The Defective "War Czar" Narrative

On Wednesday, Peter Baker and Tom Ricks wrote a front page story in the Washington Post that reported that the White House allegedly is trying to recruit a "War Czar." Since then the narrative they created has become the template all across the media, from Fox News to the Daily Show.  Baker did his part repeating it on NPR. This is rather alarming, as there are fundamental flaws in their narrative and the general way the story is portrayed. 

Their story reads like gossip, when in fact it concerns an important and longstanding national security question. The Post reports this story as further evidence of the "failed" Iraq policy rather than what it is:  a genuine effort to resolve the long-recognized and intractable inter-agency conflicts that are adversely affecting our prospects to realize a favorable outcome in this critical endeavor.

Essentially, Baker and Ricks dredged up some of the purported candidates with whom the White House is discussing the position. Only one spoke for the record, General Jack Sheehan. Of course, this didn't stop the Post from slapping on the sensational and freighted headline on the story "3 Generals Spurn the position of War Czar."  On cue, the Democrats ran with this, by the afternoon John Kerry had it on his website.

The story opens with two paragraphs that set the stage for the money quote from Sheehan:

"The very fundamental issue is, they don't know where the hell they're going," said retired Marine Gen. John J. "Jack" Sheehan, a former top NATO commander who was among those rejecting the job. Sheehan said he believes that Vice President Cheney and his hawkish allies remain more powerful within the administration than pragmatists looking for a way out of Iraq. "So rather than go over there, develop an ulcer and eventually leave, I said, 'No, thanks,' "
For Ricks and Baker, this quote has everything. A not so thinly disguised inference that the Bush Administration is bungling Iraq and Afghanistan, Cheney and the hawks are to blame, and the whole thing is causing everyone a big stomach ache.  Perfect.

To cover themselves, (not in glory) they share the fact that the administration's interest in the idea stems from long-standing concern over the coordination of civilian and military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan by different parts of the U.S. government. The Defense and State Departments have long struggled over their roles and responsibilities in general, most recently over Iraq, with the White House often forced to referee.  

The story goes on to include a more expansive quote from Sheehan to reinforce the theme of more generals leaving the reservation. Lastly, in a backhanded stab at the truth they close with a cheap quote from Frederick Kagan:

"It would be definitely a good idea," said Frederick W. Kagan, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "Hope they do it, and hope they do it soon. And I hope they pick the right guy. It's a real problem that we don't have a single individual back here who is really capable of coordinating the effort."
This is astonishing, Kagan is one of the foremost national security scholars in the country and this is all they give him. Kagan is all too familar with breakdowns in inter-agency cooperation. It would have been informative to include more of his views, but this wouldn't fit the narrative so the Post can't have any of that.

Since the Washington Post failed so miserably, I undertook some research to find out the real story. I soon discovered the story is about inter-agency cooperation or more particularly the lack thereof. This has been the topic of a great deal of debate going back at least as far as a decade when President Clinton issued the May 1997 Presidential Decision Directive (PDD) 56, entitled The Clinton Administration's Policy on Managing Complex Contingency Operations.

The paramount problem then is not the Administration's difficulty in finding someone to fill the role of unified command but the inability to get two vital cabinet departments to work together. My research turned up extensive testimony on the matter before congressional committees, a  2005 Senate bill directing $1 million be spent to explore the issue, at least one CRS report, right and left think tank reports, a number of  think tank forums, and scholarly papers.

The problem was discussed in the 9/11 commission report and most recently, the Iraq Study Group.  Needless to say, there has been more than ample debate on this complex issue. How this is all playing out in realtime Iraq is laid out in stark relief in a report by the Special Inspector General for the Reconstruction of Iraq.

A story in the Christian Science Monitor on Febraury 9, highlighted the in-fighting between the DoD and the State Department.

