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June 17, 2004

Retired Diplomats, Soldiers Tell Bush to Beat It

by Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON – In an unprecedented broadside, more than two-dozen top retired U.S. career diplomats and military commanders, many of whom reached their top positions under former President George H.W. Bush, have called for George W. Bush to be defeated in his re-election bid in November.

"It is time for a change," declared a one-page statement by 27 ex-officials released at a press conference here Wednesday. "Never in the two and a quarter centuries of our history has the United States been so isolated among the nations, so broadly feared and distrusted."

"The Bush administration has shown that it does not grasp (the) circumstances of the new era, and is not able to rise to the responsibilities of world leadership in either style or substance," the statement concluded. "It is time for a change."

The statement, which had been anticipated since word of its formulation leaked out late last week, is the latest indication that what is sometimes called "the permanent government" – the senior ranks of the professional corps that run U.S. diplomacy, intelligence and the military – has become entirely disaffected from Bush and especially his foreign policy.

Last month, some 60 former U.S. diplomats and other government officials who served overseas released an open letter to the president protesting his support for the Israeli government's position in its conflict with the Palestinians, stressing that it is "costing our country its credibility, prestige and friends."

Signatories of that letter, which was inspired by a similar protest by 51 British ambassadors and senior government officials who sent a letter to Prime Minister Tony Blair in late April, included at least 16 former ambassadors, a handful of who have signed the most recent statement, which aimed at a higher-ranking group.

Also last month, retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, a former head of the U.S. Central Command, which covers the Gulf region and Central Asia, called publicly – and on the most-watched U.S. public-affairs television show, 60 Minutes – for the resignation of the top civilians in the Pentagon as well as neoconservative policy-makers in the National Security Council (NSC) and Vice President Dick Cheney's office.

Zinni, a former Marine who was a prominent opponent of the Iraq war, is particularly highly regarded among the uniformed officer corps.

But the latest letter, which was signed by men and women who attained the highest ranks in the military and foreign services, goes much further in essentially calling for Bush's defeat.

While some of the signers have identified themselves as Democrats and have been advising Senator John Kerry, the presumptive Democrat nominee for the presidential elections, most of them are seen as centrists and "realists" who rose to top positions under Bush's father (1989-1993) and probably supported him in his unsuccessful 1992 re-election bid.

"When I retired 10 years ago, I signed up as a Republican," said Gen. Merrill "Tony" McPeak, the former U.S. Air Force chief of staff, one of half a dozen general-rank military officers, who also included Admiral William Crowe, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Ronald Reagan (1981-89) and Gen. Joseph Hoar, head of the U.S. Central Command under Bush Senior.

McPeak added that in the 2000 election he was a member of Veterans for Bush but is now providing advice to the Kerry campaign.

Similarly, several retired ambassadors, including two – Arthur Hartman and Jack Matlock, Jr. – who served in the Soviet Union under Reagan, and several others, such as William Harrop (Israel), Robert Oakley (Somalia), and Freeman (Saudi Arabia), who served in sensitive hotspots under the elder Bush, have seen their careers prosper under Republicans.

The fact that such high-ranking officials would constitute themselves as a group and come out with a strongly political statement is particularly striking and was justified by their chief spokesperson, Phyllis Oakley, a former head of the State Department's highly regarded Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) by the fact that "never before have so many of us felt the need for a major change in the direction of our foreign policy."

"We have not only worked overseas; we have also held positions of major responsibility in the Department of State, Department of Defence, National Security Council, and at the United Nations. For many of us," she said, "such an overt step is very hard to do and we have made our decisions after deep reflection."

"Over nearly half a century we have worked energetically in all regions of the world, often in very difficult circumstances, to build piece by piece a structure of respect and influence for the United States that has served our country very well over the last 60 years," she said. "Today we see that structure crumbling under an administration blinded by ideology and a callous indifference to the realities of the world around it."

The letter itself charged Bush with adopting "an overbearing approach to America's role in the world, relying upon military might and righteousness, insensitive to the concern of traditional friends and allies, and disdainful of the United Nations."

It accused the administration of leading the United States "into an ill-planned and costly war from which exit is uncertain," and charged that the invasion was justified "by manipulation of uncertain intelligence about weapons of mass destruction, and by a cynical campaign to persuade the public that Saddam Hussein was linked to al-Qaeda and the attacks of Sept. 11 (2001)."

In a report also released Wednesday, the commission investigating those attacks said it found "no credible evidence" of any operational link between Iraq and al-Qaeda, claims made repeatedly by Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to justify the 2003 U.S.-led attack on the regime of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Like the May letter, signers of the Wednesday letter also assailed the administration's alignment with the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "To enhance credibility with Islamic peoples we must pursue courageous, energetic and balanced efforts to establish peace between Israelis and Palestinians," they said.

"There's been a complete failure of leadership on the issue," said Ambassador Michael Sterner, who served as Washington's envoy to the United Arab Emirates under Presidents Richard Nixon (1969-1974) and Gerald Ford (1974-1977).

The major challenges of the 21st century, the letter went on, include weapons proliferation, unequal distribution of wealth, terrorism, environmental degradation, population growth in the developing world, HIV/AIDS and ethnic and religious confrontations. "Such problems cannot be resolved by military force, nor by the sole remaining superpower alone."

Some of the signers applauded recent indications – particularly at the United Nations and in Iraq – that the administration is prepared to compromise with its allies and critics. But Oakley, who also served in the State Department under Reagan, said they might only represent a "tactical shift" rather than a "fundamental change in approach to foreign policy."

"Everything we have heard from friends abroad on every continent suggests to us that the lack of confidence in the present administration is so profound that a whole new team is needed to repair the damage," she said.

Several signers described the current situation in Iraq as a "disaster" for which the administration, particularly planners in the Pentagon, was entirely unprepared.

"The world's finest army is in the process of being dismembered and destroyed" as a result of the lack of preparation, the demands being made on it and the Abu Ghraib scandal, said Freeman, who served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War.

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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