War Czar Job a Tough Sell

The president is looking for a “war czar” and isn’t finding any takers.

The White House wants to appoint a high-powered czar to oversee the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with authority to issue directions to the Pentagon, the State Department and other agencies, but it has had trouble finding anyone able and willing to take the job, according to people close to the situation.

At least three retired four-star generals approached by the White House in recent weeks have declined to be considered for the position, the sources said, underscoring the administration’s difficulty in enlisting its top recruits to join the team after five years of warfare that have taxed the United States and its military.

While my initial reaction to the idea mirrored Bruce McQain‘s description as “one of the dumber ideas floated by the administration to date,” it has some merit once you get beyond the title.

The administration’s interest in the idea stems from long-standing concern over the coordination of civilian and military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan by different parts of the U.S. government. The Defense and State departments have long struggled over their roles and responsibilities in Iraq, with the White House often forced to referee.

The highest-ranking White House official responsible exclusively for the wars is deputy national security adviser Meghan O’Sullivan, who reports to national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley and does not have power to issue orders to agencies. O’Sullivan plans to step down soon, giving the White House the opportunity to rethink how it organizes the war effort.

Unlike O’Sullivan, the new czar would report directly to Bush and to Hadley and would have the title of assistant to the president, just as Hadley and the other highest-ranking White House officials have, the sources said. The new czar would also have “tasking authority,” or the power to issue directions, over other agencies, they said.

Now, Bruce is right that the president has the necessary authority to issue orders, although it’s not quite as simple as “Step up and take charge of the problem. State Department won’t cooperate? Find people who will. DoD playing games? Let the game players know in no uncertain terms the game has just changed.”

Presidents can’t and shouldn’t micromanage wars. Nor is this a purely military exercise, which could ably be overseen by the combatant commander and the SECDEF. Interagency coordination is vital here.

The problem, as Steven Taylor points out, is that it’s rather late in the game to be trying to figure out how to handle the interagency process. Someone will ultimately take the job, I suppose, but it’s going to be hard to find anyone with the gravitas to pull it off who is willing to take on such a daunting task.

UPDATE: Thomas Barnett argues that this is just a ham-handed way of avoiding the inevitable creation of a “Department of Everything Else.”

FILED UNDER: Iraq War, Military Affairs, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Triumph says:

    Presidents can’t and shouldn’t micromanage wars.

    Bush can’t and shouldn’t manage ANYTHING!

    Of course his track record in hiring managers is pretty pathetic: Maybe this would be a good job for Bernie Kerik? Harriet Meiers? Brownie? Paul Bremer?

    No one capable would ever take the job since they would get nowhere with an ideological and irrational commander-in-chief.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    How about bringing Wes Clark out of retirement? He’s only 62—up the MRD to 63.

  3. James Joyner says:

    I gather he’s thinking about bringing a retired officer on in a civilian capacity. Indeed, it would be difficult for a uniformed officer to give orders to civilian cabinet officers or even sub-cabinet appointees.

  4. Would this position require congressional confirmation? If so, I suspect we have the reason why no one would jump for joy on being suggested. Can you imagine the circus that confirmation hearing would be?

  5. legion says:

    This is insane. It’s further proof that this administration simply has no idea what its doing in the ‘war on terror’, let alone how to ‘win’ it.

    The Nat’l Security Advisor is, as noted, _not_ in the chain of command & cannot issue direction to military units. Ditto for SecState. State and Defense are supposed to be cooperating & coordinating their efforts – working military & socio-economic-diplomatic efforts in concert is not a new requirement! I’m not familiar enough with the NSC to know if its part of their job to do that coordination… but if State and Defense aren’t playing well together, it’s the President’s responsibility to make them or replace them with competent professionals who will. Period.

    And yes, any sort of official able to “issue directions” to other admin agencies, including State & Defense, would doubtless have to be confirmed. In fact, I’m at least half-sure Bush _cannot_ legally delegate the power to direct military operations.

    And that’s really the main problem with this entire GWOT fiasco – Bush honestly seems to think that as “the Decider”, his responsibilities end once his decision is made, rather than following up, making sure his decisions are implemented & that the people carrying them out are doing so properly & competently. He completely loses interest once he does the “cool part” of deciding. It’s been a hallmark of his entire career, and is the reason he has always been such a disasterous failure at any sort of business venture – he’s a crappy excuse for a leader.

  6. Anderson says:

    The Marine general’s comment really sums it up: as long as Cheney and Addington are running the show, why the heck would anybody volunteer for such a job?

  7. Andy says:

    Does Bush actually do anything at work?

  8. Anderson says:

    Does Bush actually do anything at work?

    He’s been making suspiciously quick progress on that reading list of his …

    Then again, maybe a bunch of workplace bloggers & commenters aren’t the best people to ask that question.

  9. bill_fogarty says:

    This is the biggest pile of crap I’ve ever seen. WTF is the Commander in Chief doing if they need to find some civilian suit to “oversee” the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. That’s his job! What does he want to do, chuck Goldwater-Nichols out the window, 4 years into the war?

    The person responsible for directing the efforts of the agencies in peace and war is the President, who along with the National Security Council, ensures the national policies are translated into actions (military strategy, etc) and executed.

    This is also a big slap in the face to CENTCOM. I guess Admiral Fallon will now have to report to two masters – SecDef and some civilian suit “war czar”. No general who respects the chain of command wants to touch this position with a ten foot pole. It has “fall guy” written all over it.

    Bush has rapidly degenerated into one of the worst presidents of modern memory. He shirks accountability and tries to pass off responsibility. In short, he is becoming the ANTI-THESIS of what a leader is.

  10. drag0n says:

    Dave Schuler wrote:

    How about bringing Wes Clark out of retirement?

    He should present Bush with a list of the powers that he would require and offer his services. If Bush doesn’t want him the Dems are innoculated in 08. He is probably going to get stuck with this mess anyway when the Dems take the WH.


    Bush has always had a War Czar. It was Dick Cheney. Looks like he has been canned and Bush is looking for a replacement.