President Bush is beginning the New Year by installing a new team in senior positions for what may be the last chance he has to implement a plan to achieve "victory," the word his spokesman, Tony Snow, used to describe the president's goal in Iraq.
Mr. Bush will unveil details of his plan, informally dubbed "the new way forward," in a speech to the nation next week. By that time he will have tapped new leadership to head diplomatic and military operations and oversee developments in Iraq during the last two years of his presidency. At the forefront of the diplomatic realignment, John Negroponte was named as Deputy Secretary of State, the department's No. 2 job. Ambassador Ryan Crocker is expected to take over the embassy in Baghdad, while its current leader, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, heads to New York to lead America's mission to the United Nations.
On the military side, Adm. William Fallon will become head of Central Command, replacing Gen. John Abizaid, and Gen. David Petraeus will assume command of American forces inside Iraq, succeeding Gen. George Casey. Last month Robert Gates became Secretary of Defense following the departure of Donald Rumsfeld.
Negroponte, currently Director of National Intelligence, a cabinet-level position, took the deputy's post at State for several reasons, officials say. A career foreign service officer, Negroponte joined the Foreign Service in 1960, when Dwight Eisenhower was president. He has been described by officials as "a diplomat's diplomat" and he's headed America's diplomatic efforts in the Philippines, Mexico, Honduras and at the United Nations. In making the appointment, Mr. Bush noted Negroponte was also "the first ambassador to a free Iraq" and was taking the post at State at this "crucial" moment.
Senior officials say Negroponte, in addition to overseeing the Iraq portfolio, will also be heavily involved on other issues including North Korea and China as well as internal management at State. The deputy's post has been vacant since last summer, and the department badly needs leadership on day-to-day issues, according to many career officers. Negroponte, who called this post "the opportunity of a lifetime" for a Foreign Service officer, clearly knows what's needed within the bureaucratic ranks.
Someone familiar with Negroponte's views says that while he may be uncertain about whether more American troops will change the equation inside Iraq, he also does not think it is a good idea to withdraw large numbers of troops from Iraq, at least in the near term.
Crocker, who served as Negroponte's deputy in Baghdad, is now U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan. Crocker speaks Arabic fluently and has headed U.S. embassies in Lebanon, Syria and Kuwait. He has dealt with Iraq's political leadership and clearly can get up to speed on the current situation quickly.
Amidst the strong debate about the direction of Iraq policy and the controversy over whether or not to put more American troops into Iraq, Mr. Bush has rearranged senior members of his national security team in time to implement his next moves. One has to assume they are aware of and are on board with his upcoming policy announcements.
While these moves reflect the president's management style, the wild card remains the Iraqis themselves. The biggest questions for which Mr. Bush really has no answers revolve around whether the Iraqi political leadership is up to the job and whether Iraqis themselves can take over management of their own security before Mr. Bush's presidency comes to an end.
By Charles M. Wolfson