Twenty-one former generals and high ranking national security officials have called on United States President George W. Bush to reverse course and embrace a new area of negotiation with Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. In a letter released Thursday, the group told reporters Bush’s "hard line" policies have undermined national security and made America less safe.
Of particular concern for the generals was increased saber-rattling between Washington and Tehran over the development of an Iranian nuclear program.
"We call on the administration to engage immediately in direct talks with the government of Iran without preconditions to help resolve the current crisis in the Middle East and to settle differences over an Iranian nuclear program," their letter read.
"An attack on Iran would have disastrous consequences for security in the region and U.S. forces in Iraq," they argued. "It would inflame hatred and violence in the Middle East and among Muslims everywhere."
In a telephone news conference Thursday morning, the former security officials took particular aim at the Bush Administration’s policy of refusing to negotiate with terrorists or with states that support them.
"That seems strange since Ronald Reagan was willing to negotiate with the Soviets even though they were the ‘Evil Empire," said retired Lt. General Robert Guard, who served as special assistant to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara during the Vietnam War and now works at the non-profit Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. "One wonders why George Bush can’t negotiate with the Axis of Evil."
The generals further argued that the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq is at least partially responsible for Iran’s drive to develop a nuclear program.
"When you announce an axis of evil of three countries and invade one and then say that Iran should take that as a lesson, it does seem that it may give them an incentive to do precisely what they don’t want them to do," Guard said, "develop a nuclear weapon."
Former director of Policy Planning for the State Department, Morton Halperin, said the same goes for North Korea. The more belligerent the Bush Administration behaves, he said, the faster North Korea will work to develop nuclear weapons.
"The North Koreans want to talk to us directly," said Halperin, who now works for the Washington, DC-based Center for American Progress. "Their concern is about getting security assurances from us and about getting diplomatic recognition. We should not be afraid to talk to our opponents."
At the White House, Bush’s spokesperson Tony Snow dismissed the letter.
"In a political year people are going to make political statements, including retired generals, and they’re perfectly welcome to," Snow told reporters at his daily briefing. "It’s an important addition to the public debate. But we’re also the president is a guy who has got real responsibility here. Now, I’ve got to tell you, just given to what I said…in response to the sort of ongoing cost of promoting freedom around the globe, do you not think a president will do everything in his power to succeed? And the answer is, yes. He’s not sitting around saying, boy, I’m stubborn, I’m going to stick with it.
"That’s not the way the president is," Snow said, insisting the Bush administration is planning policy changes while declining to offer specifics.
But the generals who signed the letter say Bush has been stubborn, and a poor student of history.
General Joseph Hoar, the Commander in Chief of U.S. Military Central Command under presidents Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush, said the George W. Bush administration would be advised to remember the French occupation of Algeria, which lasted 134 years.
Nationalist rebels launched an insurgency against the French in 1954. After eight years of insurgent bombings and counter-terrorism operations, France was finally forced to quit Algeria in 1962.
Hoar says like the Battle of Algiers the current war on terror is a war of ideas.
"Until we get away from the idea that we can solve these problems through the use of military force and begin to change the political problems causing discontent by providing security and services, we’re not going to win this war," he said.