Head knocker

May 18, 2007

The idea of a "war czar" is so peculiar that it's hard to take seriously, but the White House has tapped a decidedly serious officer for the role, a man who seems to have a clear-eyed view of the mess in Iraq. Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute appears to understand that the problems the United States faces there are essentially political ones - violent, but political - and won't be solved simply by the application of more ordnance.

His job is to get the Defense and State departments working together, and to identify the chief daily problem every morning and have it solved by afternoon. Why didn't anyone think of that before?

Some see his appointment, which came after several seasoned generals had declined the offer, as a tacit acknowledgment that the Bush administration has given up trying to prevail in Iraq. Let some competent manager try to hold things together, this line of thinking goes, and take some of the heat off - and in just 20 months this will all be some other president's problem.

As a tactic it's not so dumb, at least from the administration's point of view. No one could deny that the incompetence displayed by those in charge of the U.S. war effort has been breathtaking. But the war was - and is - fundamentally unwinnable, and no amount of competence could have turned it into an American victory.

It's just possible that General Lute may end up clarifying that point. If he is as perceptive and as professional as he is reported to be, the illogic of administration hopes for Iraq could become unsustainable. But the White House could rather easily set him up to take the fall if the unraveling under way there begins to accelerate.

This week, as American troops scoured the area south of Baghdad for three missing soldiers, heavy street fighting was taking place elsewhere, with scores killed by gunfire, car bombs and exploding chlorine tankers. Iraqi factions are at each other's throats, and reconciliation looks more and more like a bygone fantasy. Without it, though, there can be no progress of the sort that General Lute was hired to oversee.

At the same time, mortar attacks on the protected Green Zone in Baghdad have been stepped up, to the dismay of the foreign service employees living and working there. Saudi Arabia reportedly has been weighing the pros and cons of an intervention. Can General Lute make these headaches go away?

No one in the White House has the will to admit that Iraq is a lost cause, and now Congress has shown it doesn't have the courage to do so, either. If the civilians can defer to the general, the burden falls on the general to make Washington face the facts. Success is not an option; the question is how best to manage the way out of failure.

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