After a lengthy and difficult search, President Bush has tapped a three-star Army general as his new “war czar,” with White House authority to pull together increasingly frayed federal efforts to deal with the protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, the operations director for the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, will fill the job, which is part of the White House’s National Security Council, administration officials said. He is to be an assistant to the president, empowered by Bush to secure cooperation, support and personnel for the wars from across the federal government.
The appointment is the latest attempt by the White House to bolster its Iraq team as the American public turns increasingly against the war.
Lute’s posting comes as Bush faces a September deadline for demonstrating success in his plan to use extra U.S. forces to bring about political advancement and better security in Iraq.
But the appointment has puzzled some supporters of the Iraq war strategy.
Lute was a key staff officer for Army Gen. John P. Abizaid when Abizaid headed all U.S. forces in the Middle East. Abizaid’s war strategy differed in key respects from that of Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the current top commander in Iraq and a proponent of a larger U.S. force.
Lute, widely considered a rising star in the military, “owned up to his reservations” about the new strategy in interviews with White House officials, according to a person familiar with the negotiations.
Lute reassured Bush and national security advisor Stephen Hadley that he supported the new policy.
“He has impressed Hadley and he has impressed the president,” said the person familiar with the negotiations.
Lute’s appointment comes at a time of considerable turnover in key administration national security positions, including Defense secretary, top commanders in Iraq and the Middle East, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq and top staff posts in the White House.
The position is a beefed-up version of the recently vacated White House post of Iraq coordinator. The departure of Meghan O’Sullivan, a top Hadley deputy who focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, provided an opportune moment for recasting the position, a White House official said.
In a statement Tuesday, Bush called Lute “a tremendously accomplished military leader” who could manage interagency policy development for Iraq and Afghanistan.
The White House chose Lute after several retired four-star generals turned the job down.
People close to the decision-making process said Lute’s selection raised concerns about how a three-star general would be able to issue orders to top government officials, including to four-star generals such as Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army chief of staff, who outrank him.
One source involved in the decision said Lute would probably have less power than originally intended.
Senior officials such as Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have backed Lute’s appointment, in part because the new war czar is unlikely to challenge their power over Iraq policy.
The White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity when discussing internal deliberations, said Bush met with Lute on Monday.
The official said the job previously had been informally offered to “a small number of people.”
“It’s been blown a bit out of proportion that no one would take it,” the official said.
National Security Council posts do not normally require Senate approval. But because Lute is an active-duty general, lawmakers will need to sign off on his appointment.
A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy and Harvard University, Lute, 54, is a native of Michigan City, Ind. He is married to Jane Holl Lute, an assistant secretary-general at the United Nations in charge of peacekeeping operations. They have two daughters.
Lute fought in Iraq with the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
He was deployed to Kosovo in 2002 and served in the European Command before joining Central Command, which focuses on the Middle East, in June 2004.
At Central Command, Lute shared Abizaid’s vision of gradually shrinking the U.S. military role in Iraq.
During a 2005 interview -- before the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, Iraq, set off widespread sectarian warfare -- Lute argued that the large American force prevented Iraqis from shouldering more responsibility.
“We believe that at some point, in order to break this dependency of the Iraqi forces to the coalition, that [we] just simply have to back off and let the Iraqis step forward,” Lute said.
Strategists who favor the troop buildup questioned Bush’s choice.
“I don’t know why you would choose someone who is not an enthusiastic supporter of the strategy,” said a military analyst who has advised the administration. “I can’t believe they would do this.”
A former defense official said the doubts about Lute’s views would force Lute to better advocate on behalf of the current strategy.
“People are going to be looking at him, and they know he was an Abizaid guy,” the former official said. “He can be very supportive of this even though he was for the old strategy; he wants the country to win.”
Times staff writers James Gerstenzang and Maura Reynolds in Washington contributed to this report.