The Obama administration is considering nominating retired Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute as the next commander of the U.S. European Command, a move that could stir controversy among some senior military officials who have clashed with Lute over war policy.
Lute, who retired from the military in 2010, is currently serving as an unofficial “war czar” coordinating policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan for the Obama administration. He previously served in a similar position under President George W. Bush and has won plaudits from both administrations for his loyalty and his willingness to challenge and prod the Pentagon.
White House officials said that they are not close to a decision on who will replace Adm. James Stavridis, who is scheduled to step down as the top U.S. commander in Europe this summer.
“I am not engaging in rumors or speculation here,” said Tommy Vietor, the National Security Council spokesman. “The fact is that the president wants and needs Doug right where he is as we continue implementing the Lisbon guidance on Afghanistan and rebuilding the critical relationship with Pakistan.”
Current U.S. policy, including agreement to withdraw coalition combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, was set at NATO’s 2010 summit in Lisbon. Further details of the plan are scheduled to be decided at the next summit to be held in May in Chicago.
Two Pentagon officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing personnel decisions, said Lute is a top candidate for the job.
The move to bring a general out of retirement for a four-star job would be unusual and somewhat unpopular in the military, where it could be interpreted as a sign that the current crop of active-duty generals are not up to the task.
When Lute first moved to the White House in 2007, it was widely assumed that he would be promoted to a major four-star position. But Lute clashed with then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who resisted efforts to promote Lute. Mullen and Gates stepped down from their positions last year, potentially clearing the way for Lute to get a top military job.
As President Obama works to wind down the Afghan war and craft a strategy for peace talks with the Taliban, the White House also has been reluctant to let go of Lute, whose knowledge of the Pentagon’s inner workings and the war have made him a key player.
Unlike most senior Army generals, Lute has not led U.S. troops in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The position of U.S. European commander is one of the military’s most prestigious commands, but these days is focused as much on diplomacy as traditional military matters.
The next commander in Europe will play a major role in sustaining support for the Afghan war from America’s war-weary NATO allies. Last week, France indicated that it will pull out its combat troops a year early.
As the U.S. military shifts its attention to Asia and cuts its ground troop presence in Europe, the future head of European Command must also reassure allies that the U.S. military remains committed to the region.
Lute still has many backers in the Army, where he is viewed as a smart officer with a deep knowledge of the inner workings of Washington, a skill that is in somewhat short supply in the Army.
Most of the controversy surrounding the former general traces back to his skepticism that the United States needed to send an additional 33,000 troops to Afghanistan in 2009 to blunt Taliban momentum and bolster the weak Afghan government.
Mullen, the chief military adviser to the president, questioned whether Lute had overstepped his role in the White House and was bothered that he did not directly share his doubts about the strategy with senior military officials.
“The [defense] secretary and I believe you weren’t always helpful in the course of the review,” Mullen is quoted as telling Lute in Bob Woodward’s book “Obama’s Wars.”
“I hope the president doesn’t have the same view,” Lute responded.
Staff writer Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.