Maybe there really is a newsworthy story in the appointment of General Lute as special assistant to the President for Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet the story is both more mundane and more interesting than that implied by the Washington Post’s sales-generating abbreviation of the position title when it broke the story a few months ago.
To start with, the position is not new. With a few important modifications, it is essentially the same as that previously occupied by Meghan O’Sullivan. But as the original Post story explained, Meghan O’Sullivan reported only to national-security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, and did not have “tasking authority” over the agencies. The new position will report both directly to the president and Hadley and will therefore need some of Hadley’s tasking authority — which is really just the president’s tasking authority delegated in the usual manner to a special assistant.
Unlike O’Sullivan, General Lute will therefore share some of the power of Hadley’s pen. But there’s certainly no new there. Many principal-deputy relationships in the government are structured that way. And for Hadley, it makes sense: There is a whole world out there — from Iran and North Korea to China and India — that needs his attention, but his office has tended to be “all-Iraq all-the-time.” This administrative calibration in the National Security Council staff system may be overdue, and may have been delayed only by Hadley’s reluctance (predictable, for a classic Washington bureaucrat like him) to share any of his tasking authority.
A friend of mine at the Pentagon points out what is a lot more interesting in this story, which is the selection of an active senior military officer — formerly in charge of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff — for a senior position on the national-security-council staff. General Lute is outranked by the senior commanders in the field — but there’s no news there either, because this position doesn’t place him within their chain of command. What’s really interesting is that the enhanced tasking authority of his new position essentially places him within the civilian chain of command, on the policy side, and for the entire executive branch.
In one sense, this represents a sort of “militarization” of defense policy — at the expense of the secretary of Defense. And that might not be a bad thing. We know that one of Rumsfeld’s feather-ruffling priorities from day one was to reassert civilian control of the military, which may have resulted in a slightly-too-powerful Office of the Secretary of Defense. Placing a senior officer in such close propinquity to the president may somewhat diminish the influence of the civilians at the Pentagon — military folks talk to each other a lot, and get a lot of good things done by talking to each other in their informal channels. But that would remediate some of the perceived excess of Rumsfeld’s power, which would certainly be in keeping with Bob Gates’s more modest (or at least more quiet) leadership style.
But in the interagency competition of the executive branch, the selection of General Lute is likely to mean that the views of the Defense Department in general — military and civilian — will carry greater weight. That is likely to come principally at the expense of the State Department. And when it comes to Iraq, State all along had way too much control over planning and implementation, considering how little it ever really believed in the underlying policy. State may now be more than happy to watch the Pentagon run what was always really a Pentagon effort.
So, let the people who understand and are most heavily invested in the president’s strategy coordinate its implementation across the executive branch. If that’s the thinking behind the appointment of General Lute, it seems like good thinking.