WASHINGTON -- Four years after the fall of Baghdad, the White House is again struggling to solve an old problem: Who is in charge of carrying out policy in Iraq?
Once again President Bush and his top aides are searching for a high-level coordinator capable of cutting through military, political and reconstruction strategies that have never operated in sync, in Washington or in Baghdad.
Once again Bush is publicly declaring that his administration has settled on a strategy for victory - this time, a troop increase that is supposed to open political space for Sunnis and Shiites to live and govern together - even while his top aides acknowledge that the White House has never gotten the execution right.
"We're trying to learn from our experience," Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, said in an interview yesterday. Confirming a report that first appeared in The Washington Post, Hadley said he had been sounding out retired military commanders to assess their interest in a job in which they would report directly to President Bush.
"One of the things that we've heard from Republicans and Democrats is that we need to go a step further in Washington and have a single point of focus, someone who can work 24/7 on the Washington end of executing the strategy we've put in place for the next 22 months," to the end of Bush's term.
Hadley came to his job in the beginning of 2005, after four years as deputy national security adviser, and said from the outset that the Achilles heel of the administration had been its failure to execute its policies.
Now, Hadley said, he had decided that "while we've had plans and due dates and stoplight charts, what we need is someone with a lot of stature within the government who can make things happen." That official, Hadley said, would deal daily with the new U.S. ambassador in Iraq, Ryan C. Crocker, and the new commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus, and then "call any Cabinet secretary and get problems resolved, fast."
Hadley says he has not yet brought top candidates into the White House for formal interviews. But what he is seeking is someone willing to take on, at the end of a war-weary administration, one of the most thankless jobs in Washington: overseeing policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the administration has discovered that changing governments was a lot easier than changing habits.
It is telling that Hadley and Bush are still wrestling with this problem. Four years ago, both had hoped and expected that by 2007, Iraq would essentially be a cleanup operation, involving a comparatively small American force. Instead, the current force of 145,000 is building to 160,000.
For both men, deciding who should take the reins on Iraq strategy is hardly a new task.
It was in August 2003, five months after the American invasion, that Bush ordered the formation of an Iraq Stabilization Group to run things from the White House. That action reflected the first recognition by the White House that Donald H. Rumsfeld's Pentagon was more interested in deposing dictators than in nation-building.
When that group was formed, Rumsfeld snapped that it was about time that the National Security Council performed its traditional job: unifying the actions of a government whose agencies often spent much of their day battling one another. That approach worked, for a while.
But then the insurgency in Iraq grew formidable, reconstruction efforts were slowed, the State and Defense Departments reverted to bureaucratic spats, and the White House never managed to get its arms around the scope of the problem, in Baghdad or in Washington.
That was evident this year when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the new defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, openly clashed on the question of who would provide the personnel for new Provincial Reconstruction Teams that were charged with trying, once again, to rebuild Iraq.
But that was only a small part of the problem: When the Iraq Study Group turned out its recommendations in December for revamping strategy, it cited "a lack of coordination by senior management in Washington," declaring that "focus, priority setting, and skillful implementation are in short supply."
Hadley's initiative won support yesterday from Gates.
At a news conference, Gates offered a public endorsement of empowering someone at the White House to better carry out the president's priorities. "This person is not 'running the war,' " Gates said. "This czar term is, I think, kind of silly."
Part of the new job is to make sure, in Gates' words, that when Crocker or Petraeus "have requested something from the government and not gotten it ... that there is somebody empowered by the president to call a Cabinet secretary and say, 'The president would like to know why you haven't delivered what's been asked for yet.'" As David J. Rothkopf, who wrote a history of the National Security Council titled Running the World, noted yesterday, "It's been a difficult thing for the NSC to do because it is an almost impossible task.
"This is a problem of Sunnis and Shiites, and it is not about Republicans and Democrats or the rank of officials or bureaucratic rivalry," he said. "The Sunnis started fighting the Shiites a thousand years before we got to Plymouth Rock, and it's hard to create a new special implementer to deal with that." But by this point in the Bush administration, officials say, their only hope is to take the surge and run with it.