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White House ‘War Czar’ to Oversee Iraq, Afghanistan Conflicts

May 16, 2007 at 6:15 PM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: After a long search and many rejections, White House officials said they had filled a new job to manage and oversee the Iraq and Afghan wars. The man they tapped, Army Lieutenant General Douglas Lute. He has been serving as chief operations officer on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

He’ll be coordinating policy among government agencies, including the Pentagon and the State Department. He’ll report directly to President Bush and will serve under National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley.

At the White House, Press Secretary Tony Snow responded to questions about the job.

TONY SNOW, White House Press Secretary: What you have now is somebody who’s going to be able to coordinate with folks on the ground. Keep in mind, also, that he has experience both in Central Command and with the Joint Chiefs in operations and, therefore, has a very keen sense of precisely how operations unfold and, therefore, I think, has a very practical base of knowledge about how to get things done, and also where the bottlenecks are, including information.

Rationale for the job's creation

Philip Zelikow
Former State Department Official
This position has been needed for more than a year in order to get a more proactive role for Washington in managing both the Iraq war and the Afghan war.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on why the job was created and what it might accomplish, we turn to Philip Zelikow, former counselor at the State Department from 2005 to 2006. He also served on the National Security Council staff during the administration of the first President Bush. He's now a professor of history at the University of Virginia.

And Leon Panetta, a member of the Iraq Study Group, was White House chief of staff during the Clinton administration. He served 16 years as a member of Congress from California and is now co-director of the Panetta Institute for Public Policy.

Philip Zelikow, to you, first, why is this position needed?

PHILIP ZELIKOW, University of Virginia: This position has been needed for more than a year in order to get a more proactive role for Washington in managing both the Iraq war and the Afghan war. Remember, this is a position that covers both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Washington had been in a role of being too passive, too slow, using the ordinary interagency processes to provide quick turnarounds on guidance that are needed in the war. That tended to mean Washington was passive and reactive.

The administration has made a decision, finally, that Washington needs to get involved in a much more energetic and proactive partnership in the strategic management of our role in these two wars.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But why isn't that something that the defense secretary, the secretary of state, the national security adviser could be doing?

PHILIP ZELIKOW: Because everything we've learned about fighting insurgencies is that it's a civil military job. And it's very difficult for people in the civilian departments outside of the White House to get involved in telling the military what to do or interfering or intervening in their chain of command. So you need to get the White House involved to bring the civilian military sides together.

Now, the national security adviser needs to staff the president and develop policy on every issue in the world that concerns national security. So if these two wars, let's say, require several hours worth of work every day alone -- and that seems like a modest number -- that's all the time you're taking away from the attention Steve Hadley could give to all the other issues in the world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me interrupt and bring in...

PHILIP ZELIKOW: And that really is unfair to him and to the president.

'I'm afraid it's not going to work'

Leon Panetta
Former White House Chief of Staff
I have a very high regard for General Lute, and I'm sure this is being done under the best of intentions, but I'm afraid it's not going to work.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I'm going to bring in Leon Panetta. You've been the White House chief of staff. You were on the Iraq Study Group. Does this make sense to you?

LEON PANETTA, Co-Director, Panetta Institute for Public Policy: Well, you know, I have a very high regard for General Lute, and I'm sure this is being done under the best of intentions, but I'm afraid it's not going to work.

First of all, I don't think the national security adviser can contract out the responsibility that that person has to coordinate policy. I mean, that is the role of national security adviser. Iraq just happens to be the most important issue that they're dealing with. It's probably about 80 percent affecting our foreign policy abroad. This really needs to be the role of the national security adviser.

Secondly, you know, after four years of failing to coordinate, a lot of bad habits have developed out there. And I don't think, frankly, that, you know, a deputy national security adviser is going to have the power or authority to break those habits. This is a three-star general who's going to be operating in a four-star world.

And I guess the last point I would make is, you know, this is not about a bureaucratic need of trying to make the trains run on time. This is a strategic problem that involves where the trains are going. And I think the president and the national security adviser are going to have to decide what the broader strategy and mission is all about before you can have somebody then coordinate how that's going to be accomplished.