"...the Pentagon is not happy about what it perceives to be a slow response on the part of some other parts of the US government. In particular, Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates complained that the State Department is not stepping up to fill all of the 350 extra diplomatic jobs in Iraq created under the new plan." The Special Inspector General's report found major problems with State Department's Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs):  

"Many obstacles have been overcome, but many remain, such as the ever-changing security situation, the difficulty of integrating civilian and military personnel, the lack of a finalized agreement [between State and Defense Departments] on PRT operational requirements and responsibilities, a lag in funding resources, and the difficulty in recruiting and retaining qualified civilian personnel...[T]he lack of specific guidance led to confusion about civilian-military roles at PRT's"
Undoubtedly, the President is exasperated by all this. I'm sure he probably says to himself, Here I thought that I was the leader of the free world and I come to find out I can't even get Condi and Bob to talk, much less their subordinatesAnd apparently they need a formal agreement to get their jobs done. Beyond belief, the State Department doesn't even have enough people to get the job done, despite ample appropriations. I guess they're all too busy getting glamor profiles in Vanity Fair.

Using this story, the critics have been quick to observe that, well after all, he's the President this is what he should be doing. But SecDef Gates spoke to this in congressional testimony earlier this year. When commenting on the lack of cooperation he was getting from other agencies, he discussed the question of applying to the entire executive branch the successful the Goldwater-Nichols model that curtailed inter-service rivalry at the Pentagon. Gates testified that one of the main reasons Goldwater-Nichols worked was because the Defense Secretary has overall authority. While the President is Commander in Chief and the constitutional head of government, he is not an "action officer" like the Defense Secretary.

The Post knows all this, yet it reports this story, as a Bush administration personnel gaffe, freighted with all their attendant narrative themes. I realize Mr. Ricks is trying to peddle books, but he could at least report the real substance of the story. Instead, the slanted narrative gets parroted. Yesterday, I witnessed Nina Totenberg on Inside Washington pick up the Post line and deliver it with her famous righteous indignation.  Fox News is running with it, interviewing Wes Clark (who knows better) as he stood by and let them repeat the defective thesis. And wait, Jon Stewart had it on the Daily Show of course interpreted with his writer's clever ignorance.

No doubt, we'll be treated to a veritable "War Czar" chorus on the Sunday shows today and yet still more from the Monday autopsies. Of course, this will be followed by the infantile editorials. Finally, they'll print a letter to the editor from someone with actual real expertise cutting the whole exercise to ribbons. Meanwhile, the Post and the rest of the drive-by media will have moved on to a new fixation.   
On Wednesday, Peter Baker and Tom Ricks wrote a front page story in the Washington Post that reported that the White House allegedly is trying to recruit a "War Czar." Since then the narrative they created has become the template all across the media, from Fox News to the Daily Show.  Baker did his part repeating it on NPR. This is rather alarming, as there are fundamental flaws in their narrative and the general way the story is portrayed. 

Their story reads like gossip, when in fact it concerns an important and longstanding national security question. The Post reports this story as further evidence of the "failed" Iraq policy rather than what it is:  a genuine effort to resolve the long-recognized and intractable inter-agency conflicts that are adversely affecting our prospects to realize a favorable outcome in this critical endeavor.

Essentially, Baker and Ricks dredged up some of the purported candidates with whom the White House is discussing the position. Only one spoke for the record, General Jack Sheehan. Of course, this didn't stop the Post from slapping on the sensational and freighted headline on the story "3 Generals Spurn the position of War Czar."  On cue, the Democrats ran with this, by the afternoon John Kerry had it on his website.

The story opens with two paragraphs that set the stage for the money quote from Sheehan:

"The very fundamental issue is, they don't know where the hell they're going," said retired Marine Gen. John J. "Jack" Sheehan, a former top NATO commander who was among those rejecting the job. Sheehan said he believes that Vice President Cheney and his hawkish allies remain more powerful within the administration than pragmatists looking for a way out of Iraq. "So rather than go over there, develop an ulcer and eventually leave, I said, 'No, thanks,' "
For Ricks and Baker, this quote has everything. A not so thinly disguised inference that the Bush Administration is bungling Iraq and Afghanistan, Cheney and the hawks are to blame, and the whole thing is causing everyone a big stomach ache.  Perfect.

To cover themselves, (not in glory) they share the fact that the administration's interest in the idea stems from long-standing concern over the coordination of civilian and military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan by different parts of the U.S. government. The Defense and State Departments have long struggled over their roles and responsibilities in general, most recently over Iraq, with the White House often forced to referee.  

