Why no one wants to be Bush's war czar.
If anyone still had doubts that President George W. Bush's Iraq policy is doomed, they should be dispelled by the story about the fruitless search for a "war czar."
The story, reported in the April 11 Washington Post by the ever-reliable Peter Baker and Thomas Ricks, tells of the White House's secret attempt to find "a high-powered czar to oversee the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with authority to issue directions to the Pentagon, the State Department and other agencies."
The punch line is that at least three prominent retired four-star generals have been asked if they'd be interested in the job—and all of them said no.
Let's be clear about the significance of these refusals. Generals do not become generals by being demure. They are, as a rule, confident, opinionated, and in many cases, arrogant. Retired generals like to talk with other retired generals about how they would handle one foul-up or another if they were still in command.
In other words, if some retired generals out there had a great idea about how to solve the mess in Iraq, and if the president offered them the authority to do what they wanted to do, few of them would hesitate to step up and take charge.
The fact that Bush has found no takers suggests one of three possibilities: The generals don't have any great ideas; they don't believe they'd really be given carte blanche; or, most likely, to some degree, both.
There's a history of American policy czars—grey eminences solemnly appointed by presidents to untangle the day's knottiest problems (drug czar, energy czar, inflation czar, etc.)—and each chapter has been a tale of frustration and woe.
The reasons for failure have been the same in each instance.
First, the sources of the problem are beyond any one person's grasp.
Second, the president names a czar because the normal government agencies have failed or don't know what to do.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of George Bush on the Slate home page by Win McNamee/Getty Images.