WASHINGTON – Now that the White House is searching for a "war czar," it begs the question of who has been coordinating U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan the past four years.
A team of West Wing players led by National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley has tried to keep turf-conscious agencies marching in the same direction on military, political and reconstruction fronts. A few Bush aides say privately, however, that the White House probably should have recruited someone to oversee the war effort a year ago.
Critics say the administration's job of coordinating the war has never gone smooth enough or fast enough. And now two key members of the White House team focused on the war are leaving.
"The problem is not broad strategy and policy, it's that the bureaucracy is so inefficient and there's been so little follow-up that the machine doesn't work," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said. He believes red tape in Washington is the biggest obstacle to winning in Iraq.
Gingrich has joined others in suggesting that a single person report directly to Bush — and perhaps the next president — and ask: "What are the choke points? What regulations do we need to fix?"
The new job comes as Bush's combat troop buildup is trying to bring a degree of calm in Iraq so political reconciliation and rebuilding can take root.
"We're at a point now where we've got a plan," Hadley said. "Execution of that plan is now everything."
Hadley said he wants to make sure that if any request from the war zone bogs down among agencies, there is someone who can speak for the president to get it solved quickly.
"That's the kind of thing that I do, but I can't do it full time," said Hadley, who must monitor hot spots around the world.
Hadley interviewed several candidates in the past few days. He has contacted at least six retired military leaders — either to learn what they think about the job or to try to persuade them to take it.
"This is really more of a head cracker than a czar — a bureaucracy cracker," said Michael O'Hanlon, a foreign policy analyst for the Brookings Institution who likes the idea.
"They want one point person to contact everyone else to tell them that we need these 17 things by Tuesday to comply with the president's top foreign policy priority," said O'Hanlon, a former adviser to the Iraq Study Group. The panel concluded that duplication and conflicting strategies at federal agencies were undermining confidence in U.S. policy.
So far, there have been no takers for the job.
"It's the nuttiest idea ever," said James Carafano, a defense expert at Heritage Foundation.
He said a war coordinator at the White House would be outside the regular chain of command. "It confuses lines of authority. It's like adding a fifth wheel on a car."
Trying to integrate government operations inside the White House is a prescription for disaster, he added.
"You're too far from the battlefield. You're in the wrong time zone. You can't make timely decisions. You don't have the staff," he said. "The administration will be over before they even have the communications and everything in place to do this."
Vice President Dick Cheney said in a recent radio interview that after a war coordinator is named, the basic chain of military command would continue to run from the president to the secretary of defense and down to commanders in the field. But he noted that the state, defense and other U.S. agencies have roles in Iraq, such as helping the Iraqis set up a sound judicial system.
"Pulling all of that together, we think, requires somebody here in Washington who would report directly to the president, and then have the authority to make certain everybody is delivering what they promised to deliver on time," Cheney told WLS-AM in Chicago.
Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wonders why anyone would want a job in an administration nearing lame-duck status; Bush's term ends in January 2009.
"We've had czars before," Cordesman said. "It doesn't do any good to have a czar unless they have a clear focus and can override members of the Cabinet."
Retired Marine Corps Gen. John J. Sheehan was approached about the job, but declined because he thinks that decision-making in Washington lacks connection to a broader understanding of the region.
"These huge shortcomings are not going to be resolved by the assignment of an additional individual to the White House staff," Sheehan wrote in The Washington Post, explaining his reasons for not wanting to be considered. "They need to be addressed before an implementation manager is brought on board."
The person who becomes assistant to the president for Iraq and Afghanistan policy implementation will join many new faces on the Iraq front:
—Gen. David Petraeus recently took command of U.S. forces in Iraq.
—Ryan Crocker is the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq.
—Adm. William J. Fallon is now commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East.
—Defense Secretary Bob Gates has been on the job for only five month.
—The State Department also has a new chief of Iraq reconstruction, Timothy Carney.
At the White House, the Iraq team is shrinking.
Meghan O'Sullivan, one of Hadley's deputies who handled day-to-day coordination of Iraq, recently announced she is leaving. On Friday, Hadley's deputy, J.D. Crouch, said he was departing next month.