The story goes on to include a more expansive quote from Sheehan to reinforce the theme of more generals leaving the reservation. Lastly, in a backhanded stab at the truth they close with a cheap quote from Frederick Kagan:

"It would be definitely a good idea," said Frederick W. Kagan, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "Hope they do it, and hope they do it soon. And I hope they pick the right guy. It's a real problem that we don't have a single individual back here who is really capable of coordinating the effort."
This is astonishing, Kagan is one of the foremost national security scholars in the country and this is all they give him. Kagan is all too familar with breakdowns in inter-agency cooperation. It would have been informative to include more of his views, but this wouldn't fit the narrative so the Post can't have any of that.

Since the Washington Post failed so miserably, I undertook some research to find out the real story. I soon discovered the story is about inter-agency cooperation or more particularly the lack thereof. This has been the topic of a great deal of debate going back at least as far as a decade when President Clinton issued the May 1997 Presidential Decision Directive (PDD) 56, entitled The Clinton Administration's Policy on Managing Complex Contingency Operations.

The paramount problem then is not the Administration's difficulty in finding someone to fill the role of unified command but the inability to get two vital cabinet departments to work together. My research turned up extensive testimony on the matter before congressional committees, a  2005 Senate bill directing $1 million be spent to explore the issue, at least one CRS report, right and left think tank reports, a number of  think tank forums, and scholarly papers.

The problem was discussed in the 9/11 commission report and most recently, the Iraq Study Group.  Needless to say, there has been more than ample debate on this complex issue. How this is all playing out in realtime Iraq is laid out in stark relief in a report by the Special Inspector General for the Reconstruction of Iraq.

A story in the Christian Science Monitor on Febraury 9, highlighted the in-fighting between the DoD and the State Department.

"...the Pentagon is not happy about what it perceives to be a slow response on the part of some other parts of the US government. In particular, Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates complained that the State Department is not stepping up to fill all of the 350 extra diplomatic jobs in Iraq created under the new plan." The Special Inspector General's report found major problems with State Department's Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs):  

"Many obstacles have been overcome, but many remain, such as the ever-changing security situation, the difficulty of integrating civilian and military personnel, the lack of a finalized agreement [between State and Defense Departments] on PRT operational requirements and responsibilities, a lag in funding resources, and the difficulty in recruiting and retaining qualified civilian personnel...[T]he lack of specific guidance led to confusion about civilian-military roles at PRT's"
Undoubtedly, the President is exasperated by all this. I'm sure he probably says to himself, Here I thought that I was the leader of the free world and I come to find out I can't even get Condi and Bob to talk, much less their subordinatesAnd apparently they need a formal agreement to get their jobs done. Beyond belief, the State Department doesn't even have enough people to get the job done, despite ample appropriations. I guess they're all too busy getting glamor profiles in Vanity Fair.

Using this story, the critics have been quick to observe that, well after all, he's the President this is what he should be doing. But SecDef Gates spoke to this in congressional testimony earlier this year. When commenting on the lack of cooperation he was getting from other agencies, he discussed the question of applying to the entire executive branch the successful the Goldwater-Nichols model that curtailed inter-service rivalry at the Pentagon. Gates testified that one of the main reasons Goldwater-Nichols worked was because the Defense Secretary has overall authority. While the President is Commander in Chief and the constitutional head of government, he is not an "action officer" like the Defense Secretary.

The Post knows all this, yet it reports this story, as a Bush administration personnel gaffe, freighted with all their attendant narrative themes. I realize Mr. Ricks is trying to peddle books, but he could at least report the real substance of the story. Instead, the slanted narrative gets parroted. Yesterday, I witnessed Nina Totenberg on Inside Washington pick up the Post line and deliver it with her famous righteous indignation.  Fox News is running with it, interviewing Wes Clark (who knows better) as he stood by and let them repeat the defective thesis. And wait, Jon Stewart had it on the Daily Show of course interpreted with his writer's clever ignorance.

No doubt, we'll be treated to a veritable "War Czar" chorus on the Sunday shows today and yet still more from the Monday autopsies. Of course, this will be followed by the infantile editorials. Finally, they'll print a letter to the editor from someone with actual real expertise cutting the whole exercise to ribbons. Meanwhile, the Post and the rest of the drive-by media will have moved on to a new fixation.