Sanchez Lambasts Handling of War (Updated)

The general who presided over the Abu Ghraib scandal gave a speech yesterday railing against the incompetent administration of the Iraq War. David Cloud summarizes for the NYT:

In one of his first major public speeches since leaving the Army in late 2006, retired Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez blamed the administration for a “catastrophically flawed, unrealistically optimistic war plan” and denounced the current “surge” strategy as a “desperate” move that will not achieve long-term stability. “After more than fours years of fighting, America continues its desperate struggle in Iraq without any concerted effort to devise a strategy that will achieve victory in that war-torn country or in the greater conflict against extremism,” Mr. Sanchez said, at a gathering here of military reporters and editors.


But his role as commander in Iraq during the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal leaves General Sanchez vulnerable to criticism that that he is shifting the blame from himself and exacting revenge against an administration that replaced him as the top commander in the aftermath of the scandal and declined to nominate him for a fourth star, forcing his retirement. Though he was cleared of wrongdoing in the abuse matter by an Army investigation, he nonetheless became a symbol, along with officials like L. Paul Bremer III , the chief administrator in Iraq, of the ineffective American leadership early in the occupation.

Questioned by reporters after his speech, he included the military and himself among those who made mistakes in Iraq, citing the failure to insist on a better post-invasion stabilization plan. But his main criticism was leveled at the Bush administration, which he said he said has failed to mobilize the entire United States government, other than the military, to contribute meaningfully to reconstructing and stabilizing Iraq. “National leadership continues to believe that victory can be achieved by military power alone,” he said. “Continued manipulations and adjustments to our military strategy will not achieve victory. The best we can do with this flawed approach is stave off defeat.”

The overwhelming consensus is that Sanchez is correct on almost all counts. The main exception is the last of these; both rhetorically and in deed, there has been substantial attention paid to the non-military part of the equation.

Still, Cloud is right on Sanchez’ vulnerability as a critic. As Kelly Kennedy‘s report for the Army Times (an independent paper owned by Gannett, not a government publication) makes clear, he comes across as a bitter man trying to shift blame away from himself.

Sanchez was head of coalition forces in Iraq from June 2003 to June 2004. When asked where accountability lay while he headed the forces, as well as for his part in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, Sanchez said it was too late for him to do anything when he took over.

Sanchez retired in 2006 after he wasn’t offered another command position after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke in April 2004.


He berated the room of about 30 to 40 reporters, saying he had been portrayed as a “liar” by people who had never met him. Many of the reporters, in Arlington, Va., for a Military Reporters and Editors conference, had covered the trials that came from photos leaked to the media showing pyramids of naked Iraqi prisoners, a hooded man convinced that if he fell off a crate he would be electrocuted, and dogs snapping inches away from a prisoner.


Jaws dropped as Sanchez glared out at the room, and then eyes rolled as he spent an hour blaming everyone but himself. Most of what he said about the military has been said before: There’s no grand strategy, the Iraqi Army should not have been disbanded, there was no planning for stabilization or recovery past the initial invasion and, “the administration has failed.”

He said deployment cycles aren’t working with current troop levels, that it will take decades to fix the “military’s full-spectrum readiness,” and that if the U.S. were to withdraw from Iraq, it would lead to “chaos that would lead to instability in the Middle East.” And, he said the Powell Doctrine — which requires a clear exit strategy as part of a war plan — was violated.

He said some poor strategic decisions in Iraq had become “defeats because of the media,” and that some reporters feed from a “pigs’ trough.” He lamented the media’s treatment of Federal Emergency Management chief Michael Brown during Hurricane Katrina. Brown resigned from FEMA after accusations that he had mishandled the hurricane.

This is especially bizarre:

When asked for specific names involved in failures he cited, he said, “I’m not into second-guessing decisions of our political leadership.”

From reading Fiasco and Cobra II, I got the impression that Sanchez was “a micromanager with a conventional warfare mentality” and very much the wrong man for the job. Presumably, appointing Sanchez is part of the long list of things the administration did wrong in carrying out this war.

