Wednesday, May 16, 2007

War Czar

Josh Marshall has a very good post on our new War Czar. I've been mostly snarky in my comments so far, but this is a serious matter and raises some important issues. In the first part a knowledgeable TPM reader comments on some little noted but important features of the appointment of Lt. General Lute. He notes that
It’s not that the administration had to lower their sights to a 3-star. The amazing thing is that they had to fall back on an active duty general – a guy they could order to take the job. All the previous names floated were retired folks who had the luxury of turning the offer down.
If this is supposed to be an important position needed to coordinate these two essential fronts on this war of such monumental importance to the nation, the inability to find someone who is willing to take the position voluntarily is striking and is bad. Clearly there are few people who actually believe that the position has any prospect for success. No one would turn down the chance to take such a high profile position if there were any substantial chance of success. The value of being that successful leader is simply too great. History shows unless the odds are long indeed there will be no shortage of men willing to try for the glory. Yet this Administration can find no such men to fill this position. But consider this too. When a country is in a desperate situation and it faces ruin or destruction, there are again many who will take the chance, however long, to be the nation's savior. The glory again outweighs the odds. But again this position has no takers. The inescapable conclusion is that the odds on success are very long and the potential benefit to the nation is slim. This war is simply not the matter of national existence that the conservatives would have us believe it is.

Another problem raised by this appointment and discussed by TPM's knowledgeable reader is the chain of command problems raised by having a three star general in this position.
I’ve never met Lute, but his resume is solid. It’s particularly noteworthy that his last three jobs have all been joint positions. He will probably be an effective organizer. But as a currently serving 3-star, he will be at best a coordinator, outranked by many of the key people he needs to coordinate.
There are some additional serious issues with regard to this whole idea. Issues beyond the questions of current competence in the White House if the President needs to appoint someone else to run the war (he is the commander-in-chief after all) the time taken to fill the post (the fact that no one wants the job indicates that we have a problem) and the evidence from experience that this is just a means, on the part of the President, of ducking responsibility for his lack of leadership to date. But more than that the very position is problematical.

This country has been very successful and very fortunate in keeping its military forces under civilian control. We have been blessed with a long tradition of dedicated officers who have not fallen to the temptations that have bedeviled other nations. Officers are trained to give orders, but they are also trained to follow them. A military organization works best when it is given objectives to achieve and the resources to do so, but when those objectives are set by another, civilian entity. As I said above, the United States has been skilled and blessed to have achieved something so very close to the most proper balance between civilian and military leadership throughout its history.

But this balance does not come without effort and a number of principals and guidelines need to be followed if the balance is to be maintained. This War Czar position seems to not only be conceived without proper regard to these principals, but to be blithely ignorant that they even exist. For one thing, the position is reported to be responsible for coordinating both military and civilian affairs. As such Lute, an active duty officer, will be overseeing the operations of civilians in the State Department. The proper role is to have the military responsible to the civilian leadership, not the other way around. The earlier search for a retired General to take the position did not raise this concern as a retired General is no longer in the military chain of command. He is essentially a civilian. An active duty general officer with responsibility to direct the State Department is a new precedent which should be given serious and careful consideration before being implemented.

This is not just a problem, however, of potential overreach of the military. The ability of the military to function effectively in the future is also put in jeopardy due to the ever increasing responsibilities heaped upon it. Our system works well by keeping the roles of the military and civilian leadership distinct, not by conflating them. Overextending the military by including in its mission tasks that are best run by civilians runs the risk of serious long term damage to the effectiveness of our military forces. To quote from Josh's readers again
What we hear repeatedly expressed as the danger now...both with this nomination, and with constantly rhetorically making Gen. Petraeus responsible for "the plan" in that the military will be held accountable for the policy. As a military friend privately comments, "This is simply wrong".

There's also a serious debate going on within military circles about what might be termed Constitutional issues...a debate which could well get to the Congress, since the Senate will be required to hold hearings and to approve Lute's nomination. Here's the private comment of a very well-known retired general, which has resonance for Japan's debate over revising Article 9:

"The czar business is certainly unprecedented and is either a tacit admission that the in-place structure does not meet the needs of the time or is a political maneuver by a desperate president shuffling the deck chairs.

This is serious stuff, indeed, for it calls into question the basic construct of the US military for over half a century.

It remains to be seen what Lute's brief will be and given Title 10, what authorities he is given. In any case POTUS is tampering with fundamentals and it will have serious consequences that I hope have been fully analyzed and understood.

Certainly the Congress which gave birth to the National Security Act and all the legislation that followed has to weigh in on this.

Given the anti-Bush temperament of that body, I find it stunning that the President has given it another reason to attack him for not knowing what he is doing.

The days ahead will be most interesting."

It is clear that this Administration will not give the due, serious consideration that the implementation of this position requires. Let us hope that Congress will, and let us put pressure on our Senators to give that proper oversight.

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