Retired Gen. Batiste on New Approaches in Iraq

Our "Rethinking Iraq" series continues with retired Maj. Gen. John Batiste, commander of the Army's First Infantry Division in both Iraq and Kosovo.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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Now we continue our series of interviews with current and former administration officials and military officers on Rethinking Iraq. Of course, the war is a critical issue in the midterm elections, now less than a week away. And the Bush administration, key members of Congress, and many, many members of the public are thinking about new approaches, new policies and new directions in a conflict that appears to have no end in sight. Highly anticipated recommendations from a bipartisan panel are due out some time after the election.

Our guest today is retired Major General John Batiste, who commanded the Army's 1st Infantry Division in Iraq, and earlier in Kosovo. If you have questions for Gen. Batiste about the way ahead in Iraq, our number is 800-989-8255. Or you can send us e-mail, talk@npr.org.

Gen. Batiste joins us today from us the studios of member station WXXI in Rochester, New York. And, General, nice to have you on the program.

Major General JOHN BATISTE (U.S. Army, Retired): Neal, thank you. It's good to be with you.

CONAN: You've been among those in the forefront of rethinking Iraq for some time. As you look at the situation now and the years ahead, how do you think it should go?

Maj. Gen. BATISTE: I'll tell you, Neal, I think at the moment Iraq is a failed state which we created. And we did this not only to the good people of Iraq but to ourselves.

CONAN: We did it, but what do we do about it?

Maj. Gen. BATISTE: Boy, that's the big question. And if I can just take a minute. The first things we need to do is all vote on the 7th of November. The most important and single most compelling issue of our time right now is what happens in Iraq and Afghanistan. And there can be no partisan politics whatsoever when we go to the polls on the 7th of November. First off, we all need to vote. It doesn't matter if you're a Republican or a Democrat; you need to vote for the candidate who understands the issues and who has the moral courage.

A case in point is my own decision, my own dilemma in New York state's 29th District. The incumbent Republican, Randy Kuhl, needs to be replaced, and let me tell you why. He's an example of a congressman who has not stood up to his constitutional requirements and authorities to provide the oversight that is so desperately needed in our government. And he went to visit Iraq in early August, spent a few hours there in relative safety, came back and published on the 4th of August a report that said, and I quote, “we'll start to see significant numbers of US troops coming home by the end of the year and our tax dollars are being well-spent.”

This is stunning. Either he didn't understand, was not well informed, or he just didn't have the moral courage to do the right thing. This report came out the same day that General Abizaid, in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee, testified that we were getting into serious trouble in Iraq. So we need congressmen who are informed and who have the moral courage to stand up and do the right thing. We need a Congress that stands up to its oversight responsibilities in our government.

That's the way the Constitution has been designed. And for the past five years, our Congress has, in my view, has abrogated its responsibilities.

CONAN: By not asking just in terms of defining the term oversight, but not asking the right questions, by not calling the right witnesses.

Maj. Gen. BATISTE: Oh, exactly. By not having the hearings, which, by the way, in our history in both World Wars, the Korean War, for example, any numbers of hearings that were held where officers, non-commissioned officers, junior soldiers called in, sworn in to tell the truth, the whole truth, which then sets them free. But our Congress hasn't done that. They've allowed the executive branch to run this war, this effort in Afghanistan, in Iraq, the way they wanted to do it.

The dialogue's been missing. The debate has been missing, which is fundamental in a democracy.

CONAN: Now, the administration draws a distinction between changes in tactics and changes in strategy. You're somebody who's studied both of those things for some time. What's the difference?

Maj. Gen. BATISTE: Oh, there's a huge difference, and I'll tell you right now that there are right now that there on the ground in any combat situation, whether it's Iraq, whether it's Afghanistan, whether it's peace enforcement in Bosnia or Kosovo that I've been involved in, tactics evolve daily. No one needs to tell an American commander to change his or her tactics based upon the situation on the ground.

CONAN: Give us an example, if you would.

Maj. Gen. BATISTE: That's not the issue. The issue is the strategy that put us where we are, and I can run through several points, if you'd like, where I think we need to take a look at an alternative strategy for our country.

CONAN: Well, give us an example, if you would.

Maj. Gen. BATISTE: Well, with respect to strategy, sure. You know, we went to war with the wrong strategy, totally didn't anticipate the insurgency until just three or four weeks prior to the invasion. We weren't even looking at the hard work to build the peace and set the conditions for Iraqi self-reliance, which in my view is criminal.

