Could America have won the Iraq war?

As Ricks and others have documented, the war’s commander, Army Gen. Tommy Franks, was a conventional and narrow-minded thinker who lacked the intellectual firepower to challenge civilian leaders in the Pentagon when they failed to plan adequately for governing a post-invasion Iraq. But what if the combatant commander of Central Command at the time was not Franks but someone of the caliber of Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni? Zinni, a military intellectual, had run Central Command prior to Franks. Zinni had thought hard and deeply about a post-Saddam Iraq falling into chaos. Someone like Zinni would certainly have challenged Rumsfeld, while threatening to resign if meticulous plans were not laid out by the Pentagon and the White House for governing Iraq. Individuals matter in history — it is not all about impersonal forces of geography, technology and so on. The difference between a Zinni and a Franks could have been the difference between one outcome in Iraq and another, and between one historical perception of the Iraq War and another.

Not only was Franks not up to the job, neither was Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who replaced Franks in post-invasion Iraq. Sanchez was arguably among the least experienced three-star generals in the U.S. Army, a veritable two-star, in fact. While Franks’ lack of imagination did not allow him to foresee chaos in Iraq, it was Sanchez’s lack of competence that helped allow for such chaos to become reality. It was under Bush and Rumsfeld that Sanchez was chosen: This was not mere fate, about which the administration could have done nothing; this was human agency working in the service of perhaps the worst possible result.