Thursday, April 12, 2007

Isn't Bush Supposed to be the "War Czar?"


Yesterday the Washington Post and other media outlets reported that the Bush administration has been turned down by three retired generals asked to take the position of "war czar." News accounts focused mostly on the reasons why the position has proved so hard to fill. Most stories quoted retired Marine Gen. Jack Sheehan's explanation for declining the job: "The very fundamental issue is, they don't know where the hell they're going." Moreover, with VP Cheney and other hawks still exerting substantial influence within the administration, analysts explained that the occupant of the Czar job would not have sufficient power to accomplish its goal.

What exactly is that goal? According to the Post: "The idea for creating the new position follows concern over longstanding disputes between civilian and military officials in Iraq. The war czar would have the authority to issue directions to the Pentagon, State Department and other agencies." Call me old-fashioned, but I thought the way you get civilian coordination of the Pentagon, State Department and whatever other agencies are involved in the war effort would be at the Cabinet level, where each Department head can meet with the Commander in Chief, who also conveniently happens to be the head of the whole Executive Branch. Indeed, they could all meet together in . . . oh, I don't know, let's say a "Cabinet meeting." What exactly does one add by inserting another official between the President and his direct reports?

The rage for czars in general makes little sense. As Judge Posner noted in his critique of the 9/11 Commission Report, putting an intelligence czar in charge of "connecting the dots" from a wide range of sources is likely to have the perverse consequence of filtering out divergent interpretations. It reinforces just the sort of groupthink it ostensibly redresses. More broadly, it takes a peculiar sort of myopia to think that the way to address a problem in the company chart or its public sector equivalent is simply to create a new position on top of the flawed chart.

More broadly still, even if the creation of a war czar were a sensible reaction to an organizational problem, the whole premise that our problems in Iraq (and Afghanistan) are structural/tactical is deeply flawed. To be sure, this new premise represents a kind of progress in that by seeking to adopt a new structure the administration tacitly admits that the existing structure doesn't work. It is, in other words, an admission of incompetence in managing the occupation. Such an admission will no doubt play well with the Thomas Friedmans and Hillary Clintons of the world---people who supported the war but have criticized the administration's bungling of the job. But if, as tougher critics warned from the very beginning, the underlying problem is the impossibility of bringing democracy by force of arms to a fractious, resentful people, then even the most clear-eyed shakeup of the management team and its tactics will only delay the inevitable day of reckoning.

16 comments:

egarber said...

In facing the kinds of threats that led to 9-11, what's necessary is a strategic paradigm shift, not a new org chart.

It seems to me that Tony Zinni (Marine General, Ret.) understands this as much if not more than anybody. In the Battle for Peace, he acknowledges that the U.S. must be engaged in the world to prevent conditions that lead to crisis. But in his thinking, that doesn't mean that the first or primary answer is always military. In fact, if handled correctly, military involvement will be minimized (my inference, not his words).

He basically says that the concept of "national security" needs to be broadened. The front lines include State Department action, aid programs, working with NGO's, diplomacy, and winning hearts and minds. It also demands a re-alignment of our own government structure via integration at all levels (something way more substantive than just adding a "czar" to sit atop an org chart).

Defining "national security" as merely the sphere where the military reacts to a problem already too severe to effectively address often will make things worse.

Personally, I'd add energy independence to the model as well.

Jamison Colburn said...

I think I agree in substance with egarber, although I'm not as sanguine that anything much better than new org charts is feasible given the institutions we're talking about. We all watched in horror as the big fix for 9/11, creating the Dept. of Homeland Security, exacerbated several shortcomings of agencies in responding to situations like Katrina by destabilizing what had gradually become a pretty adaptive, responsive organization (breaking up FEMA into different parts of DHS and putting fools in charge, that is). As Mike implies, at some point, the choices for a President who cannot lead the needed transformation him- or herself run out and real changes in personnel are the only way forward.

Adam S. said...

I believe I should credit NPR, which aired a short segment on the four year term last week, but I wonder if part of the problem is the four year presidential term. Of course, a four year term could probably be argued to be both too short and too long, but does anyone have any thoughts about how the interconnectivity and speed of today's society might relate to a proper analog of a 4 year term in the 18th century? I imagine that the long congressional recesses and other practical volume limitations of that era might have meant that 4 years at that time was not the functional equivalent of four years today. What this means, if anything, I have not worked out. Anyone have any historical or policy insights on this?

