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Bush Reorganizes How Iraq Policy Is Set

Interagency group will give White House more control over decisions, officials say, and divide up some of the Defense Department's influence.

October 07, 2003|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Amid criticism of the Pentagon's role in Iraqi reconstruction, the Bush administration is creating an interagency group that gives the White House more control over decision-making, officials said Monday.

Many observers described the reorganization as a way to shift some authority away from the Defense Department.

White House officials insisted that the creation of the Iraq Stabilization Group was little more than a bureaucratic rejiggering designed to enhance efficiency in Washington and better support the Defense Department, which has exercised nearly total control of the military occupation and reconstruction of Iraq.

"It's common for the National Security Council to coordinate efforts, interagency efforts," President Bush said during a session with reporters. "And Condi Rice, the national security advisor, is doing just that."

Others saw the move as a way to pull some authority back into the White House and give greater voice to agencies that are unhappy with the Pentagon's predominance.

"It brings it out of the sole province of the Department of Defense," said Andy Fisher, chief of staff for Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who has argued that the State Department's role in Iraq should be more prominent. "This allows the allocation [of authority] to occur in an interagency way."

Establishment of the Iraq Stabilization Group comes as Bush's approval ratings are at their lowest level since he took office, with polls showing increasing public concern about his foreign policy leadership.

The move is at least the second reorganization of Iraq policymaking since the end of the war. Initially, retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner led the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, but he was soon replaced by retired Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III as head of a restructured Coalition Provisional Authority. As did Garner, Bremer reports to the Pentagon.

"I think the president has lost confidence in his national security team," said Thomas Mann, a government expert at the Brookings Institution, a centrist public policy center in Washington.

"I think he has been genuinely surprised that the postwar effort has cost as much and gone as badly as it has," he said. "This wouldn't have happened without one unhappy camper in the Oval Office."

The new group will replace the existing "executive steering group" composed of officials at the assistant secretary level from the departments of Defense, State and Treasury and the CIA. That group has been coordinating policy on a day-to-day basis but has not had policymaking authority.

The Iraq Stabilization Group will be one rung higher on the bureaucratic ladder, consisting of undersecretaries who have some policymaking authority, said National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack. A similar group will be formed to coordinate policy on Afghanistan, he said.

White House officials described the reorganization as a way to "cut though red tape" as the United States increases its involvement and investment in Iraq. Congress is considering Bush's budget request for an additional $87 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Our efforts are accelerating in Iraq, and this is a way to focus in on those areas here in Washington, D.C., as more resources come in, so that we can do everything from Washington to support the efforts in Iraq," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

While McClellan dismissed the idea that power would shift from the Pentagon, saying that "nothing changes in terms of the Coalition Provisional Authority and the Department of Defense," other observers disagreed. One State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the move gives the NSC more direct control of reconstruction efforts at the expense of the Pentagon.

Giving the State Department and other agencies a seat at the table will "prevent the Pentagon from stonewalling or blindsiding people," the official said. "It is a belated attempt by the NSC to set up an organizational process on Iraq policy."

In theory, national security advisor Condoleezza Rice and her staff are in charge of coordinating the work of the departments and agencies that create and conduct foreign policy, primarily the departments of State and Defense and the CIA.

But unlike some of her predecessors, Rice has chosen to be less interventionist in resolving conflicts between the departments and has defined herself primarily as a close advisor to the president.

The reorganization "is fairly significant because the NSC has really been playing a soft hand until now -- and this is a recognition that a harder hand is needed," said Fredrick Barton, an expert on post-conflict reconstruction at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "For this change to be promising, it's going to have to be more heavy-handed coordination."

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