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‘War Czar’: Another harebrained scheme

Who’s in charge of the war? The Secretary of Defense or the White House?

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Bush seeks war 'czar'
April 11: The White House wants to appoint a high-powered czar to oversee the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. MSNBC's Chris Jansing talks to Peter Baker from The Washington Post.
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Jack Jacobs
Military analyst

Earlier this week, there was a vague, unsubstantiated report that the White House has been exploring the notion of creating a senior position to oversee the conduct of the conflicts in Southwest Asia. Ostensibly, this slot would be filled by a retired military officer, and, not surprisingly, the media dubbed him the “War Czar.”

This astounding report has since been confirmed, and the sheer stupidity of it is staggering.

Reportedly, three retired generals -- Joe Ralston (Air Force), Jack Keane, (Army) and Jack Sheehan (Marines) -- were all approached about the job, and each turned it down. Sheehan has confirmed the story, with the reaction, “they (the White House) don’t know where they’re going.”

I concur.

For one thing, unless he’s decided he can’t do the job, we already have a War Czar, and his name is Robert Gates, who is the Secretary of Defense.

Until the period just after the Second World War, we had a Secretary of War, and in 1947, the Congress passed, and President Truman signed, the Defense Reorganization Act. Among other things, this created today’s Defense Department. The law euphemistically changed “War” to “Defense,” but the wartime functions of the Secretary didn’t change much.

Furthermore, to assist the Secretary, the law created a panel of senior military leaders to advise both him and the president. These people also serve as the uniformed heads of their services, and this panel is called the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As a group they are responsible for planning and executing combat operations. They report to the War Czar, Robert Gates.

The idea that we need someone on the White House staff to direct combat operations has to be the brainchild of a civil servant who has no understanding of the law and no grasp of the use of the military instrument of power.

Among other things, it violates one of the cardinal principles of war, that of unity of command. In combat, it is impossible to serve two bosses without putting both the mission and the troops in great peril. Think a bit about how the proposed White House War Czar is supposed to perform his duties. The implication is that he will have a command line to the field, bypassing Gates. Is Admiral Fallon, the commander of all troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, supposed to take orders from Gates or from the White House? Well, it sounds like he’ll have to obey both. Won’t work, folks.

Either the White House appointee is in charge or Gates is in charge. They can’t both be the boss.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about all this is that, evidently, Secretary Gates thinks it’s a good idea, and he said as much in response to a question at a press conference a few days ago.

Now, Robert Gates is not an idiot, as far as we know. He’s an educated man, he ran the CIA and he speaks in complete sentences. But if he believes that it’s productive to have yet another layer of bureaucracy, another layer of decision-making, another detached boss issuing instructions to the people who are trying to fight our enemies, then he has no confidence in his own ability to be the Secretary of Defense of the United States. If he thinks ill-conceived schemes like this are good ideas, then he is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

If the White House ultimately concludes that it can’t live another minute without a War Czar, and if it can actually convince the Congress that it’s a good idea, it will still have to find some sucker whose ego is bigger than his intellect to take the job. Well, any General Officer who’s any good won’t take the job, and any General Officer who’ll take the job won’t be any good.

Jack Jacobs is an MSNBC military analyst. He is a retired U.S. Army colonel. He earned the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism on the battlefields of Vietnam and also holds three Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars.

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