The recent appointment of Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute as the new White House overseer of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan is clearly a last-ditch effort to salvage the situation in Iraq by taking some of the control out of Pentagon hands.
Unless I missed something, the military reorganization of 1947 eliminated the post of secretary of war and downgraded the secretaries of the Army and Navy, placing them under the new defense secretary's umbrella. Now we're told that Lute will be the new "war czar," situated in the White House West Wing, giving him extraordinary access to the commander in chief in a system where influence and power are measured in direct proportion to physical proximity to the Oval Office.
Lute will be an assistant to the president and report directly to him, unlike the current arrangement, where war matters are filtered through National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley before being presented to President Bush.
That alone should relieve some uncertainty about the importance of this assignment, which in other incarnations has been more perception than substance. So many so-called czars, from intelligence to drugs to energy, found that while the title had a nice ring to it, that was about all it had. Here's an idea: We'll establish a super-position that will make them think we're really serious about solving the unsolvable. How's that for creative management?
Lute agreed to take the job despite opposing the troop-surge strategy in Iraq. He reportedly made it clear to others serving in the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that he felt increasing the troops on a short-term basis would do little to stabilize the situation. He also has been upset by the failure of civilian agencies to help move Iraq toward stability, comparing the performance at times to the mistakes made in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
As many as five retired four-star generals reportedly saw the pitfalls and either demurred or refused even to be considered for the post. One would suppose that Lute's three stars soon will become four if he is to have the ear and confidence of men in the command he jumped over to take the position. Hadley and others have said that rank will not be a concern, revealing an amazing lack of understanding of a system where it is always a factor.
The reluctance of others to take the job would seem to say volumes about the growing lack of confidence the military has in the entire Iraq mess. Furthermore, the president's decision to so blatantly step around the traditional military power structure also may testify to Bush's growing lack of confidence in the Pentagon's pursuit of the conflict. Let's face it, the Iraq situation seems to do nothing but get worse and the White House is having trouble keeping an increasingly difficult Congress at bay.
What will the new czar do all day? According to the White House, he will consult each morning with generals and diplomats and then join Hadley in briefing the president. The rest of the day will be spent in consultation with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Hadley was quoted as saying that the goal "is same-day service, to identify a problem in the morning and fix it in the afternoon," a highly optimistic assessment given the complexity of the situation.
The establishment of Lute's post immediately raised speculation over whether Bush finally is admitting his own inadequacies in directing the conflict. Some critics went so far as to contend that the president has thrown in the towel when it comes to his constitutional role as commander in chief, an extreme view under the circumstances. Once again, the question remains whether Lute will have the clout to solve the issues — many of them a matter of turf as well as policy — needed to bring an end to the political, military and economic chaos in Iraq.
Only if the president makes it abundantly clear to everyone involved, from the Pentagon to the State Department, that Lute speaks for him will this work. Otherwise, he will just follow a series of other American czars into a wastebasket of good intentions. The series of ineffectual drug czars is a good example. Lute is certainly tough-minded and capable. But it will be a miracle if this newest approach works in an atmosphere that has become increasingly desperate.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)