"Ain't Gonna Study War No More"

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Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Abu Ghraib, Rewarded

It is nice that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his team feel as if they have achieved closure on their prisoner abuse issues and are ready to move on. The problem is, they are still in deep denial. The Bush administration has not only refused to face the problem squarely, but it is also enabling a pervasive lack of accountability.

The most recent evidence of this sad state of affairs came this week in an article in The Times by Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker, who reported that the Pentagon believes the Abu Ghraib scandal has receded enough in the public's mind that Mr. Rumsfeld is considering a promotion for Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who was commander of American forces in Iraq at the time of the disaster.

We can see why General Sanchez would expect a promotion; Mr. Bush has rewarded the people who drafted the policies that led to the illegal detention, abuse, humiliation and, ultimately, torture and even killing of prisoners at the hands of American military forces. A couple were nominated to the federal appeals court. One became attorney general. Mr. Rumsfeld still has his job.

And we feel General Sanchez's pain. As the Army's own investigation showed, he lacked the experience to command the forces in Iraq. Once given that job, he labored under Mr. Rumsfeld's obsession for waging war with too few troops inadequately equipped. For months, Mr. Bush and Mr. Rumsfeld were pretending the war was over, while General Sanchez faced a mushrooming insurgency. He ordered his soldiers to start getting tough with prisoners to get intelligence.

General Sanchez relied on established practice in Mr. Bush's military. He set aside American notions of decency and the Geneva Conventions, authorizing harsh interrogations - including forcing prisoners into painful positions for long periods, isolating them, depriving them of sleep and using guard dogs to, as he put it, "exploit Arab fears." These practices would have been controversial for captives with information that would save Americans' lives. But the vast majority of Abu Ghraib inmates knew nothing.

General Sanchez was exonerated by the last in a series of investigations meant to keep the heat off top generals and civilian policy makers. But his own words at the Texas A&M University commencement were damning. When conditions are at their worst, General Sanchez said, "That is when a leader must step forward and lead - our ethics mandate it and our subordinates expect it."

General Sanchez failed to do that. He should not be the only senior person to pay the price for failure, but neither should he be the latest to be rewarded for it.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company


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