Caleb said...

I wonder whether your last sentence might be reifying a state that the Bush administration is at least partially responsible for. I don't want to minimize the divides in Iraqi society (which were there before the occupation), but there were similar divides in Afghanistan which haven't completely healed but which aren't discussed in the same way (perhaps, cynically, the best "fix" for the Iraq war will be to start an even crazier war elsewhere).

While it may be too late now, I don't think that we should so easily excuse failure of planning and personnel because the people being liberated were fractious and resentful. I'm not sure that there was a correct way to do it, but I don't think that Iraqis were any more fractious than the people of other countries that have been "liberated". Just a thought.

egarber said...

Caleb, in my mind there's little doubt that our leadership made the situation worse. But at the same time, I also think that long-term occupation (especially by the U.S.) of a Muslim country brings particular peril. Witness the Soviet experience in Afghanistan and the organizing principle of Al Qaeda.

Also, unfortunately the situation is worsening in Afghanistan as we speak -- with a resurgent Taliban, Iranian support for the other side, and an economy essentially centered on Opium.

Thumbing through the book I mentioned, I found this blurb from Zinni, which plays directly to Mike's point. The context is his idea to create an internal group --largely made up of existing agency people -- focused on integration across government.

This structure would eliminate the need to create so-called czars (such as the Drug Czar) for special programs that the president sees a need for. -- Tony Zinni

Caleb said...

I'd certainly agree that things in Afghanistan are getting worse, but I still think we should be resisting blanket statements about occupying Muslim countries. First, I'm not sure that ANY occupied country is ever happy about it, regardless of its religious persuasions. Secondly, I'd suggest that "occupation" is a question of branding - at least early on there was a chance that the American force in Iraq might be seen as something different (and I'm happy to blame that failure on the administration). The multi-lateral force in Afghanistan is rarely - to my knowledge at least - referred to as occupiers in the same way as American troops in Iraq are. Moreover, both France and Britain were somewhat more successful in "occupying" Muslim countries - at least historically. While I recognize that it's almost impossible to compare historical eras, I still think that it's dangerous to ignore the local/contingent realities of the situation.

Just as a complete aside, how does anyone fight their way to the Presidency and not WANT to be in charge of anything? Bush's willingness to distance himself from the day-to-day work of being president has always fascinated me for that reason.

egarber said...

Thanks Caleb for the good thoughts...

Secondly, I'd suggest that "occupation" is a question of branding - at least early on there was a chance that the American force in Iraq might be seen as something different (and I'm happy to blame that failure on the administration).

Actually, it's a question of how military presence is perceived in that part of the world. And today, the defensive jihad creates particular and unique risk, imo.

It's the reason Bin Laden is so popular in that region: very few Muslims are terrorists but MANY agree with his foreign policy aims of getting us out of the region. So our presence wins him additional followers -- and unfortunately, new terrorists -- each day.

In other words, the calculus is set up for self defeat -- we're creating more enemies than we're killing. Add to that the unique and particularly harsh history between Sunnis and Shias and I think you get a virtually impossible scenario.

egarber said...

Oh yeah, and I totally agree with this:

Just as a complete aside, how does anyone fight their way to the Presidency and not WANT to be in charge of anything? Bush's willingness to distance himself from the day-to-day work of being president has always fascinated me for that reason.

Didn't John Dean write some sort of psychological profile on Findlaw explaining this?

Garth said...

someone else has noted how similar this is to the Onion ad that ran as, Bush acknowledging that running the country was hard work and pledging to search high and low for qualified candidates to do it.

if only it were true.

egarber said...

FYI. Zinni on MTP this weekend:

NBC Meet The Press
------------------------------------------------------
MEET THE PRESS WITH TIM RUSSERT
WEEKEND LISTINGS 04/15/07


GEN. ANTHONY ZINNI (RET.)
U.S. Marine Corps
Former Commander, U.S. Central Command
Author, "The Battle for Peace"

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