The czar to end all czars

War czar Douglas LuteBy Robert Silvey

George Bush has finally found a military officer sufficiently hungry for advancement to become his “war czar.” After five more senior generals turned him down, Bush today appointed Lieutenant General Douglas Lute to coordinate the two failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The new czar, who is not even a full four-star general, will have all the trappings of responsibility but little authority, since Bush has promised to press on to victory, whatever the cost. Bush is czar of czars, and Lute will follow his whimsical orders until the president decides it’s time to unveil another new “strategy.” Then he’ll fire Lute, who will have come to represent the old, failed “strategy.”

Retired Marine General John Sheehan was one officer who declined the honor, and he explained why in a Washington Post oped last month. He said:

[T]here is no agreed-upon strategic view of the Iraq problem or the region.… I concluded that the current Washington decision-making process lacks a linkage to a broader view of the region and how the parts fit together strategically.… These huge shortcomings are not going to be resolved by the assignment of an additional individual to the White House staff.

In short, implies Sheehan, the people in this administration don’t know what they’re doing, militarily or diplomatically, and they don’t know how to ask for help from experts like me. The responsibility for coordinating wars belongs to the commander in chief, who already has in place a chain of command that passes through the secretary of defense, the joint chiefs of staff, and CentCom to the commanders in the field. Creating this new position is merely another way for Bush to shirk his responsibility for coordination. Apparently, these facts do not trouble General Lute.

Naming the position has been as much a problem as finding someone willing to fill it. It was first called “war czar,” and that’s the catchy title that stuck—it’s good for headlines, and everyone knows that old-fashioned Russian-style authoritarianism is this administration’s preferred style. But some staffer quickly saw the problem with “czar” in a putative democracy and came up with “execution manager,” until some bloggers wondered which politicians’ heads were intended for the guillotine. The next name was the imprecise “implementation manager for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” and the final choice for General Lute seems to be the even more unwieldy “assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan policy and implementation.”

Language is a tool that can be used to sharpen and convey clear thinking. It can also be used to obfuscate and hide the truth. And sometimes it inadvertently reveals more than a tone-deaf speaker intends to reveal. That’s what happened this time to our latter-day czarists on the Potomac.

Update: General Lute was skeptical of the “surge,” according to Stephen Hadley. And the Financial Times quoted him in 2005 saying, “You simply have to back off and let the Iraqis step forward. You have to undercut the perception of occupation in Iraq.” With this appointment, Bush may actually be preparing a face-saving way to begin real withdrawal.

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4 replies »

  1. It is true that language can obscure fuzzy thinking (or, where a smart audience is concerned, quickly tip off its presence). What is worse is that our ability to think is shaped and defined by language. So fuzzy language also enables bad thinking.

    This is one reason why I’m especially concerned when I encounter a decider with a limited vocabulary and an even more limited ability to wield it.

  2. Last I checked, we already had someone who supposedly felt the “war czar” role – the Secretary of Defense.

    Oh, that’s right, SecDef can’t focus on running the two wars we’re involved in right now, not with all the intelligence agencies he’s got to oversee instead….

  3. Now all we need is an energy czar, manufacturing czar, education czar and drug czar and we’ll get things back in order. I believe Rasputin is already in place.

  4. Rasputin = Cheney? I think you’ve got something there!

    I can see Cheney’s secret self as a kind of wild-haired, hypnotic eyed malevolent guru. Or as someone who fancies that role…