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.