Bush's new war czar worries hawks
Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, though vowing to push for success in Iraq, was a skeptic of the buildup.
WASHINGTON - In selecting Lt. Gen. Douglas 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, friends and colleagues say.
Lute's appointment shifts the balance in 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 would do everything he could to make the buildup succeed despite his reservations, but he might 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 Leney, who has known Lute since they were lieutenants in 1974.
While the choice encouraged some Bush policy critics who hope Lute will shift direction in Iraq, many leading advocates of the buildup, inside and outside the administration, exchanged anxious e-mails and telephone calls Wednesday.
"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.
"Gen. 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 new 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 came amid the administration's internal struggle over extending the troop buildup in Iraq. Gen. David Petraeus, the 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 in the 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, sources said, tension is growing between Adm. William Fallon, the new chief of the U.S. Central Command, and some in the White House who think Fallon is too eager to find a way to scale back U.S. military involvement in Iraq.
Some hawks in the administration likewise doubt that Defense Secretary Robert Gates fully supports the current strategy and wonder whether 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, some sources close to the process said. 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," retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey said. "Everybody told the president, 'Don't do it.' "
Even now, insiders said, Lute remains dubious because the requisite political changes 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.
"He'll start asking people: 'What are you doing? How can we get you to contribute?' " said retired Gen. Gordon 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."