Help Wanted: War Czar

David Martin is National Security Correspondent for CBS News.
To people who live outside the Washington Beltway, the White House search for a "war czar" to coordinate strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan may seem like just another bureaucratic shuffle. In reality, it is a confession that in the fifth year of the war in Iraq, the Bush administration still has not figured out how to harness all the agencies of the U.S. government into a unified war effort.

Or, as Defense Secretary Gates put it, "one of the arguments that we hear frequently and frankly are very sympathetic with is that we and the State Department are about the only parts of the government that are at war."

The National Security Council and the job of National Security Adviser to the President, currently held by Stephen Hadley, was created decades ago for the express purpose of coordinating all of the different agencies that play a role in national security strategy. A search for a "war czar" is an admission by the Bush administration that the National Security Council has failed to do its job.

Gates put it more kindly when he said the "war czar" would do what "Steve Hadley would do if Steve Hadley had the time."

So why can't the National Security Council do its job? The answer, from a retired general who was asked to become the "war czar," is that "Rumsfeld destroyed the NSC."

Donald Rumsfeld became infamous during the first six years of the Bush administration for ignoring the NSC and working one-on-one with the President and the Vice President. Even Colin Powell, then the Secretary of State, has since complained that he was cut out of the process at times.

Rumsfeld made clear during his years as Defense Secretary that he regarded the "interagency process" -- getting all the agencies to participate in the formulation and execution of policy -- as worse than water torture. For him, the "interagency process" – read: National Security Council -- was the place where all good ideas went to die. Rumsfeld's gone now, the retired general said, but the habits the NSC learned during those first six years remain.

By my count, at least five retired generals have turned down the "war czar" job. Only one of them, retired Marine Jack Sheehan, has publicly said why.

"I don't think they've got a coherent strategy," Sheehan told me, adding "the real issue is does Cheney play in this deal?" In other words, will the "war czar" have to do daily battle with the Vice President, a battle in which the VP has all the clout?

No general, even one who is not a critic of the strategy, would want to be "war czar." Generals are used to giving orders and having them followed or else. The "war czar" would be, to use Gates' terms, "a coordinator and a facilitator," which in bureaucratic terms means he would be responsible for making all agencies pull together but would have no authority to make it happen.

He would be, in other words, a four-star nagger.

It's hard to see how that would make any real difference in the war.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.