But we need to look at a new alternative strategy that does things like A, mobilize this great country of ours. Get the U.S. government on a war footing. Americans need to understand the what, why, the how long and what will it cost. We deserve that. We need to fix the interagency process. We need to insist on unity of effort with all departments in our government fully committed and engaged to win this thing.

We need to properly resource the military in both force structure and dollars. The Army and the Marine Corps are too small at this point. They're at a breaking point and, quite frankly, are not prepared to respond to other contingencies. We need to find alternative ways to finance this war. Two billion dollars a week. Are you kidding me? It's all being mortgaged against our future. Why haven't we looked at ways to ration, to develop the funds and resources we need to finish this thing, and it goes on in that category.

The next thing we need to do, and I've got nine points. I'm sure I don't have time to go through them all. But the next thing we need to do is get the Iraqi security forces properly stood up. This needs to be America's main effort, that is, an Iraqi government depends on a competent security force for its very survival.

CONAN: Well, at the moment, you seem to have a security force that's composed, at least in part, of members of militias with agendas that are not necessarily that of the Iraqi government.

Maj. Gen. BATISTE: And that's certainly a challenge that we need to work through, but we need to deliberately address the Iraqi army, police and border patrol. Pour the resources into this thing in the right quantity with our very best trainers, all set up for success, America's main effort. We can do this. We've wasted years.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners in on this conversation. 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. We'll begin with Joe. Joe's calling from Chicago, Illinois.

JOE (Caller): How are you doing, General?

Maj. Gen. BATISTE: Joe, how are you?

JOE: I'm good, sir. My son served under you. Well, he was a photographer and a journalist for the First I.D. I followed you the whole time he was over there and before that. He was under your command for about three years while you were in command of the First I.D. I've come to respect you. I respected you the whole time, and I was quite just crestfallen when you took this stand, and I was wondering what turned you around. I mean, you commanded one of the best divisions over there, and for you to come out like this, it was just shocking to me. So can you tell me what turned you around and made you come out and make these comments?

Maj. Gen. BATISTE: Thanks, good question. It was a long journey for me that goes back to the spring of 2001, where I worked in the Pentagon and was privy to certain things. In June of 2002, I departed to command the First Infantry Division, and what a great outfit, you're right.

JOE: Yes, sir.

Maj. Gen. BATISTE: You've got the best military in the world, bar none, the finest force this country has ever fielded. And the soldiers and their families did a magnificent job in 14 months in Kosovo, four months in Turkey and then 12 months in Iraq.

But this long journey that I went through, witness to the development of this failed strategy, witness to our secretary of defense's forcing the strategy to be in his image, dismissing dissent, building a team around him that was compliant, an executive branch that was out of control without Congress providing the necessary oversight that is required by our Constitution.

A lot of things led up to my final decision, which was a gut wrenching decision, trust me, because I stepped out of what I had been very comfortable in for 31 years serving my country, a two time combat veteran, lots of experience in the Balkans with peace enforcement.

Perhaps it was the day that we dedicated a monument in Wurzburg, Germany, to the 193 soldiers that gave their last full measure on behalf of this cause in Iraq, and it crushed me to realize it didn't have to be that way. We could've done this as a nation and been successful without putting the American people and the Iraqi people through the hell they've been through.

CONAN: Joe.

Maj. Gen. BATISTE: I hope that answers.

CONAN: Joe, how's your son doing?

JOE: My son is doing fine. He got out of the unit. He was five years in July. He's going to school at Southern Illinois now, in Carbondale.

CONAN: Well, we wish him the best.

Maj. Gen. BATISTE: Yeah. Please pass on my regards to him.

JOE: General, once again, I'm still shocked with the position you took. I really don't understand it, but I respect the fact that you've certainly got enough time in, and I don't know. I'm just - I'm shocked.

Maj. Gen. BATISTE: Be sure to vote on November 7. Know the candidates.

JOE: Republican all the way.

Maj. Gen. BATISTE: So am I, so am I - a diehard Republican, I support the NRA. I believe in less government. I don't like taxes. I'm as Republican as they come. But as I said during my opening spiel, the most compelling issue of our time right now is what we're doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. The impact on our country, on our nation, is enormous, and we've got to grab a hold of this. We the people, through our elected representatives, need to grab a hold of what's going on right now before it's too late.

CONAN: Joe, thanks very much for the call.

JOE: Okay. Thank you.

CONAN: Thank you, bye-bye. We're talking today with retired Major General John Batiste in our series Rethinking Iraq. This is the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get another caller on. This is Miguel, Miguel with us on the highway in Wisconsin.

