WASHINGTON – The White House wants to appoint a high-powered czar to oversee the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with authority to issue directions to the Pentagon, State Department and other agencies but has had trouble finding anyone able and willing to take the job, according to people close to the situation.
At least three retired four-star generals approached by the White House in recent weeks have declined to be considered for the position, the sources said.
“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 Vice President Dick Cheney and his 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,’ ” he said.
The White House has not publicly disclosed its interest in creating the position, hoping to find someone President Bush can anoint and announce for the post all at once. Officials said they are still considering options for how to reorganize the White House’s management of the two conflicts. If they cannot find a person suited for the sort of specially empowered office they envision, they said, they may have to retain the current structure.
The administration’s interest in the idea stems from longstanding 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 Iraq, with the White House often forced to referee.
The highest-ranking White House official responsible exclusively for the wars is Deputy National Security Adviser Meghan O’Sullivan, who reports to National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and does not have power to issue orders to agencies. O’Sullivan plans to step down soon.
Unlike O’Sullivan, the new czar would report directly to Bush and to Hadley and would have the title of assistant to the president, just as Hadley and the other highest-ranking White House officials have, the sources said.
Besides Sheehan, sources said, the White House or intermediaries have sounded out retired Army Gen. Jack Keane and retired Air Force Gen. Joseph Ralston, who also said they are not interested. Ralston declined to comment; Keane confirmed he declined the offer, adding, “It was discussed weeks ago.”
All three generals who declined the job have been to varying degrees administration insiders. Keane, a former Army vice chief of staff, was one of the primary proponents of sending more troops to Iraq and presented Bush with his plan for a major force increase in December. The president adopted the concept in January, although he did not dispatch as many troops as Keane proposed.
Ralston, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was named by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in August to serve as her special envoy for countering the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a group designated a terrorist organization by the United States.
Sheehan, a 35-year Marine, served on the Defense Policy Board advising the Pentagon early in the Bush administration and at one point was reportedly considered by then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He now works as an executive at Bechtel Corp., developing oil projects in the Middle East.
Gordon Johndroe, a National Security Council spokesman, would not discuss contacts with candidates but confirmed that officials are considering a newly empowered czar.