The missing player: a 'czar' to manage the Iraq war

The White House has envisioned a coordinator role for the multibillion-dollar, multiagency effort, but is having trouble finding a willing candidate.

It's been a problem for the Bush administration since the outset of the Iraq war four years ago. Now the key question of who is in charge of coordinating the war effort is resurfacing in the midst of an escalation of the US commitment.

The White House has recognized the need for higher coordination and decisionmaking for the multibillion-dollar, multiagency effort, and it has envisioned a position that will carry out these responsibilities, though it has not publicly committed to the role. So far, however, any candidates for such a post have reportedly turned it down, expressing reluctance to take on such a tough task – one that concerns an increasingly unpopular war, in the administration's twilight.

"If this [search for a coordinator] was happening a lot earlier in the Iraq story, things might be different. But no one wants to jump on board when others see the boat listing to one side and are deciding to get off," says Patrick Lang, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst who consults with the government on Iraq issues. "People see this as a losing policy, and no one wants to be remembered as 'the man who lost Iraq.' "

The debate over coordination and implementation of Iraq policy is percolating just as Gen. David Petraeus, named by President Bush to carry out the military "surge" plan, is briefing Washington on the security operation's initial results.

Personnel and interagency squabbles

Officials say a combination of factors have the White House considering the idea of a coordinator or "czar" for both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. One is the imminent departure from the White House of Mr. Bush's key day-to-day overseer of Iraq policy, Megan O'Sullivan. Meanwhile, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley already handles an overwhelming variety of dossiers.

In addition, squabbles between the Defense and State departments over who should be handling what in Iraq – a recurring irritant during Donald Rumsfeld's reign at the Pentagon – have continued.

Indeed, some officials and experts say, Iraq policy in particular has suffered from a lack of coordination – and the presence of someone of high enough rank to quickly settle inter-agency battles.

More specifically, a number of experts who have seen the administration's Iraq policymaking from the inside say it has lacked a clear strategy and a defined chain of command all along.

"One of the problems in Iraq from the beginning – and really even before we entered Iraq – has been this lack of sufficient integration and coordination between the military and political tasks," says Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution who advised the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq on governance in 2004. "The disjunctive military and political efforts have been a factor in our lack of success, as has the absence of clear lines of authority from Washington."

Even some experts more sympathetic to the administration's handling of Iraq policy say the mix of personalities has been problematic for policy implementation. "Institutionally, this kind of coordinating should be done at the National Security Council, but it was difficult until recently because Rumsfeld was such a strong advocate for his and Pentagon views," says James Phillips, a Mideast policy expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice "had the job for a while [when she was national security adviser in Bush's first term], but she didn't really coordinate," says Charles Dunbar, a foreign-policy expert and former ambassador to Yemen. "She was up against [Vice President Dick] Cheney and Rumsfeld and [then-Secretary of State Colin] Powell, and she knew she couldn't play."

Such problems have not ceased, nor are they seen merely as unavoidable personality clashes. Earlier this year, Secretary Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates publicly aired their differences over plans to expand the number of reconstruction teams in Iraq – even though the two are generally on a closer wavelength than Mr. Powell and Rumsfeld ever were.

Rice will attend an Iraq neighbors conference in Egypt next week in an attempt to rev up the diplomatic offensive on Iraq. But her focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the beginning of the year is tacit acknowledgment on her part, some foreign policy analysts say, that the new reliance on US forces to stabilize Iraq crowds her out.

Her relative disengagement may also suggest that Rice, hoping to secure some foreign-policy successes for her and Bush's legacies, is relieved that the military component of the US role in Iraq will remain paramount at least into the fall, some experts say.

White House officials insist that no final decisions have been made on creation of a coordinator, and in particular on the right person to fill such a post. But a recent report in The Washington Post said that although three four-star generals had been tapped to fill the position, all three turned it down.

"These are people who see the problem and the need to fix it with some major changes. But they also see that nothing has really changed in the Bush-Cheney approach to Iraq policy, so they decline the offer," says Colonel Lang.

One candidate, retired Marine Corps Gen. John Sheehan, said in a column in the Post last week that he took his name off the candidates' list after concluding "that the current Washington decision-making process lacks a linkage to a broader view of the region and how the parts fit together strategically."

He was more blunt in a Post interview, saying that administration officials "don't know" where they are going, and concluding that a hawkish mind-set dominates policy.

'Drift in administration policy'

Mr. Diamond, who wrote "Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq" after his Iraq experience, calls the proposal for a high-level policy coordinator "an excellent idea." But, he adds, "The fact they can't persuade someone of the appropriate stature to take on this role is a devastating commentary on the drift in administration policy."

On the other hand, Mr. Phillips of the Heritage Foundation says the difficulty in finding someone to take the job has less to do with administration policy than with the nature of the new position. "They do know where they want to go, but they all know it's going to be difficult getting there," he says. The new job would be a "thankless" task, he adds, because it would entail coordinating policy but little role in formulating it.

Despite the insistence of military leaders including General Petraeus that the battle for Iraq is now largely political, many experts say US policy continues to be dominated by a military response.

Lang says his work has shown him that "as soon as you start saying this requires a human-based solution," it "turns off" most of mid-level people in charge of operations on the ground. They want to believe there's a "technological response" for everything – like walls to divide sectarian enclaves, he says – while any use of anthropology is the "sissy" thing to do.

"They've got it all backwards, and there's little indication after four years that anyone in the administration really sees that," says Mr. Dunbar, now a professor of international relations at Boston University. "This is a political struggle, but the political dimension continues to be shortchanged."

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