The General's Chain of Blame in Iraq

By Max Boot,
a senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "War Made New: Weapons, Warriors, and the Making of the Modern World."
Tuesday, May 13, 2008


A Soldier's Story

By Ricardo S. Sanchez

With Donald T. Phillips

Harper. 494 pp. $26.95

Victory has a hundred fathers, but defeat is an orphan. As if to validate that old adage, the first few years of the Iraq war have produced a spate of memoirs that amount to denials of paternity.

First out was Gen. Tommy Franks with "American Soldier." Then came viceroy L. Paul Bremer III with "My Year in Iraq" and former brigadier general Janis Karpinski, the Abu Ghraib commander, with "One Woman's Army." More recently, Douglas J. Feith, the former Pentagon policy chief, has released "War and Decision." Now comes retired Lt. Gen. Ricardo "Ric" Sanchez, who was the commander of coalition forces in Iraq from June 2003 to June 2004, with the oddly titled "Wiser in Battle."

In an attempt to exculpate himself, Sanchez casts blame widely. He accuses the Bush administration of "gross incompetence and dereliction of duty," not to mention "the cynical use of war for political gains." His fellow generals are blamed for "disastrous decisions," such as not providing "proper training and guidance" to the troops and refusing "to send the help we requested."

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was guilty of "micromanaging his generals," and then, after it was apparent that things had gone wrong, claiming that he "knew nothing" about key decisions. Franks pursued a "strategically flawed" strategy, trying to reduce the number of U.S. troops to 30,000 by the fall of 2003. Bremer was "part of the problem" because he refused to heed Sanchez's advice on a variety of matters, such as the need to accelerate the deployment of Iraqi troops and to scale back de-Baathification.

While some of his charges are overstated or unsubstantiated, many are amply justified. There is one person, however, who almost never seems to come in for criticism. That is Sanchez himself. In 494 pages I could find only two instances where the general admits, in passing, to having made errors.

The first occurred in early April 2004 when he declared that he could handle a two-front war against Sunni terrorists in Fallujah and Moqtada al-Sadr's forces in southern and central Iraq. He says that Gen. John Abizaid, head of Central Command, went along with the recommendation but warned against trying to execute two ambitious operations at once. "In retrospect," Sanchez writes, "John Abizaid's instinct was right on the mark."

The only other occasion when he sort of fesses up to fallibility occurred after the Abu Ghraib scandal. He was asked by an investigating commission headed by a former defense secretary, James R. Schlesinger, what he might have done better. He says he listed three things, including being "more personally involved in staff supervision of our interrogation and detention operations." But he also bitterly complains that the "final Schlesinger report would later use [these remarks] against me." In the end, he doesn't really think he deserves any blame for the abuses at Abu Ghraib, notwithstanding that both the Schlesinger report and the Army's own Fay-Jones report assigned him a measure of culpability. Instead, he touts the Army inspector general's findings, which "completely cleared me of any wrongdoing."

Sanchez is so busy castigating erstwhile colleagues that he never stops to wonder if he might have erred on other occasions. For instance, he twice describes an Oval Office meeting on May 20, 2004, in which Rumsfeld said he had just received a memorandum from Bremer "requesting that two additional divisions be deployed to Iraq." If Sanchez's account is to be believed, the reaction of the participants was not to debate whether we actually needed more troops (we did), but to ignore Bremer's suggestion because, in the president's words, he didn't "go through the military chain of command."

Abizaid and Sanchez were both present. Why didn't they back up Bremer when they knew how overstretched their forces were? And why did they claim to have no knowledge of Bremer's recommendation when Sanchez acknowledges later in the book that the ambassador had brought up the question of reinforcements with him earlier that month? Sanchez told Bremer there was no need because "at this point, we've got things well under control." Not quite.

This score-settling account is marred not only by a lack of reflection and self-doubt but also by a surfeit of anger. Sanchez is still furious that he was not promoted to four-star rank, as promised by Rumsfeld. His nomination was withdrawn because of opposition in Congress after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke. Sanchez wanted to press on, because, as he wrote to himself at the time, "the Hispanic kids of America and other Latin American countries deserve my continued struggle." (As if any kids other than his own cared whether he retired with three stars or four.) When Rumsfeld refused to oblige, he writes, "I felt not only betrayed but deeply hurt."

His feelings are perfectly understandable, but he needs to get over it. No one has a right to wear four stars. He should be satisfied with what he accomplished by rising from a "poverty-stricken town on the desolate banks of the Rio Grande in South Texas" to become the youngest three-star general in the entire military.

The tragedy of Ric Sanchez is that his fast ascent culminated in an assignment for which he was not prepared and not suited. He went overnight from commanding fewer than 20,000 soldiers in one division to commanding 180,000 U.S. and allied soldiers trying to gain control of 25 million Iraqis. Reflecting a generally held view, Tom Ricks's "Fiasco" quotes one officer as saying, "He was in over his head." The general's denunciations of others would be more convincing if he were prepared to admit the painful truth about himself.

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