MIGUEL (Caller): Yes, thank you for taking my call. My question is what do you think the job in Iraq really is? I remember Secretary of State Colin Powell saying that we were looking for weapons of mass destruction, then it was building democracy.

You know, I'm very concerned about building democracy with tanks and bombs. Now, they issue is we need to keep the terrorists in Iraq so they don't attack us here. Now, I think that's very sad when we have 3,000 Americans killed there so we can supposedly protect ourselves here and spend $500 billion. So what's really the job? You know, what's the job? When do we win in Iraq?

And one last comment. You know, when I see in the news, especially in - I travel a lot in foreign countries, and I see the children of Iraq calling us infidels. They want the infidels out. You know, there is a really different perspective of why we are there from our side and from the rest of the world. They see us as an invading country. So when is the job done? What is the job? What do we accomplish in Iraq and, you know, when do we know that something has been accomplished?

CONAN: You're line's breaking up, Miguel, so we'll let you go, but we'll get an answer from General Batiste. Thanks very much.

Maj. Gen. BATISTE: And what a great question from Miguel, it really is. And there's no point in talking about the past. That's water under the bridge. We've got to look to the future.

I firmly believe that we can't turn and leave Iraq, cut and run, whatever term you want to use. We simply can't do that. I think victory's nonnegotiable, and I'll talk about that in a minute. I think failure in Iraq will doom the Middle East to regional conflicts, which will pit Sunni on Shia, nation on nation, Kurds on Arabs, Turks on Iranians, and it'll ultimately threaten the existence of Israel.

So if we leave now, as some would suggest, we're going to have a problem of huge magnitude on our hands for decades. So we need to establish the rule of law in Iraq. We need to establish a form of government that has half a chance of working in Iraq.

I believe right now that the current structure, which mirrors a European parliamentary system, will never work. Rather, we need to seriously look at the federalization of the country, examine three regions. Can we make it successful? It's some form of representative government which takes into account the tribal, ethnic and religious complexity of Iraq that's always defined Iraq. And whatever they come up with will not resemble at all our form of democracy in the United States.

We need to develop a central government there that has the right structure in power to distribute oil revenue, secure the borders, a whole range of issues. But it's all about security and the rule of law. Without that, none of this is going to happen. That's why it's important that we get the Iraqi security forces properly stood up as America's main effort. We need to look at the right number of coalition troops in Iraq.

It's a delicate balance, I'll be the first to admit, and I wouldn't begin to guess what the right number is because I'm not there now. But I do know that there can be no sanctuary for terrorists in Iraq. I do know that shifting forces from one province to another does not work. It's the myth of synthesis played out over and over and over again in Iraq.

CONAN: General, we just have a minute or so left with you. President Bush said earlier today that he wants Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld to remain in his administration until the end of his presidency. You were among those generals in the so-called revolt of the generals who called for Secretary Rumsfeld's resignation earlier this year. Is that still your position?

Maj. Gen. BATISTE: Oh, absolutely. Donald Rumsfeld does not know how to win. He came up with the wrong strategy. And make no mistake, this was his strategy and his alone that took us to war, and we are where we are. We need the right leadership. I've said many times that an organization has one leader, and that leader is responsible for what happens or what fails to happen. We have yet to have accountability for this situation we're in now. I don't see how we can move forward until we do.

CONAN: Accountability starting at the secretary of defense level.

Maj. Gen. BATISTE: At the top, right, at the secretary of defense, and I'm talking civilian and military. The chips will fall where they may. There's a lot of good books out here now, and I would commend Bob Woodward's book.

CONAN: State of Denial.

Maj. Gen. BATISTE: State of Denial. I just finished it. It's wonderful. I think it's 95 percent accurate. Tom Ricks' book, Fiasco. I mean, there's a whole range of books that are starting to be written about how we got to this mess we're in now. The good news is we're a vibrant democracy, and we're going to take charge of this thing on November 7 and get the people into the Congress and the Senate that start holding people accountable and start providing the oversight that is desperately needed in our country. If that means that one or both houses go to the Democrats, so be it, and that's coming from a diehard Republican.

CONAN: General Batiste, thanks very much for your time. We appreciate it.

Maj. Gen. BATISTE: Thank, Neal, good to be here.

CONAN: Major General John Batiste commanded the Army's First Infantry Division in Iraq. He joined us today from WXXI, our member station in Rochester, New York. Our series continues next week with Dan Senor, former spokesperson for presidential envoy Paul Bremer and the coalition provisional authority in Iraq. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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