Good luck, Lt. Gen. Lute

Army Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute testifies dur
Army Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute testifies during a hearing on his nomination to be assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill on June 7. Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images
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In the last couple of weeks, a great deal has been written about Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute and his role in the White House, and his Congressional testimony last week has generated another flurry.

General Lute was a cadet at West Point when I was teaching there in the early 1970s. He was an engaging and very bright young man, articulate and full of promise, and he ripened into a splendid soldier and scholar, among the best that this nation can produce.

Initially, the media called him the “war czar,” but his instructions are really not to run the war but to coordinate the activities of the various executive departments. And a good thing, too, because, for all his skill as a leader, nobody in the field is going to listen to him.

For one thing, he’s outranked by the military people actually charged with the responsibility of fighting in Iraq. He’s not even in the chain of command. Sure, he reports to President Bush, on paper at least, but so do lots of other people who don’t do very much. But he has no real authority down the chain, and as for being the “war czar,” many people have already observed that this position is already filled by Defense Secretary Gates.

A few people I know, astute observers of both human beings and the Washington establishment, -- let’s assume for the moment that they are not mutually exclusive -- have observed that the job of coordinating the departments, especially in war, should properly fall to the chief of staff or perhaps the vice president or even the president himself.

But nobody has seized, or has been assigned, the responsibility to make the Iraq strategy work properly, and the result has been predictably awful. Too late, the job has fallen to a very talented, but obscure, officer who, probably against his better judgment, accepted the position after it was rejected by older and more experienced men.

Gen. Lute can speak for the president when he talks to the rest of the executive branch, but the person he replaced did, too, and not much good came of that. Of course, Lute is a military person, and one can argue that he has more bona fides than his predecessor, who could easily distinguish between a military uniform and civilian clothes, but who, it has been said, didn’t know much of anything else and was remarkable for having almost no understanding of the military instrument.

Cutting through the bureaucracies
But even if Lute can command respect, getting the executive branch to produce anything useful is a tall order. Bureaucracies are notoriously impervious to being pushed, threatened or cajoled and are even less susceptible to logic. Facts are particularly confounding to bureaucrats, and anything that is perceived to require compromise, no matter how little, is typically avoided.

Bureaucracies are designed only to do routine things in a routine way. As a result, they possess lots of inertia and can resist change better than anything else on the planet. They are territorial, insular and uncooperative, even in crises, a fact well documented and amply, if horrifyingly, demonstrated during this war.

After more than four years of ineffectual effort, it has finally dawned on the White House that nearly the entire burden of fixing Iraq has fallen on the shoulders of the young men and women of the Armed Forces. Notoriously and shockingly absent from the nation-building effort have been the other executive departments, and while the enormous responsibility attendant to creating a new nation state is undoubtedly great experience for our young troops, that’s not what they’re trained or expected to do.

That former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld (remember him?) acquiesced in this ridiculously asymmetrical endeavor is one of the many things for which he will ultimately be called to account. But there’s plenty of blame to go around, and every day that the rest of the executive branch resists doing its share makes it more difficult and costly for our nation to succeed in a mission that has become much more important than it was at the beginning. Rumsfeld should be properly castigated for what he did, but many of his colleagues deserve opprobrium for what they didn’t do.

So, that’s Douglas Lute’s mission: get all the executive departments to help in Iraq and then to coordinate their activities.

Good luck, soldier.

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.