By Peter Baker and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 17, 2007
In selecting Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute to manage the war in Iraq, President Bush has chosen a soldier who believes there is no purely military solution to the conflict and wants to forge a political accommodation among Iraqi factions that may fall short of full reconciliation but could lead to an exit strategy, according to friends and colleagues.
Lute's appointment shifts the balance within Bush's war council by adding a powerful voice who resisted sending more U.S. troops to Iraq and plans to pressure civilian agencies to take on a greater role. Lute promised Bush that he will do everything he can to make the buildup succeed despite his reservations, but he may be more open to arguments for a withdrawal should it fail, the colleagues said.
"The president is bringing a military person into the decision group that is willing to speak truth to power and has a sophisticated understanding of the multidimensional nature of the problem and has no agenda except to enable the U.S. to get through this in the best way possible," said Thomas J. Leney, who has known Lute since they were lieutenants in 1974.
The choice encouraged some Bush policy critics who hope that Lute will eventually shift direction in Iraq, and triggered complaints among some supporters of the war who fear the same thing. Many leading advocates of the current buildup, inside and outside the administration, exchanged anxious e-mails and telephone calls yesterday, expressing irritation that the president was undercutting his own strategy by tapping someone who had been on the other side during internal debates.
"He's a known opponent of the president's stated strategy," said one military adviser to the White House, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he will have to work with Lute. "I don't understand how that works. Maybe he's come around and seen the light . . . but if you're going to have someone do this, it should be someone who really believes it."
The White House dismissed the concerns. "General Lute not only supports the way forward, but he also thinks that there is -- that we're making progress," White House spokesman Tony Snow said. "And now it is his job to work in a coordinating role to try to look at everything that's going on under the auspices of the executive branch."
As the White House's new "war czar," Lute will oversee the policy on and the execution of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, reporting directly to the president and issuing directions to Cabinet secretaries in Bush's name. Although the newly created position is not subject to congressional approval, the Senate will have to approve Lute's assignment because he is a senior active-duty military officer.
His selection comes at a time when the administration is struggling internally over extending the troop buildup in Iraq. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander there, has promised a progress report by September, which many in Washington have come to consider a make-or-break moment. But the administration is trying to tamp down expectations that the situation will have changed dramatically by then. Officials are already studying how to keep the extra troops in Iraq.
At one point last winter, officials said they would have logistical difficulties keeping the additional forces in Iraq beyond summer. Now, officials think they can extend the buildup until February but are working to find ways to keep the reinforcements in Iraq beyond that month if necessary.
At the same time, according to sources, tension is growing between Adm. William J. Fallon, the new chief of the U.S. Central Command, and some in the White House who think that Fallon is too anxious to find a way to scale back the U.S. military involvement in Iraq. Some hawks inside the administration likewise doubt that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates fully supports the current strategy and wonder if Lute will be an ally.
As operations director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Lute was a leading skeptic of the troop increase during the review that led to Bush's new strategy in January, according to some sources close to the process, but he reflected a consensus among senior officers that it would produce a temporary benefit, at best. "Almost across the board, almost all the chiefs, certainly the Army chief, the Centcom commander, Doug Lute, the in-country commander, none of them wanted to do the surge," said retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey. "Everybody told the president, 'Don't do it.' "
Even now, insiders said, Lute remains dubious -- not of the military's ability to perform but because the requisite political reforms and economic development in Iraq have not happened. One priority in his new assignment, they said, will be to hammer away at civilian agencies, particularly the State Department, to do more to revitalize the Iraqi economy, provide jobs, demobilize militias and give Iraqis hope for the future.
"He'll start asking people: 'What are you doing? How can we get you to contribute?' " said retired Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, president of the Association of the United States Army. "This is the kind of guy who can ask those questions. . . . What Doug brings is a good understanding of the importance of using the full panoply of U.S. power."
That will require him to force cooperation among agencies that have squabbled through much of the four-year-old war -- a tall order for a three-star officer dealing with onetime superiors and Cabinet members. "If necessary, he will kick people in the pants to get things done," said an officer who works with him. "And he will not be shy about telling his opinion."
Mirroring recent comments by Fallon, colleagues said, Lute also favors a political "accommodation" between the year-old Iraqi government and minority Sunnis that would weaken the Sunni insurgency and dilute public support for al-Qaeda, even if it does not produce a grand compact among the country's feuding factions. Then he could begin to lay the groundwork for an exit strategy, they said.
Lute's time as a peacekeeping-brigade commander in Kosovo in 2002 gave him experience mixing military strategy with economic and political progress. "He captured the balance between understanding how to deal with the Kosovar civilian population -- Albanian and Serb -- by listening to them and being open to them when they articulated their needs," said a senior diplomat who served with him in the Balkans. "When he left Kosovo, the United States had more friends than when he arrived."
Whether that will be true in Washington is less clear. "He understands how it works in Washington, D.C., probably better than some other generals who spend all their time in the field," said retired Army Col. Paul Hughes, an analyst at the U.S. Institute of Peace. "His challenge is to get these things fixed."