By Peter Baker and Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
The White House wants to appoint a high-powered czar to oversee the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with authority to issue directions to the Pentagon, the State Department and other agencies, but it has had trouble finding anyone able and willing to take the job, according to people close to the situation.
At least three retired four-star generals approached by the White House in recent weeks have declined to be considered for the position, the sources said, underscoring the administration's difficulty in enlisting its top recruits to join the team after five years of warfare that have taxed the United States and its military.
"The very fundamental issue is, they don't know where the hell they're going," said retired Marine Gen. John J. "Jack" Sheehan, a former top NATO commander who was among those rejecting the job. Sheehan said he believes that Vice President Cheney and his hawkish allies remain more powerful within the administration than pragmatists looking for a way out of Iraq. "So rather than go over there, develop an ulcer and eventually leave, I said, 'No, thanks,' " he said.
The White House has not publicly disclosed its interest in creating the position, hoping to find someone President Bush can anoint and announce for the post all at once. Officials said they are still considering options for how to reorganize the White House's management of the two conflicts. If they cannot find a person suited for the sort of specially empowered office they envision, they said, they may have to retain the current structure.
The administration's interest in the idea stems from long-standing concern over the coordination of civilian and military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan by different parts of the U.S. government. The Defense and State departments have long struggled over their roles and responsibilities in Iraq, with the White House often forced to referee.
The highest-ranking White House official responsible exclusively for the wars is deputy national security adviser Meghan O'Sullivan, who reports to national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley and does not have power to issue orders to agencies. O'Sullivan plans to step down soon, giving the White House the opportunity to rethink how it organizes the war effort.
Unlike O'Sullivan, the new czar would report directly to Bush and to Hadley and would have the title of assistant to the president, just as Hadley and the other highest-ranking White House officials have, the sources said. The new czar would also have "tasking authority," or the power to issue directions, over other agencies, they said.
To fill such a role, the White House is searching for someone with enough stature and confidence to deal directly with heavyweight administration figures such as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. Besides Sheehan, sources said, the White House or intermediaries have sounded out retired Army Gen. Jack Keane and retired Air Force Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, who also said they are not interested. Ralston declined to comment; Keane confirmed he declined the offer, adding: "It was discussed weeks ago."
Kurt Campbell, a Clinton administration Pentagon official who heads the Center for a New American Security, said the difficulty in finding someone to take the job shows that Bush has exhausted his ability to sign up top people to help salvage a disastrous war. "Who's sitting on the bench?" he asked. "Who is there to turn to? And who would want to take the job?"
All three generals who declined the job have been to varying degrees administration insiders. Keane, a former Army vice chief of staff, was one of the primary proponents of sending more troops to Iraq and presented Bush with his plan for a major force increase during an Oval Office meeting in December. The president adopted the concept in January, although he did not dispatch as many troops as Keane proposed.
Ralston, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was named by Rice last August to serve as her special envoy for countering the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, a group designated a terrorist organization by the United States.
Sheehan, a 35-year Marine, served on the Defense Policy Board advising the Pentagon early in the Bush administration and at one point was reportedly considered by then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He now works as an executive at Bechtel Corp. developing oil projects in the Middle East.
In an interview yesterday, Sheehan said that Hadley contacted him and they discussed the job for two weeks but that he was dubious from the start. "I've never agreed on the basis of the war, and I'm still skeptical," Sheehan said. "Not only did we not plan properly for the war, we grossly underestimated the effect of sanctions and Saddam Hussein on the Iraqi people."
In the course of the discussions, Sheehan said, he called around to get a better feel for the administration landscape.
"There's the residue of the Cheney view -- 'We're going to win, al-Qaeda's there' -- that justifies anything we did," he said. "And then there's the pragmatist view -- how the hell do we get out of Dodge and survive? Unfortunately, the people with the former view are still in the positions of most influence." Sheehan said he wrote a note March 27 declining interest.
Gordon Johndroe, a National Security Council spokesman, would not discuss contacts with candidates but confirmed that officials are considering a newly empowered czar.
"The White House is looking at a number of options on how to structure the Iraq and Afghanistan office in light of Meghan O'Sullivan's departure and the completion of both the Iraq and Afghanistan strategic reviews," he said. He added that "No decisions have been made" and "a list of candidates has not been narrowed down."
The idea of someone overseeing the wars has been promoted to the White House by several outside advisers. "It would be definitely a good idea," said Frederick W. Kagan, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "Hope they do it, and hope they do it soon. And I hope they pick the right guy. It's a real problem that we don't have a single individual back here who is really capable of coordinating the effort."
Other variations are under consideration. House Democrats have put a provision in their version of a war spending bill that would designate a coordinator to oversee all assistance to Iraq. That person, who would report directly to the president, would require Senate confirmation; the White House said it opposes the proposal because Rice already has an aid coordinator.
Some administration critics said the ideas miss the point. "An individual can't fix a failed policy," said Carlos Pascual, former State Department coordinator of Iraq reconstruction, who is now a vice president at the Brookings Institution. "So the key thing is to figure out where the policy is wrong."