WASHINGTON -- The man chosen by President Bush to become his new "war czar" told Congress yesterday that national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley will no longer be responsible for Iraq policy, indicating that the administration has quietly engineered a significant change in foreign policy leadership that could directly affect U.S. war strategy.
Army Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute testified at his confirmation hearing that he will report directly to Bush on all issues involving the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while Hadley deals with the president "on matters outside of Iraq [and] Afghanistan."
The testimony stunned leading Democrats and at least one Republican, who appeared to be taken aback by the extent of the shake-up in Bush's inner circle of advisers, particularly the diminished role Hadley will play.
"Afghanistan, Iraq and, related to that, Iran are the most critical foreign policy problems we face, and the national security adviser of the United States has taken his hands off that and given it to you?" asked Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat who is a former Army officer and described himself as a longtime friend of Lute's.
"Then he should be fired. Frankly, if he's not capable of being the individual responsible for those duties and they pass it on to someone else, then why is he there?"
The new roles could have a significant impact on White House policy. Hadley has been central to the administration's Iraq planning since assuming the national security adviser job last year. Most important, he has been widely viewed as the most prominent proponent of the administration's "surge" strategy, promoting the policy of building up troop strength in Baghdad despite the skepticism of some commanders in Iraq.
Lute was one of the senior military officers who initially opposed the troop increase. In written answers provided to the committee, Lute said he had raised concerns during internal administration debates in January, saying he thought that "a military surge would likely have only temporary and localized effects" unless there were corresponding efforts by Iraqis and nonmilitary U.S. agencies.
It is highly unusual for a national security adviser to remove himself from the most pressing foreign policy issue of the day. Some of the most prominent people to hold the job -- including Henry A. Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski -- came to embody, and sometimes overshadow, the views of the presidents they served concerning such issues as the Vietnam War and detente with the Soviets.
President Bill Clinton frequently used policy czars and special envoys in international affairs, but former Clinton aides said major issues were always the province of the national security adviser.
"In my experience, the national security adviser has always handled the president's priorities, and deputies handled what was left," said P.J. Crowley, who worked on Clinton's National Security Council and is now at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank.
He said that national security adviser is "an extra-difficult job" but that the White House shake-up raises the question of whether anything is more important for Hadley than Iraq and Afghanistan.
"There's nothing on the plate more important than war and peace," Crowley said.
Lute made his comments before the Armed Services Committee, which is expected to approve his nomination as soon as next week.
Asked whether he will have exclusive responsibility for "that chunk of [Hadley's] portfolio" covering the wars, Lute responded, "I believe that's right. It does not exclude him from also advising, but the responsibilities for advising for Iraq and Afghanistan, if confirmed, would be mine."
Among those who expressed surprise was Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, a leading Republican voice on military issues who is generally regarded as a bellwether for his party's thinking on the war.
At the hearing, Warner repeatedly attempted to get Lute to clarify Hadley's role and pushed the general to say that the national security adviser's responsibilities would not be diminished.
Lute demurred, saying that Hadley would not be "cut out of the process in any way" but that Lute's new job would have "a direct line to the president" on Iraq policy independent of Hadley's.
"It would be very difficult to draw a line between us or separate us on matters inside Iraq and Afghanistan," Lute told Warner. "But it is clear that if confirmed, this appointment will hold primary execution and policy development for these two countries."
Lute later said his move to the White House would not diminish Hadley's position, and White House officials traveling with Bush in Germany for the G-8 summit defended the decision to give Lute such wide authority, arguing that it will ensure coordination on war issues.
Peter Spiegel writes for the Los Angeles Times.