Assessing the new role

Philip Zelikow
Former State Department Official
If General Lute has the kind of relationship with the president that they've announced and envisioned, he's going to be able to play a strong coordinating role.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Philip Zelikow, let's take two of those points. One is his point that this is a job for the national security adviser himself and, number two, that this is a strategic position, not something more tactical.

PHILIP ZELIKOW: It is a strategic position, but the point is, how do you give the president a directed telescope who can track this at the level of detail the president needs every day and work the guidance issues every day without making Steve Hadley the desk officer for Iraq and Afghanistan?

Hadley is a secure and capable guy. He's going to be involved in what's going on. General Lute basically is a force multiplier for him and for the president. If he has the access to the president, it just enables the president to be more engaged and more proactive in shaping the strategy.

It doesn't necessarily mean you're going to have a better strategy or worse strategy, but it adds capability to the White House in managing these two ongoing wars.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about that point, Leon Panetta, that, to use Philip Zelikow's words, this is a force multiplier, it enhances what Steve Hadley, the national security adviser, is able to do?

LEON PANETTA: Well, you know, again, it's a question of just exactly what is the mission of this individual? This person is coming on as a deputy national security adviser. In my experience, it's very tough for a deputy national security adviser to be able to tell the secretary of defense, or the secretary of state, the CIA director, or the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff what to do.

And if it's that kind of coordination they're after, frankly, they haven't put that person in the right position. That is the responsibility of the national security adviser. After all, that is the role of this individual, is basically to sit down with the principals at the State Department, at the Defense Department, at CIA, at the military, and coordinate policy.

That's what they should have done a long time ago. And, frankly, that's what they should be doing now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Philip Zelikow, it sounds like what Mr. Panetta is saying is that General Lute is not going to have the clout to do what needs to be done.

PHILIP ZELIKOW: Well, with all respect, I disagree with Leon about one point. The national security adviser is not the guy who tells the secretary of defense and the secretary of state what to do. The president of the United States does that.

The national security adviser or even the chief of staff can only tell cabinet secretaries what to do, if the cabinet secretaries know he's speaking for the president. And if General Lute has the kind of relationship with the president that they've announced and envisioned, he's going to be able to play a strong coordinating role.

Look, Bob Gates and Condi Rice know Doug Lute. They were involved in the decision to create this job. Frankly, the personalities will either make it work or they'll let it fail. If they want it to succeed, they can help it succeed. And I think, actually, you have a group of personalities in place now in which this kind of idea can work. That wasn't the case last year.

A necessary position?

Leon Panetta
Former White House Chief of Staff
I hope that they can sit down and try to coordinate policy and that these personalities will, in fact, work with one another.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Leon Panetta, what about this point that, if these personalities who are at the level they are -- secretary of defense, secretary of state -- if they want to make this work, they will. Otherwise, it won't.

LEON PANETTA: Well, again, look, in the interest of the country, I wish them the best, because, you know, I hope that they can sit down and try to coordinate policy and that these personalities will, in fact, work with one another.

But I have to tell you that, in my experience, the national security adviser -- you know, no, he's not somebody who tells the secretary of defense what to do or the secretary of state what to do. But what that role is about is sitting down with the secretary of defense, sitting down with the secretary of state, and deciding what recommendations to the president ought to be and coordinating policy and providing accountability on that policy.

Very frankly, this administration has not done that for four years. And now they're coming to the point with a year-and-a-half left in this administration's history where they're trying basically to put the pieces together that have fallen apart over the last four years. That is a tough job to do, particularly if you're giving it to a deputy national security adviser.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Philip Zelikow, is that what's happened?

PHILIP ZELIKOW: Well, I think Leon's got a good point. I think they should have created a job like this more than a year ago. I think they need to have strengthened and integrated the civil military policy drive in the government so that Washington could play a more active role in guiding strategy instead of passively reacting to things coming in from the field. I think that's been a problem.

But my point of view is, all right, if they're getting ready to try to work that problem, they've created something that's going to help them do it, I'm for it. They know what the situation is. They think this will help.

Bottom line is, these bureaucratic innovations aren't going to either make -- they're not going to give you a good strategy. They're not going to give you a bad strategy. They're just going to help you do the things that you've decided to do. And, really, the fate of our effort in Iraq is going to turn on the quality of the thought, not the wiring diagram.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, gentlemen, we are going to leave it there. Philip Zelikow, Leon Panetta, thank you both very much. We appreciate it.