A Czar’s Half-Life

President Bush has made one of the most curious, perhaps even baffling, appointments in recent memory, anointing three-star Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute as the administration’s "war czar," to have direct control, perhaps even operational control, over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s tough to figure what it’s all about.

Is this is a relatively sincere attempt to improve the way those wars are being conducted, just another meaningless gesture, an abdication of the commander-in-chief responsibility to an underling, a move toward putting in somebody not afraid to speak truth to power, or a way to deflect attention and accountability from himself and make poor Gen. Lute the fall guy for the eventual failure, at least in Iraq, where failure was predestined from the moment an invasion that was a blatant act of unprovoked aggression was undertaken on the basis of information that most informed observers had good reason to believe way back then was false or manufactured?

Naturally, I’m inclined toward the latter explanation, but it’s just possible that other elements play into it.

It’s interesting to note that Gen. Lute was chosen only after at least five other retired four-stars turned down the job. Retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, one of the writers of the escalation plan that was modified into the "surge," turned down the job. Retired Marine Gen. John J. "Jack" Sheehan, also let it be known he wasn’t interested, saying publicly, "The very fundamental issue is, they don’t know where the hell they’re going .. So rather than go over there, develop an ulcer and eventually leave, I said, ‘No.’"

Gen. Lute, who by all accounts is talented and willing to buck superiors when he thinks he knows better and is currently chief operations officer on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, turns out to have been a critic of the "surge" strategy in internal discussions before the policy was announced. Back in January 2006 he said, on the Charlie Rose show, that he wanted "to see a smaller, lighter, less prominent U.S. force in Iraq, to reduce Iraqi concerns about the U.S. occupation and to avoid a "dependency syndrome" on the part of the Iraqi government. In August 2005 he told the Financial Times, "You simply have to let the Iraqis step forward. You have to undercut the perception of occupation in Iraq."

Of course, it would be better to undercut the reality rather than just the perception of occupation in Iraq by ending the occupation, but someone with those views is unlikely to be named "war czar" by this president.

So what’s going on? Is President Bush, who has made a career of ignoring seasoned military advisers, finally putting in somebody who is likely to listen and take them seriously? Is he abdicating his own position as the "decider?"

Well, the latter doesn’t seem likely. Despite the informal title of "war czar," which would seem to imply a great deal of power, Gen. Lute institutionally will be a deputy national security adviser, working in Stephen Hadley’s office, but he will have the title of assistant to the president and his own staff. He is expected to spend the morning talking to generals and diplomats in the field, then brief Dubya, then spend the afternoon fixing the problems identified in the morning.

"The goal is same-day service – identify the problem in the morning and fix it in the afternoon, said Hadley. Gen. Lute is known as a critic of civilian agencies who have not been all that cooperative in implementing administration priorities in Iraq – veteran State Department officers, for example, are simply refusing to go to Iraq, a place where people have to wear body armor and run the risk of being shot or hit by an IED if they venture outside the insulated Green Zone – and sometimes even inside. He’s also been critical of agencies like AID and of private contractors who all to often during the Iraq war have just taken the money and done not much or delivered ridiculously shoddy work.

So the good general will be riding herd on all these entrenched fiefdoms, poking, prodding and persuading them to get on the same page and move forward together, implementing a comprehensive and integrated plan. And what mighty power does he have to get these legendarily balky bureaucracies to move and demonstrate efficiency? The power to hire and fire, or to demote or punish? Not exactly. He’ll have the power of persuasion, the knowledge that he’s the president’s designated nag, and a staff of 11. That’s ten plus one.

What a joke!

The appointment has met with some criticism. Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies put it fairly bluntly: "The most serious problem everyone has in any coordinated approach to Iraq is that the problems are beyond his control – including relations between the White House and Congress. He is also a coordinator for a White House that has no long-term plan or strategy."

Perhaps Lt. Gen. Lute – sorry to keep mentioning that, but he’s a three-star who will soon be charged with giving orders to people from whom he has taken orders, which is hardly insignificant in a hierarchical structure, even if he has new theoretical power and a mighty staff of 11 – is supposed to provide some strategy and structure to what the White House does? Perhaps, in conjunction with Defense Secretary Gates, who is reputed to be somewhat skeptical of continuing the war forever and ever, he is being put in a position to rub the president’s nose in reality and develop a strategy for a graceful withdrawal?

Given the notorious bullheadedness and preference for living in a fantasy world of this president, that doesn’t seem likely. But perhaps we can hope.

What seems more likely is that appointing a respected military person with a reputation for independence is simply a public relations gesture, a chance for Bush to give the impression that he is shaking things up, so he can "stay the course," no matter how things are going until he can hand the mess off to a new president in January 2009 and then blame the Democrats for the inevitable debacle. Such cynicism would be laughable, except this effort to blur perceptions and save some semblance of the president’s hide will come at the expense of who knows how many lives of fine American soldiers and Marines.

P.S. You’re invited to check out my personal blog at AlanBock.com

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).