Update (Dave Schuler)

Here is the complete text of Gen. Sanchez’s speech. I didn’t take quite the same thing away from the speech as the NYT apparently did. Criticism of the Bush Administration’s conduct of the war? Sure. But I think the emphasis is more on a “unity of effort”, impossible with an antagonistic press:

America has sent our soldiers off to war and they must be supported at all costs until we achieve victory or until our political leaders decide to bring them home. Our political and military leaders owe the soldier on the battlefield the strategy, the policies and the resources to win once committed to war. America has not been fully committed to win this war. as the military commanders on the ground have stated since the summer of 2003, the U.S. military alone cannot win this war. America must mobilize the interagency and the political and economic elements of power, which have been abject failures to date, in order to achieve victory. Our nation has not focused on the greatest challenge of our lifetime. The political and economic elements of power must get beyond the politics to ensure the survival of america. Partisan politics have hindered this war effort and America should not accept this. America must demand a unified national strategy that goes well beyond partisan politics and places the common good above all else. too often our politicians have chosen loyalty to their political party above loyalty to the constitution because of their lust for power. Our politicians must remember their oath of office and recommit themselves to serving our nation and not their own self-interests or political party. The security of america is at stake and we can accept nothing less. anything short of this is unquestionably dereliction of duty.

FILED UNDER: General, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Anderson says:

    Well, yes, when Sanchez singles out the State Department for responsibility for Iraq, one suspects either axe-grinding or a deficient grasp of the relevant information.

    But as JJ says, virtually nothing that Sanchez says is seriously disputed (pace my friend Bithead); the news is who’s saying it.

    This portion of the speech suggests that the media is not the main problem:


    Bad Congress, demanding victory! How the above can be seriously construed as not *also* implicating Bush and Cheney is beyond me. But I’m sure that a tour of the usually-suspect weblogs would provide examples.

  2. He singled out the National Security Council, which is in the Executive Office of the President and he clearly calls out the entire executive branch in the speech, as such he is calling out the President.

  3. Cernig says:

    Captain Ed is making much of Sanchez blasting the media, quoting the general as saying that:

    Over the course of this war tactically insignificant events have become strategic defeats for America because of the tremendous power and impact of the media and by extension you the journalist. In many cases the media has unjustly destroyed the individual reputations and careers of those involved.

    If that isn’t code for Abu Graib and Sanchez himself, I don’t know what is. Yet Ed wants to make it about the “traitorous liberal media” instead of a whine from the guy with command responsibility at the time atrocities were being committed.

    Here’s a hint for everyone who might find themselves in Sanchez’ shoes – if you don’t want “tactically insignificant events” to be big news, then make sure they aren’t affronts to humanity.

    Regards, C

  4. Anderson says:

    Over the course of this war tactically insignificant events have become strategic defeats for America

    The incomprehension here is vivid from the vocabulary itself. What’s insignificant at the level of tactics may very well be of enormous strategic import, even within the confines of what’s strictly military.

    But given that the occupation of Iraq was, first and foremost, a political struggle – which I think should be obvious to us all – then the tortures at Abu Ghraib were, quite obviously, a huge self-inflicted defeat.

    Does Sanchez really imagine it could’ve been otherwise, simply if the American people hadn’t heard about them? Because the Iraqi people already knew, or were going to know, simply because we didn’t shoot dead everyone we stripped naked and walked around on a leash. The shame of the victims was only going to provide cover for so long.

    Even in his denunciations, Sanchez confirms the characterization of him as having a “conventional warfare mentality,” and the most damning indictment of Bush and Rumsfeld is that *this* is the man they sent over, with Bremer, to handle their occupation. Courts-martial, indeed.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    Again, I don’t think that Gen. Sanchez is singling out the media, the Congress, or the president. I think he’s tarring with a broad brush and calling for “unity of effort”.

  6. Anderson says:

    I think he’s tarring with a broad brush and calling for “unity of effort”.

    Great, he’s turning into David Broder.

    “Unity of effort” towards *what*? What *kind* of effort?

    if the U.S. were to withdraw from Iraq, it would lead to “chaos that would lead to instability in the Middle East.”

    As opposed to what we have now?

    Either Iraq is FUBAR, or it’s not. A hard call, I realize. But I don’t care for the logic of those who say the only way to find out which, is to stay there & see.

  7. And, to be fair, the press was far from antagonistic in the beginning. Indeed, the press was generally quite supportive.

    And it reads to me like the “unity of effort” problem as he is addressing it flowed from the administration and its inability to construct that unity of effort.

  8. Anderson says:

    Excellent points by Prof. Taylor. The beginning of any media dissent, IIRC, was the looting of Baghdad, paired w/ Rumsfeld’s “stuff happens.” And even then, it took a while to become respectable.

    If Bush had been the kind of person to fire Rumsfeld that week, possibly the occupation might have had some sort of chance.

    For “inability to construct,” however, I would substitute “lack of any interest in constructing.” Unity was not in Rove’s 2004 electoral gameplan.

