My "General Betray US" Letter

Timothy Horrigan, September 27-29, 2007

September 2007 was not a good month for free speech. My alma mater, Columbia University, got into a large amount of trouble after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accepted an invitation to speak on campus while he was in the City for the opening on the UN. This led to a massive shitstorm, including threats (admittedly, idle ones) to cut off all federal funding to the university. The University President, Lee Bollinger (a wonderful gentleman who used to be a neighbor of mine in Hanover, NH) tried to triangulate the situation by giving Ahmadinejad an extraordinarily negative introduction on Monday afternoon, September 24. Bollinger's introduction backfired in both directions: the right wing noise machine continued to condemn the university, and Ahmadinejad gracefully laughed off Bollinger's insults before giving a rational and well-thought-out talk (aside from the unintentional laugh line about how there are no gays in Iran.)

But this was nothing compared to the controversy over's "General Betray Us" ads. The liberal advocacy group used its First Amendment rights and a several thousands of dollars in cash to buy a full page ad in the New York Times entitled "General Petraeus of General Betray Us?: Cooking the Books for the White House"— commenting on his trip from Baghdad to Capitol Hill to defend Bush II's wars. The Republican leadership was not too pleased with this ad, so they decided to condemn the messenger, and a resolution even made it to the floor of the Senate condemning for the heinous crime of criticizing a four star general. Tragically, the Hill Democrats tried to triangulate the issue by coming up with a milder condemnation, which did pass— but the original condemnation (sponsored by Sen. Mitch McConnell) also passed. So the Senate is on record as stating that General Petraeus is beyond criticism. In Sen. McConnell's words, "Who would have ever expected anybody to go after a general in the field at a time of war, launch a smear campaign against a man we've entrusted with our mission in Iraq. Any group that does this sort of thing ought to be condemned."

McConnell and his fellow Republicans also kept repeating that accused Petraeus of being a traitor, which of course is not exactly what the ad really said: betrayal is not quite the same thing as treason, in my opinion. (However, I was also one of those liberals who agreed with Bill Clinton that the word "is" can have more than one definition, so what do I know?)

McConnell also memorably explained why is an extremist organization: "In the days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, it urged a pacifist response to al-Qaeda. They rejected the idea that governments should be held responsible for terrorists like al-Qaeda who operate within their borders. This is the group that called defeating the Patriot Act 'a success story.' This is the group that ran an ad on its web site equating the President to Adolph Hitler. This is the group that thinks international organizations like the U.N. will rid the world of al-Qaeda. That's This is what we're dealing with." They're in favor of peace and against the Patriot Act? Oooh!

The controversy didn't go away after the resolution. The Times gave a special standby rate for advocacy-group message ads. These ads run at about half price on a space-available basis. And, evidently the ad salespeople made the mistake of assuring that there would indeed be enough space. (Ad sales for all print media are slow: it was highly unlikely that the paper would have run out of space.) happily paid full price when asked to do so:. But that hasn't stopped the controversy: the price break is still being quote-unquote investigated. One of Rudy Giuliani's organizations bought a pro-war ad for the same discount rate originally paid by while this controversy was underway. However the situations were totally dissimilar: no one even hinted that the ad would run the next day (even though that was in fact the day it ran.)

I wrote a pro-MoveOn letter on September 25, 2007, and my local paper, the Dover (NH) Fosters Daily Democrat, ran it on September 27th.

Original URL (subject to linkrot over time):

General Petraeus did betray us

To the editor:

The Republican leadership in Washington distracted attention from the failure of the Bush-Cheney war in Iraq by making a fuss over the headline on a newspaper ad.

The liberal advocacy group placed an ad in the New York Times with the headline "General Petraeus or General Betray Us?" The Republicans in the Senate got a resolution to the floor condemning and its ad.

The gist of the resolution was that General Petraeus should be immune from criticism because he is the chief commanding officer of our military in a time of war. Sadly, the Democrats in the Senate caved in to the Republican minority. Only 25 out of 51 Democrats voted against this resolution. was entirely within its First Amendment rights when it ran that ad. I frankly have forgotten why our troops are in Iraq this month, but I seem to recall that our young men and women have in the past been fighting and dying for freedom. was simply exercising this freedom to tell the truth as they saw it.

Even though the pun in the ad was lame, the basic message was correct. Petraeus did betray us. Aside from the fact he blatantly lied to Congress, he also violated our centuries-old tradition of a nonpartisan and nonpolitical military. It was not his place to serve as a spokesperson for the Bush administration. He is, after all, the chief of the American people's military, not George W. Bush's military.

Timothy Horrigan

Gen. Petraeus with then-Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton; September 11, 2007

The Forgotten Liars