Command Responsibility

By Andrew J. Bacevich
Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Who "lost" Iraq? With blame for the unhappy course of events since U.S. forces occupied Baghdad in April 2003 routinely heaped on civilian officials, the military itself has gotten a pass. In fact, senior U.S. commanders have botched the war. Acknowledging that fact is an essential first step toward improving the quality of U.S. generalship.

For this reason, reported plans to promote Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez deserve particular attention. According to media reports, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld intends to nominate Sanchez for a fourth star. But the general does not merit promotion; he can best serve his country by retiring forthwith.

The public knows Sanchez as the senior commander in Baghdad when the Abu Ghraib story broke last year. Since then several Pentagon investigations into the scandal have cleared him of any personal wrongdoing. Yet, if this conclusion insulates Sanchez as an individual from disciplinary action, it cannot acquit him of his accountability as a commander. On this point the code of officership is unambiguous: Commanders bear responsibility for all that happens on their watch. This tradition applies to those at the top no less than to lieutenants and captains. Given the egregiousness of Abu Ghraib, it cannot exempt Sanchez. On that score alone, his advancement would do untold damage to the military professional ethic.

But pretend that the abuse of Iraqi prisoners never happened. Sanchez still does not qualify for promotion for one simple reason: He failed to accomplish his assigned mission in Iraq.

When Sanchez assumed command of U.S. and coalition ground forces in Iraq in June 2003, the insurgency was barely in its infancy. When he left Iraq a year later, it was raging all but out of control. By any measure -- estimated number of enemy fighters, frequency of attacks, Iraqi civilian casualties and U.S. troop losses sustained -- conditions in Iraq worsened appreciably during Sanchez's tenure in command. His task was to provide security; his efforts produced chaos.

Historians will remember Sanchez as the William Westmoreland of the Iraq war -- the general who misunderstood the nature of the conflict he faced and thereby played into the enemy's hands. Vowing in December 2003 to use "whatever combat power is necessary to win," Sanchez echoed promises of victory made by Westmoreland in Saigon a generation earlier. "That's what America expects of me," Sanchez declared, "and that's what I'm going to accomplish."

But victory is precisely what he did not accomplish. Combat power as such was never the answer. Indeed, as with Westmoreland, whose doctrine of search-and-destroy committed U.S. forces to an unwinnable war of attrition, Sanchez fought his war in ways that turned out to be monumentally wrongheaded. His kick-down-the-door tactics served only to harden resistance to the U.S. occupation. Rather than winning Iraqi hearts and minds, he alienated them.

Critics fault the Bush administration for not having provided U.S. commanders with enough "boots on the ground." This, they say, accounts for the current stalemate. Such an interpretation conforms nicely to the reigning demands of political correctness, absolving the military of any responsibility for its current predicament. But it will not wash. The principal defect of the war effort is not that field commanders have lacked sufficient troops. The real problem is that they -- and Sanchez in particular -- have never devised an effective strategy.

In Baghdad this month, the senior U.S. military spokesman announced that it was time "to concede that . . . this insurgency is not going to be settled . . . through military options or military operations," tacitly acknowledging that the exertions of the past two years had failed. In that acknowledgment lies the definitive judgment of what Sanchez -- although not he alone -- has wrought.

There is no doubt that Sanchez, an honorable man, did his best under extraordinarily trying circumstances. But his best wasn't good enough. He did not get the job done. It's time to recognize that and to make way for leaders who can. American soldiers deserve no less.

The writer teaches international relations at Boston University. He is the author of "The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War."

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