Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute is by most accounts a formidable fellow: smart, efficient and expert in all aspects of nation-building—civilian and military. As the top operations officer for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he’s also intimately familiar with all aspects of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. “Lute is about as broad-gauged a senior military officer as they could find,” says Philip Zelikow, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s former senior counselor, who’s known him since Lute was a captain. “He’s perfect,” adds retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, a harsh critic of George W. Bush’s “surge” plan in Iraq.
But Lute, who was named this week to be Bush’s new war “czar” for Iraq and Afghanistan, is also just a three-star general, and he’s still on active duty. What this means is that while nominally he’s the president’s man—his title puts him on par with national-security adviser Steven Hadley—militarily he’s still inferior in rank to four-star Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the multinational forces in Iraq. Neither will he be in a position to tell Defense Secretary Robert Gates or Rice what to do. “The term ‘war czar’ is terribly misguided,” says McCaffrey. “I do think he’ll be an extremely able White House operative.”
Lute, in other words, is being hired on as Bush’s messenger man—the guy who, theoretically, can deliver presidential demands to State or Defense that certain resources are to be delivered to certain places. But there’s the rub. The only way for Lute to be even marginally effective is if a president who has been consistently uninterested in the details of the Iraq conflict for the past four years—and in the nitty-gritty of Afghanistan for most of the last five years—starts obsessing over those details with just 18 months to go in his term. And that’s unlikely to happen. A leader who’s already poring over plans for his presidential library doesn’t start changing his governing habits this late in the game.
And Lute is preparing for his pseudo-czardom—he still needs to be confirmed by the Senate, which could take weeks—just as progress in Iraq is slowing to a halt on almost all fronts. While sectarian violence is down since the “surge” began, a new spate of Sunni suicide bombings has paralyzed efforts by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to reconcile his fellow Shiites with the Sunnis. A large number of those bombers—perhaps 80 to 90 percent by some intelligence estimates—are still coming over the border from Syria. Yet diplomacy with Damascus is still all but nonexistent, despite Rice’s recent meeting with the Syrian foreign minister at Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt. And with each passing week, the price that the Syrians—or the Iranians—are demanding for cooperation in Iraq goes up, as Bush edges closer to lame-duckhood.
Even within the Bush administration, officials working on the Iraq problem despair that the president will ever sign onto the kind of deal with Bashar al-Assad—one touching on all areas of U.S.-Syrian relations—that could lead the Syrian president to truly crack down on these terrorist depots within his borders. On the eve of the one-year anniversary of his administration on May 20, Maliki remains hamstrung by his own constitution, which deprives him of the power to hire and fire ministers on his own, while mortar attacks inside the once-secure Green Zone (now euphemistically called the International Zone) grow ever worse. Back in Washington, meanwhile, the debate on Capitol Hill over a withdrawal deadline has all but persuaded most Iraqis that the Americans are leaving soon, and they’d better cut a deal with whatever local bad strongman—Iran’s secret cells inside Iraq; Moqtada al-Sadr’s brutal Mahdi Army, or Sunni tribal leaders—has the most power.
Things are so stuck that come September, when Petraeus gives his official assessment to Bush about whether the surge is succeeding, there is likely to be no improvement on the ground at all. That, at least, is the view of some officials inside the Bush administration who were formerly somewhat optimistic. This in turn will reignite Democrat-led efforts to impose a withdrawal deadline, which will accelerate the Iraqi deal-cutting. “The forces that will lead the surge to succeed or fail are much larger than Doug Lute or even Bush at this point,” says Andrew Krepinevich, head of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. “In a sense what you need to get the support of one side, the American people, undermines your ability to get what you need from the other party, the Iraqis. What the American people want to hear about troop levels—that they’re coming home soon—is the opposite of what the Iraqis need to hear. That message to Iraqis is, hey, I need to prepare for the civil war that follows.”
Doug Lute must now bridge not only the interagency divide in Washington. He must straddle a widening gulf between Iraq and Washington. Perhaps that is why so many retired four-star generals—at least four of them, by most accounts—turned down the job.