The Bush administration began the Iraq war with a "catastrophically flawed,
unrealistically optimistic" war plan, and never has devised a comprehensive national
strategy to fight the war, retired Army Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez said in a
speech to military journalists last week.
The result is that Iraq is a "nightmare" where the best we can do is stave off
defeat, LtGen. Sanchez said. The troop surge, he said, "is a desperate attempt by
an administration that has not accepted the political and economic realities of this
LtGen. Sanchez, who commanded U.S. troops in Iraq from June, 2003 to June, 2004, is
the highest ranking Iraq war veteran to publicly criticize the war, so his comments
were newsworthy, despite being long on adjectives and short on specifics. But this
column is less about what LtGen. Sanchez had to say and more about what the
journalists who covered his speech chose to report.
All the news organizations which covered his speech emphasized the caustic things he
had to say about the Bush administration.
But LtGen. Sanchez was as critical of Congress and the State Department as he was of
Bush administration appointees:
"The administration, Congress, the entire interagency, especially the State
Department must shoulder the responsibility for this catastrophic failure, and the
American people must hold them accountable," he said. Only Josh White of the
Washington Post mentioned this prominently.
Fully half of LtGen. Sanchez's speech to the Military Reporters and Editors was
devoted to criticism of another influential group, a group he criticized more
harshly and at greater length than he criticized the Bush administration, Congress,
or the State Department. Yet Mr. White mentioned LtGen. Sanchez' criticism of this
group only in the final paragraph of his lengthy story. The New York Times, the AP,
UPI, and the Hearst Newspapers didn't mention it at all.
"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," LtGen.
"Your measure of worth is how many front page stories you have written and
unfortunately some of you will compromise your integrity," he said. "It seems that
as long as you get a front page story there is little or no regard for the
collateral damage you will cause."
"The death knell of your ethics has been enabled by your parent organizations who
have chosen to align themselves with political agendas," LtGen. Sanchez said. "What
is clear to me is that you are perpetuating the corrosive partisan politics that is
destroying our country and killing our service members who are at war."
"Your profession has...allowed external agendas to manipulate what the American
public sees on tv, what they read in our newspapers and what they see on the Web,"
he said. "For some of you, just like for some of our politicians, the truth is of
little or no value if it does not fit your own preconceived notions, biases and
agendas... As I assess various media entities, some are unquestionably engaged in
political propaganda that is uncontrolled."
The mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib happened on LtGen. Sanchez's watch, and
he came in for a great deal of criticism of how he handled the scandal. The
criticism clearly stung:
"In some cases I have never even met you, yet you feel qualified to make character
judgments that are communicated to the world, he told the military journalists.
"This is the worst display of journalism imaginable by those of us that are bound by
a strict value of selfless service, honor and integrity... You report with total
impunity and are rarely held accountable for unethical conduct."
So perhaps LtGen. Sanchez's criticism of journalists could be dismissed as
hyperbolic, and sour grapes. But the same could be said of his criticism of the
Bush administration, which, in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal, chose not to
promote him to full general, leading to his retirement in 2006.
But the unwillingness of the journalists who covered his speech to report his
criticisms of them lends credence to LtGen. Sanchez's charge that journalists slant
or omit facts in order to serve their political and personal agendas.
"Our military must embrace you for the sake of our democracy," LtGen. Sanchez told
the Military Reporters and Editors. "But you owe them ethical journalism."
It's a debt that has yet to be paid.