WASHINGTON—President Bush's choice to be his war adviser, Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, said Thursday that the U.S. military surge has given the Iraqi government a "golden opportunity," but Iraqi leaders aren't making the economic and political progress needed to achieve national reconciliation.
Lute was skeptical about the troop increase before President Bush announced it in January, arguing that a military solution wasn't enough to bring lasting national stability. At a Senate confirmation hearing Thursday, he promised to give Bush his unvarnished military advice and to keep the lives of U.S. military men and women foremost in this thinking as the administration shapes its war policy.
Lute said that the Iraqis want to meet benchmarks they've set that are designed to lead to an end of factional fighting, but "have shown so far very little progress." Unless they start making progress, there's unlikely to be any decrease in violence, he said.
"I have reservations about just how much leverage we can apply on a system that is not very capable right now," Lute said.
But he noted that the Iraqi government had been in power just over a year. "I think we're in the early days and time will tell."
Sen. John Warner of Virginia, one of the Senate's military experts and a leading Republican seeking a bipartisan way to reshape Iraq policy, said the United States was paying a heavy price to establish Iraq's government.
"We're losing brave soldiers, their lives, every week, many more wounded seriously for life every week, and it is a balance that this Congress, this president and the American public must look at each and every day," Warner said,
American service men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan are "foremost in my mind," replied Lute, "and they are absolutely behind my motivation to seek this appointment and seek this nomination, your confirmation of this nomination and try to make a difference here in Washington."
Lute didn't address alternative political solutions, but told senators during his hearing before the Armed Services Committee that he believed there was no purely military or America-only solution possible.
Al-Qaida terrorists are the main U.S. enemy in Iraq, and they're trying to set up a haven there, Lute said. He also said it's not U.S. policy to keep permanent military bases in Iraq or control the country's oil. He said he remains concerned that a large U.S. presence in Iraq would create the image of a permanent occupation and make Iraqis overly dependent on U.S. forces.
Lute said that some of the blame for Iraq's dependency lays with American forces, who, he said, are so aggressive and used to a can-do style that they sometimes find it hard to step aside.
He said the troop increase in Baghdad made Iraqi officials understand that the United States was providing them security. "We're giving them a golden opportunity that they must seize to make progress on the political front."
Lute, a 32-year career officer, has been serving as director of operations on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He previously served in that position under Gen. John Abizaid, the former commander of U.S. Central Command, which oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He's married to Jane Holl Lute, a retired Army officer who's the assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping operations at the United Nations.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a U.S. Military Academy graduate and former Army captain, said he'd known Lute and his wife for a long time, and "there's no one in the uniform of the United States Army I admire more, respect more."
But Reed said Lute's appointment represented a "devastating critique" of the national security advisers at the White House, Stephen Hadley and his predecessor, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Reed said Hadley should be fired if he had to hand off responsibility for the wars.
Lute said he'd brief Bush directly every day, but would also work with Hadley as a teammate.
"I just fear that you're going to be placed in an impossible situation," Reed said. "And I know why you're doing this job. It's because at the core, you're a soldier, because you understand what those young men and women are doing out there, and you can't do anything less. But I am very concerned that this is not going to work. It's another political public relations ploy rather than a significant change in strategy."
In a separate development Thursday, Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., led a bipartisan group of senators in calling for the Bush administration to give up on its goal of a strong, central multiethnic government in Iraq and work instead with other nations for a political solution in Iraq based on federalism—Iraqi factions taking charge of their own regions, as provided for in the nation's constitution.
Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has called for more than a year for a plan that would allow 18 regions in Iraq to control their own police and laws, with only a limited role for the central government. He said he met recently with representatives of the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council—China, Britain, France and Russia—and all embraced the idea.
Biden said the Bush administration had a "fatally flawed" belief that Iraqis would rally behind a strong central government.
"There's no trust of the central government, and there's no capacity on the part of that government to deliver services and security," he said. "So simply put, Iraq cannot be run from the center absent a dictator or foreign occupation. If we want the country to hold together and find stability, we have to make federalism work.
"I believe it's the best way to end the war in Iraq in a responsible way," Biden said.
Biden's resolution was co-sponsored by Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Sam Brownback, R-Kan., Gordon Smith, R-Ore., and Bill Nelson, D-Fla.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.