War Stories

General Knowledge

Why no one wants to be Bush’s war czar.

President George W. Bush

If anyone still had doubts that President George W. Bush’s Iraq policy is doomed, they should be dispelled by the story about the fruitless search for a “war czar.”

The story, reported in the April 11 Washington Post by the ever-reliable Peter Baker and Thomas Ricks, tells of the White House’s secret attempt to find “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.”

The punch line is that at least three prominent retired four-star generals have been asked if they’d be interested in the job—and all of them said no.

Let’s be clear about the significance of these refusals. Generals do not become generals by being demure. They are, as a rule, confident, opinionated, and in many cases, arrogant. Retired generals like to talk with other retired generals about how they would handle one foul-up or another if they were still in command.

In other words, if some retired generals out there had a great idea about how to solve the mess in Iraq, and if the president offered them the authority to do what they wanted to do, few of them would hesitate to step up and take charge.

The fact that Bush has found no takers suggests one of three possibilities: The generals don’t have any great ideas; they don’t believe they’d really be given carte blanche; or, most likely, to some degree, both.

There’s a history of American policy czars—grey eminences solemnly appointed by presidents to untangle the day’s knottiest problems (drug czar, energy czar, inflation czar, etc.)—and each chapter has been a tale of frustration and woe.

The reasons for failure have been the same in each instance.

First, the sources of the problem are beyond any one person’s grasp.

Second, the president names a czar because the normal government agencies have failed or don’t know what to do.

Third, czars may be given a mandate to knock heads together, but they’re not given the power to set policy. If the president doesn’t have a sound policy, the most efficient coordinator can’t solve anything important.

Fourth, an outsider, no matter how smart and respected, probably doesn’t have a better grasp of the problem than the responsible government agencies do—or if he does, he doesn’t really control the levers to force those agencies to follow his directives.

Fifth, everyone (except maybe the appointed czar) understands all this from the outset—understands that the whole enterprise is a PR stunt to make the president look like he’s trying to do something and to absolve him from blame after it’s clear that even the wise outsider couldn’t work miracles.

Such would be the case with the war czar, too, and that’s probably why no general worth his stars wants the job.

The decliners have been prominent men indeed: retired Gen. Jack Keane, former Army vice chief of staff (and the co-author, with Frederick Kagan, of the briefing that Bush cited to justify the “surge”); retired Air Force Gen. Joseph Ralston, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and retired Marine Gen. John Sheehan, former NATO commander.

Gen. Sheehan, the only one who talked on the record with the Post reporters, made the point clearly. “The very fundamental issue,” he said, referring to Bush and his aides, “is they don’t know where the hell they’re going.”

Another problem is Vice President Dick Cheney, who, as Sheehan put it, believes “We’re going to win” and still has far more influence than the administration’s pragmatists, who are looking for a responsible way out. In other words, Sheehan realizes that if he took the job, he would always be outflanked by Cheney.

“So,” Sheehan said, “rather than go over there, develop an ulcer and eventually leave, I said, ‘No thanks.’ “

By the way, it’s not just Cheney who couldn’t be expected to surrender his power to some grand pooh-bah. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is no more prone to self-abnegation. “This person,” he said of any prospective war czar, “is not ‘running the war.’ This ‘czar’ term is, I think, kind of silly.”

Gates envisions this person’s job as follows: If, say, Ambassador Ryan Crocker or Gen. David Petraeus asks for something and doesn’t get it, or if it’s moving too slowly through the bureaucracy, then here would be “somebody empowered by the president to call a cabinet secretary and say, ‘The president would like to know why you haven’t delivered what’s been asked for yet.’ “

But there already is such a person—the national security adviser, a job now held by Stephen Hadley. And if Hadley doesn’t convincingly speak with the president’s authority on such matters (just as Condoleezza Rice didn’t before him), it’s hard to see how someone who drops in out of the blue is going to do so either, no matter how loudly he can yell or pound his fist on a table.

Actually, there’s another official who, as Baker and Ricks describe the job, has the “authority to issue directions to the Pentagon, the State Department, and other agencies.” He’s called the president of the United States.

To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you go to war in the place where there’s fighting, with the officials you’ve got. The problem with the war in Iraq isn’t that we don’t have a war czar. The problem is that the war is in Iraq and that George W. Bush is the president.