By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
It may be among the strangest of political alliances: a former commanding general in Iraq, blocked from a fourth star and forced into retirement partly for his role in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, and the speaker of the House, desperate to end a war that the general helped start.
But in partisan Washington, the enemy of one's enemy can quickly become a friend, and nowhere is that more obvious than in the new marriage of convenience between Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and retired Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez.
On Saturday, Sanchez delivered the Democrats' weekly radio address. He excoriated what he called the Bush administration's "failure to devise a strategy for victory in Iraq," then embraced Democratic legislation linking continued war funding with a timeline aimed at ending U.S. combat operations by December 2008.
Other senior military figures have turned on the White House, but none as senior as Sanchez, whose command of coalition forces in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 coincided with an explosion of violence, the emergence of a brutal insurgency and a prison-abuse scandal that still haunts the war effort.
For Democratic leaders, Sanchez's address has been a triumph, covered by the media nationwide. It interrupted a stream of stories about declining violence, which had stalled efforts to force a shift of war policy.
But for critics of the war and of Sanchez's command, the radio address was curious. Andrew Bacevich, who was an Army officer in the Vietnam War and now teaches at Boston University, said Sanchez fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the conflict he faced. Sanchez's troops employed "kick-down-the-door" tactics that hardened resistance to the U.S. occupation, and helped turn an insurgency in its infancy into a guerrilla war spinning out of control, he said.
"Why he has chosen all of a sudden to attempt to return to public attention, and why he would do it in an overtly partisan way, frankly baffles me," said Bacevich, whose son was killed in Iraq. "And why the Democratic leadership would say, 'Yes, this is the guy who is going to deliver our message' is just baffling. He is a largely discredited figure."
In August 2004, when an independent panel faulted the Pentagon's top civilian and military leaders for detainee abuse in Iraq, Pelosi was one of the first to accuse the administration of a whitewash, calling for an independent commission to investigate further. The Army inspector general cleared Sanchez in 2005 of any culpability for Abu Ghraib abuse, but the issue still hangs over his head.
In April, Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, an active-duty Iraq veteran, published an article in the Armed Forces Journal that accused top U.S. generals in Iraq -- without naming Sanchez directly -- of "intellectual and moral failures" that botched the war effort and misled Congress. Nine former detainees at U.S. military prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan have filed lawsuits against Sanchez and former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
In an interview with the Monitor in McAllen, Tex., last year, Sanchez called the prison-abuse scandal "the sole reason I was forced to retire." He has said since retiring in late 2006 that he long believed that the war was severely under-resourced and strategically flawed, but that he should not speak out while wearing the uniform. He did not return e-mails yesterday requesting comment.
The sequence of events that led to Sanchez's pick began on Nov. 17, when Pelosi and Sanchez appeared at a fundraiser in San Antonio for endangered Rep. Ciro D. Rodriguez (D-Tex.) at the home of lawyer Frank Herrera.
Herrera, who has contributed more than $100,000 to Democrats since the early 1990s, said Sanchez was a surprise guest of another invitee. Sanchez knew Rodriguez casually, but the general had become close friends with House intelligence committee Chairman Sylvestre Reyes (D-Tex.), said Peter Brock, a Reyes spokesman. The Reyes connection had put Sanchez into the orbit of Texas's Latino Democratic power players.
According to Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly, she approached Sanchez, speaking admiringly of the general's blistering October address to military reporters and editors, when he said the United States is "living a nightmare with no end in sight."
Three days before, the House had passed a $50 billion war spending bill that tied the money to a withdrawal timeline, stricter regulations for the deployment of only fully trained troops and an extension of constraints on abusive interrogations by the CIA. Pelosi asked whether Sanchez would deliver a Democratic radio address.
At first, Sanchez said he would think about it, Daly said. But Pelosi persisted. On Tuesday, he agreed. On Wednesday, he taped. On Saturday, he hit the airwaves, saying, "The funding bill passed by the House of Representatives last week, with a bipartisan vote, makes the proper preparation of our deploying troops a priority and requires the type of shift in their mission that will allow their numbers to be reduced substantially. Furthermore, the bill puts America on the path to regaining our moral authority by requiring all government employees to abide by the Army Field Manual on interrogations, which is in compliance with the Geneva Conventions. America must accept nothing less."
Daly said that Pelosi is well aware of Sanchez's war record, which she has criticized, but that she believes his war views have changed. Few other military leaders could speak as authoritatively about the conflict as Sanchez, he said.
Republicans, especially outspoken advocates of the ongoing increase of troops in Iraq, are not hiding their displeasure.
"I'm beyond perplexed," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), who criticized Sanchez at Senate Armed Services Committee hearings in 2004. "He's chosen to play politics here. He's opened himself up to what happened on his watch. He's made himself a political figure, and I hope he understands that those of us who were on the ground watching at that time are going to push back."
Graham said that he repeatedly asked Sanchez in private whether he needed more troops to pacify the fledgling insurgency, and that Sanchez always said no. "He never said any of these things when it could have made a difference," Graham said of Sanchez's criticism.
But Democrats are sticking by their general. "Obviously, he was the general on the ground," Herrera said. "He knows the situation firsthand. No one is better qualified than him to deliver this message."