  9. Anderson says:

    Kevin Drum highlights some hilarity from the speech:

    Let me review some of the descriptive phrases that have been used by some of you that have made my personal interfaces with the press corps difficult:

    -“Dictatorial and somewhat dense,”

    -“Not a strategic thought,”


    -“Does not get it,” and

    -The most inexperienced LTG.

    In some cases I have never even met you, yet you feel qualified to make character judgments that are communicated to the world.

    So, apparently, if one hasn’t actually *met* Sanchez, one can’t make judgments like the above?

    That’s odd, because merely *reading* his remarks leads me to believe that some of those judgments are in fact true.

  10. G.A.Phillips says:

    In all fairness, and if the war was planed as bad as most of you and Sanchez are saying, do you think that the undermining of it from the outset by the liberals in power and their media could of caused even more dammage then it should have?

  11. Anderson says:

    the undermining of it from the outset by the liberals in power and their media

    In all fairness, G.A., did you read the comment thread? Professor Taylor, no bleeding-heart liberal the last I checked, recognized that the media were highly supportive of the war at its outset.

    And *what* “liberals in power” at the “outset”?

  12. Anderson makes a valid point: there were no Liberals in power at the onset, if by “in power” one means in control of one of the three branches. Of course, even if we construe “in power” to mean those in important elected positions, one should recall that the President was able to get the AUMF with a great deal of Democratic support (indeed, to the chagrin of some currently running for President).

    This war was undertaken with broad support that has steadily eroded as it became clearer and clearer that the administration wasn’t sure what it was doing. The looting of Baghdad being a good starting spot.

  13. anjin-san says:

    The general who presided over the Abu Ghraib scandal

    Considering how much the right is supposed to respect generals, they sure love to hide behind them. President Bush presided over the Abu Ghraib scandal. The buck stops there, no matter how many patises are set up to take the fall…

  14. G.A.Phillips says:

    And *what* “liberals in power” at the “outset”?

    the ones holding office who voted for the war and then backstabbed our troops. I new that they did not mean what they where voting.

    This war was undertaken with broad support that has steadily eroded as it became clearer and clearer that the administration wasn’t sure what it was doing. The looting of Baghdad being a good starting spot.

    I don’t rember it this way, but I do remember thinking form the outset that media could not possibly understand what it was doing.

    soory that you did not understand that this was my impression and I am mighty sure that I have seen what I seen.

    you do know that the looting of Baghad was one of the most hyped stories in history till a few idiots stated to have liberal sex sessions in a prison one night, and by who, and for what. please do not think that a rewriting of history can’t happen right before your eyes and that you might believe it.

    Its called good propaganda.

    I will agree that this war could have gone better and that we gave the pepole of Iraq to much freedom all at once, but dont you think it’s far to easy of a siting of the Liberals game of blame that most avarge people have been tricked into playing or one might say conditioned for, talk about missleading the country, talk about playing on our fears.

  15. spencer says:

    Great line of reasoning G.A, Phillips — we invaded a country to give them freedom and out problem is that we gave them too much freedom.

    With this thinking no wonder our country is in trouble.

  16. Neo says:

    I think many folks were spun by the AP report that misreports the General’s comments.

    General Sanchez’s nightmare (as reported by the AP) isn’t about the conduct of the war, per se, but rather about the nightmare of incompetent strategic leadership that includes Capitol Hill.

    There has been a glaring, unfortunate, display of incompetent strategic leadership within our national leaders. As a Japanese proverb says, “action without vision is a nightmare” there is no question that America is living A nightmare with no end in sight.

    Since 2003, the politics of war have been characterized by partisanship as the republican and democratic parties struggled for power in washington. National efforts to date have been corrupted by partisan politics that have prevented us from devising effective, executable, supportable solutions. At times, these partisan struggles have led to political decisions that endangered the lives of our sons and daughters on the battlefield. The unmistakable message was that political power had greater priority than our national security objectives. Overcoming this strategic failure is the first step toward achieving victory in Iraq – without bipartisan cooperation we are doomed to fail. There is nothing going on today in Washington that would give us hope.

    – General Sanchez

    Funny how the AP made it sound different.

  17. G.A.Phillips says:

    Great line of reasoning G.A, Phillips — we invaded a country to give them freedom and out problem is that we gave them too much freedom.

    With this thinking no wonder our country is in trouble.

    Ya I know liberals don’t know poop about freedom, nor do Muslims, and of course using your great line of reasoning once agian you blame the problem on another line of reasoning insteed of the reason.

    you people are truly amazing.