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A shift in leadership, and possibly in war

Bush's nominee says the national security advisor, a 'surge' backer, will be out of the loop.

June 08, 2007|Peter Spiegel | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The man chosen by President Bush to become his new "war czar" told Congress on Thursday that national security advisor Stephen Hadley would no longer be responsible for Iraq policy, indicating the administration has quietly engineered a significant change in foreign policy leadership that could directly affect U.S. war strategy.

Army Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute testified at his confirmation hearing that he would be reporting directly to Bush on all issues involving the war, as well as the conflict in Afghanistan, while Hadley would deal with the president "on matters outside of Iraq [and] Afghanistan."

The testimony stunned leading Democrats and at least one Republican. They appeared taken aback by the extent of the shake-up in Bush's inner circle of advisors -- particularly the diminished role Hadley will play.

"Afghanistan, Iraq and, related to that, Iran are the most critical foreign policy problems we face, and the national security advisor of the United States has taken his hands off that and given it to you?" asked Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a former Army officer who described himself as a longtime friend of Lute's.

"Then he should be fired," Reed said. "Because frankly, if he's not capable of being the individual responsible for those duties and they pass it on to someone else, then why is he there?"

The new roles could have a significant impact on White House policy. Hadley has been central to the administration's Iraq planning since he assumed the national security advisor job last year. Most important, he has been widely viewed as the most prominent proponent of the administration's "surge" strategy, pushing the policy of building up troops in Baghdad over the skepticism of some commanders in Iraq.

Lute was one of the senior military officers who initially opposed the troop increase. In written answers provided to the committee, Lute said he had raised concerns during internal administration debates in January, saying he believed "a military surge would likely have only temporary and localized effects" without corresponding efforts by Iraqis and nonmilitary U.S. agencies.

The White House chose Lute, a three-star general, for the war czar post after several retired four-star generals turned the job down.

It is highly unusual for a national security advisor to remove himself from the most pressing foreign policy issue of the day. Some of the most prominent people to hold the job -- such as Henry A. Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski -- came to embody, and sometimes overshadow, their bosses' views on events like the Vietnam War and detente with the Soviets.

President Clinton frequently used policy czars and special envoys in international affairs, but former aides said major issues were always the province of the national security advisor.

"In my experience, the national security advisor has always handled the president's priorities, and deputies handled what was left," said P.J. Crowley, who worked on Clinton's National Security Council and is now at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank. "It is an extra-difficult job, but this does beg the question: What is more important on Steve Hadley's plate than Iraq and Afghanistan? There's nothing on the plate more important than war and peace."

Lute's comments came before the Armed Services Committee, which is expected to approve his nomination as soon as next week.

Asked whether he would have exclusive responsibility for "that chunk of [Hadley's] portfolio" covering the wars, Lute responded: "I believe that's right. It does not exclude him from also advising, but the responsibilities for advising for Iraq and Afghanistan, if confirmed, would be mine."

Among those who expressed surprise was Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, a leading GOP voice on military issues who is generally regarded as a bellwether for his party's thinking on the war. At the hearing, Warner repeatedly tried to get Lute to clarify Hadley's role and pushed Lute to say that the national security advisor's responsibilities would not be diminished.

But Lute demurred, saying that though Hadley would not be "cut out of the process in any way," his own new job would give him "a direct line to the president" on Iraq policy independent of Hadley's.

"It would be very difficult to draw a line between us or separate us on matters inside Iraq and Afghanistan," Lute told Warner. "But it is clear that if confirmed, this appointment will hold primary execution and policy development for these two countries."

Lute later said he believed his move to the White House would not diminish Hadley's position, and White House officials traveling with Bush in Germany for the Group of 8 summit defended the decision to give Lute such wide authority -- arguing it would ensure federal resources were being coordinated properly in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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