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Iraq: Is General Franks Ready For A Role As Interim Leader?

  • Andrew Tully

The American general entrusted with leading coalition efforts to disarm Iraq may end up running that country after the conflict is over. RFE/RL correspondent Andrew F. Tully reports from Washington that four-star General Tommy Franks is a career officer who has earned not only the respect of the Pentagon leadership but that of his troops as well.

Washington, 21 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- General Tommy Franks is not only the man who is leading U.S. and British forces into battle against Iraq. He also may be the leader of a military occupying force once the fighting stops.

Franks is the general in charge of the American military's Central Command, which looks after U.S. security interests in a region stretching from northeastern Africa, through the Middle East, and into Central Asia, including Afghanistan.

It was in Afghanistan where he quickly routed the Taliban and drove the Al-Qaeda leadership into hiding in 2001 and 2002. Now he is facing what is expected to be a far more formidable opponent -- the army of Iraq, particularly Saddam Hussein's elite Republican Guard.

Franks was born in a small town in the southwestern state of Oklahoma and grew up in Midland in the neighboring state of Texas -- another small town, but one that quickly became rich because of oil.

Franks went to the same high school as Laura Bush, U.S. President George W. Bush's wife, although the two never met. He then attended the University of Texas. But he ended his studies there in 1965, during his second year, to join the U.S. Army. He was soon commissioned as an artillery lieutenant and fought in the Vietnam War, where he was wounded three times.

After Vietnam, Franks finished his university education, married, and returned to the Army. He moved steadily up the ranks until he was promoted to four-star general -- the second-highest rank in the army, behind a five-star general -- and was put in charge of the Central Command.

Franks has little in common with Norman Schwarzkopf, the last American general to lead a war against Hussein's forces. While Franks is of humble origin, Schwarzkopf was the son of a prominent army officer and graduated from the prestigious U.S. Military Academy at West Point near New York.

During the 1991 Gulf War, Schwarzkopf displayed a dynamic, even flamboyant, presence during press briefings. Franks, on the other hand, appears almost shy, and his statements to the news media are clipped and delivered in the dry diction characteristic of the U.S. military.

Take, for example, his recent statement at a news briefing in the southeastern city of Tampa, when asked about whether ending Hussein's government is part of his mission. Franks replied, "If one looks at regime as the control of diplomacy, the control of borders, the control of economic infrastructure, the control and security of population, then one would find that certainly to be within my mission statement."

Franks is said to welcome being described as a "muddy boots soldier" -- an officer more comfortable in the company of the lower ranks than with other officers. He also is the first to acknowledge that he is not a man of great education. In fact, he seems to see his humble origins as a badge of honor.

In remarks to U.S. troops in Qatar in December, Franks said, "Now, most of the people I know, including my wife, think I'm damn lucky to be where I am. I met my high school principal not long ago, and he looked at me, and he said, 'Damn, am I surprised.' I looked at him and I said, 'Ain't this a great country?'"

This self-deprecating attitude enhances Franks' ability to lead his forces, according to Patrick Basham, who studies American military affairs at the Cato Institute, a private policy-research center in Washington.

Basham tells RFE/RL that Franks is well-regarded by Central Command troops, although some of his civilian superiors -- including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- find Franks more cautious than they would like. Basham points out that Franks successfully argued for more time to assemble his forces in the Gulf region for the Iraq war.

Now that he has won that extra time, Basham says, he expects Franks will do a good job of prosecuting that campaign.

But Basham says Franks appears to be much less comfortable briefing the news media than was Schwarzkopf. Indeed, since the start of the latest Iraqi campaign yesterday, Franks has largely been invisible to the news media. That, he says, could mar his public persona, and could lead to Rumsfeld taking over many of the duties of dealing with the press.

"The thing I would question is how well Franks is going to come over to the public watching him in briefings," Basham says. "I think he'll come over as someone who knows his material. It's just whether he can sell the larger strategy. How will he do if things get a little sticky? And I think because of that, you're going to see Rumsfeld more front-and-center than you would otherwise."

However, Basham says this apparently does not bother Franks. Basham says he doubts the general cares about his image in the media, or that he has ambitions beyond his current position.

But then Basham notes Franks may have an even greater -- and likely, more difficult -- job once the fighting stops in Iraq: that of the man in charge of the occupation forces in the country. And he says that position may pose a special challenge to Franks.

Basham says that because Franks cares little for the personal advantages of being a senior officer, he may not be the appropriate person to serve as the equivalent of a political leader in charge of reporting daily battlefield events.

"Franks may have more trouble than a Schwarzkopf-type figure because he's probably not going to communicate as well as some of the more media-savvy military leaders. But I think any military person is really going to want to avoid that kind of a situation."

Basham says he believes that if Franks is given that job, he will want it to be brief. Indeed, he says, there are few people, regardless of their communication skills, who would flourish in that position if it lasts more than a few months.

Like it or not, Basham notes, Franks is now famous, at least among Americans. But with that fame comes scrutiny. And that has led to a minor scandal. The Defense Department is investigating whether Franks has abused his position of power. Franks is suspected of allowing his wife, Cathy, to be present during discussions of highly classified matters.

Rumsfeld has said repeatedly that Franks has his full support, and that he will continue to lead the Central Command.

Reports say Pentagon investigators have concluded that the presence of Franks' wife during certain conversations did not compromise national security.

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