Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Czar of Blame

I read today that President Bush is considering appointing a new “Assistant to the President” to oversee our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. As is the current fashion, the press is calling the position “War Czar” – as good a term as any, I suppose.

At first I was confused by the idea. Don’t we already have somebody in charge? That’s the whole point of the military chain of command – SOMEBODY is in charge of everything we do. For the two wars, that would be the CENTCOM commander, ADM Fallon, though he’s certainly receiving guidance, advice, and direction from the Joint Chiefs, the SECDEF, and the President.

On further reading, though, I discovered that the problem is higher up. Yes, the military has somebody in charge, but the military isn’t running everything. The State Department has a big piece of it, and various other administrative agencies have their own fingers in the pie. As it stands now, the overall effort has suffered from infighting, as the separate agencies pull in different directions. Playing referee in the turf battles is apparently taking up too much of the President’s time, so he wants to put somebody in overall charge of the efforts, with power to issue taskings to these Cabinet-level agencies.

I see problems with that. First of all, it merely adds another layer to the potential for infighting – the War Czar will have the authority to issue orders to the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense, but only for issues regarding the wars. That leaves the agencies the “wiggle room” to refuse because obeying would “impact on other priorities,” or whatever. Instead of eliminating the petty arguments, it would simply add another voice to them. In addition, it gives the appearance of creating a “Super-Cabinet,” an additional layer between the President and his Constitutionally-mandated advisors.

Even worse, it attempts to solve the wrong problem. If these most senior advisors to the President, his own hand-picked Cabinet members, can’t work out issues through discussion and compromise in a spirit of cooperation, then why are they there? There shouldn’t be a need for someone to oversee those efforts and settle the fights, because we already have Secretary Gates and Secretary Rice to oversee the efforts – and they shouldn’t be wasting the time of their respective agencies in fighting each other. Bluntly, if they can’t settle things without a referee, then pick one of them and give her overall responsibility and authority. (I say “her,” because State is the senior Cabinet position – making Secretary Rice the easiest choice. But of course, the President could choose otherwise.) Or pick someone else already on the Cabinet to handle it – the position of Vice-President could certainly be given such authority without adding a new layer to the hierarchy. Or fire them both and get somebody in who CAN work and play well with others.

Of course, a cynic might see another motive to the whole exercise. By bringing in another person to take responsibility for the job, the President is adding another target for critics, redirecting the heat away from his Cabinet secretaries, his Vice-President, and himself. The position itself, much less the poor sucker…um, individual chosen to fill it, would be “expendable,” allowing the President to fire him for failing to properly implement Administration policy if (or when) it falls apart.

I note that at least three retired generals have turned down the job. All three were (obviously) long-term officers, successful leaders who retired after decades of honorable service in a field where “Duty to Country” and obedience to the Commander-in-Chief are nearly as ingrained as our habit of breathing. And yet all three said “no” when their President attempted to call them back to the service of their country – in fact, Gen. Sheehan’s comments sound more like “not just no, HELL, no!” I suspect that I’m not the only person to see that cynical side to the issue.

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