastrous efforts in the 1980s to fight with ground troops in Afghanistan. He also said the strategy was to drive al Qaeda toward the Pakistani border where 100,000 Pakistani troops were waiting "as a catcher's mitt." The Pakistanis did in fact kill and capture hundreds of al Qaeda operatives, Franks said, although bin Laden was not found. Franks said he has seen no conclusive proof that bin Laden was in Tora Bora at the time.
"I think we've made a little too much of that -- that this president decided to go in light and therefore miss bin Laden," Franks said. "I think there are layers of complexity involved in these decisions, and I think anytime we oversimplify that, we run the risk of missing the point."
In detailing some of the "dots" that led him to endorse Bush publicly, Franks raised an issue in a current Swift Boat Veterans ad, accusing Kerry of disloyalty to his fellow soldiers for testifying that they committed widespread atrocities in Vietnam. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a prisoner of war in Vietnam, has denounced the ads as dishonorable, but Bush has not. Franks said he is disapproves of one ad challenging Kerry's wartime service, but not the one on his antiwar testimony.
"I saw his testimony [replayed on CNN], and I thought about the issue of loyalty toward subordinates," Frank said. "That was one of those dots on the page for me."
The Kerry campaign supplied a conflicting quote from Franks on the Aug. 3 "Hannity and Colmes" Fox News program: "I would say that the things that Senator Kerry said are undeniable about activities in Vietnam." And on ABC's "This Week" on Aug. 8, asked if Kerry was qualified to be commander in chief, Franks responded, "Absolutely."
"General Franks has defended John Kerry's military service," said Kerry campaign spokesman David Wade. "Rather than join in the Madison Square Garden makeover, General Franks should admit that George Bush's miscalculations have hurt our troops, the mission isn't accomplished, and we can't afford what this Orwellian administration calls 'catastrophic success.' "
Franks said that the charges and countercharges will become relevant for voters. "There are going to be dots about George W. Bush's decisions and weapons of mass destruction and the decision to go into Iraq -- Good? Bad? There are going to be dots on there about the Swift Boat guys, too. And Americans are going to connect the dots."