By Peter Baker and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
President Bush tapped Army Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute yesterday to serve as a new White House "war czar" overseeing the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, choosing a low-key soldier who privately expressed skepticism about sending more troops to Iraq during last winter's strategy review.
In the newly created position, Lute will coordinate often disjointed military and civilian operations and manage the Washington side of the same troop increase he resisted before Bush announced the plan in January. Bush hopes an empowered aide working in the White House and answering directly to him will be able to cut through bureaucracy that has hindered efforts in Iraq.
The selection capped a difficult recruitment process for the White House, as its initial candidates rejected the job. At least five retired four-star generals approached by the White House or intermediaries refused to be considered. Lute, a three-star general now serving as chief operations officer on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in effect will jump over many superiors as he moves to the West Wing and assumes authority to deal directly with Cabinet secretaries and top commanders.
"General Lute is a tremendously accomplished military leader who understands war and government and knows how to get things done," Bush said in a statement.
In choosing Lute, Bush picked a key internal voice of dissent during the administration review that led to the troop increase. Reflecting the views of other members of the Joint Chiefs, Lute argued that a short-term "surge" would do little good and that any sustained increase in forces had to be matched by equal emphasis on political and economic steps, according to officials informed about the deliberations.
Lute believed the situation in Iraq reflected the same mistakes as the ineffective and disorganized response to Hurricane Katrina, according to a source familiar with the debate. Like others at the Pentagon, he was also irked because civilian agencies, in his view, had not done nearly enough to help stabilize Iraq. And he was outspoken about the increasing strains on the U.S. military, officials said.
National security adviser Stephen J. Hadley said Lute raised his concerns during talks before his selection. "He had the same skepticism a lot of us had," Hadley said. "That's one of the reasons we designed the strategy the way we did." By joining the White House, Hadley said, Lute can ensure that the economic and political elements of the plan are implemented. "In some sense, he's part of the cure for the problems he was concerned about."
Until Bush decided this spring to create the position, the highest-ranking White House official working exclusively on Iraq and Afghanistan was a deputy national security adviser reporting to Hadley. Lute, by contrast, will have the rank of assistant to the president, just as Hadley does, and report directly to Bush, while also holding the title of deputy national security adviser.
The new war czar will consult with generals and diplomats in the field each morning, then join Hadley in briefing Bush and spend the rest of the day talking with officials such as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to resolve any issues. "The goal is same-day service -- identify the problem in the morning and fix it in the afternoon," Hadley said. Unlike an earlier version of the plan, Hadley said, Lute will oversee both policy and implementation, assisted by a staff of 11.
The position does not require congressional approval, but Lute will need Senate approval because he is an active-duty officer. Hadley said he is not concerned that a three-star officer will be directing superiors. "The issue is not the number of stars," he said.
Some Iraq experts were encouraged. "This is an unusually talented guy," said Ellen Laipson, president of the Henry L. Stimson Center, who returned from Iraq yesterday. "He's one of those intellectual soldiers who also exudes strong personal leadership qualities."
Yet Lute will face enormous obstacles four years into the war. "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," said Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "He is also a coordinator who works for a White House that has no long-term plan or strategy."
That was the reason given by other generals who turned down the job, including retired Marine Gen. John J. "Jack" Sheehan. "I wish the guy luck," Sheehan said of Lute yesterday. "He's got his work cut out for him."
Critics said the appointment underscores Bush's failures. "Whatever the name of the position is, this proves the president is throwing in the towel when it comes to directing the military, and is giving up his constitutional role," said Jon Soltz, co-founder of the antiwar VoteVets.org. "The troops are now depending on Lt. Gen. Lute to do something the president wouldn't -- listen to commanders who are telling him we need more diplomacy, not escalation."
Lute, 54, a native of Michigan City, Ind., graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1975 and later earned a master's degree from Harvard University. He fought in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and then spent most of the next decade rotating between unit commands and high-profile Pentagon assignments. He commanded a multinational peacekeeping brigade in Kosovo for six months in 2002.
In June 2004, Lute was named operations director at the U.S. Central Command, which oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, then moved last September to serve the same role for the Joint Chiefs. He cites ancient Greek historian Thucydides as his favorite military scholar for helping him understand the connection between civil society and armed forces.
In an interview with Charlie Rose of PBS in January 2006, Lute said the military wanted "to see a smaller, lighter, less prominent U.S. force structure in Iraq," both to undercut the perception of occupation and to prevent what he called "dependency syndrome" -- the notion that U.S. forces will do what is necessary and therefore local forces do not need to step up.
Ultimately, he said, Iraqis need to forge a political solution. "Our purpose is not fundamentally to draw down U.S. forces, but rather to produce a durable, reasonable solution in Iraq," Lute said. "And that absolutely hinges on the ability of the Shia, apparently the simple majority Shia, to produce a compromise solution that is inclusive of the other two major parties, the Sunni and the Kurds."
Americans Against Escalation in Iraq instantly developed a newspaper ad yesterday that cites a similar quote Lute gave to the Financial Times in 2005, asserting that at some point "you simply have to back off and let the Iraqis step forward," and that undercutting the perception of occupation in Iraq is "very difficult" to do "when you have 150,000-plus, largely Western, foreign troops occupying the country."
Staff writer Thomas E. Ricks contributed to this report.