REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Rebecca Roberts.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

A sober assessment of the situation in Iraq today from the three-star general President Bush has nominated to be his war czar. Lieutenant General Douglas Lute was on Capitol Hill for his Senate confirmation hearing.

And as NPR's David Welna reports, it was less about the post he would fill and more about the policies Lute would be charged with carrying out.

DAVID WELNA: As a three-star general, Douglas Lute was not President Bush's first choice for this job. He was only invited to take it after several four-star generals had already declined. With Lute in the hot seat, before him, Carl Levin, the Democrat who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, pointedly noted the challenge the president's new point man on Iraq faces.

Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan; Chairman, Senate Armed Forces Committee): He's been nominated for an unenviable position. He'll be responsible for bringing coherence to an incoherent policy, a policy that is still floundering after more than four years of war in Iraq.

WELNA: Lute agreed the job presents what he called a major personal challenge, but added he's a soldier and the country is at war. And as he noted, things are not going well.

Lieutenant General DOUGLAS LUTE (Deputy National Security Advisor for Iraq and Afghanistan): Where are we today? Not where any of us would like, especially in Iraq - progress has been too little and too slow.

WELNA: Lute confirmed he'd been critical earlier this year of President Bush's plans for a troop buildup in Baghdad. Asked by Chairman Levin how he now sees that buildup, Lute replied that, quote, "the bidding is still out."

Lt. Gen. LUTE: I'd assess at this point that the Iraqi participation in the surge has been uneven, so far. And I think we're in the early days, and time will tell.

WELNA: But Levin argued what's needed is pressure, not patience.

Sen. LEVIN: How much more time should we give after four years in Iraq? Baghdad is burning, while the Iraqi politicians avoid accepting responsibility for their country's future. I believe the only chance to get Iraqi politicians to stand up is when they know we are going to begin to stand down.

WELNA: But Lute wasn't buying that argument. He said Americans have to realize the Iraqi government's capacities are limited.

Lt. Gen. LUTE: The question in my mind is not to what extent can we force them or lever them to a particular outcome but rather to what degree do they actually have the capacity themselves to produce that outcome. And if produced, or if pressed too hard, will we, in turn, end up with an outcome that isn't really worth the paper it's written on.

WELNA: Those words rankled even one of Lute's biggest supporters, Virginia Republican John Warner.

Senator JOHN WARNER (Republican, Virginia): When I listen to witnesses say, yes, the government's only been in this a year, yes. Wake up. We're paying a heavy price for them to establish this government.

WELNA: Warner said he'd hold off recommending any change of course in Iraq until next month. That's when President Bush is to deliver Congress an interim assessment of how well Iraqis are meeting political benchmarks. And as Indiana Democrat Evan Bayh pointed out to Lute, not much progress is expected.

Senator EVAN BAYH (Democrat, Indiana): Do you share the intelligence communities' assessment that the political steps to reconciliation are likely to be marginal at best to the end of this calendar year?

Lt. Gen. LUTE: Senator, my assessment would be that they have a very full agenda and have shown, so far, very little progress.

WELNA: Democrats had many questions about why a war czar was even needed since the president already has Stephen Hadley as national security adviser. Rhode Island's Jack Reed said he feared Lute would be made the fall guy on Iraq.

Senator JACK REED (Democrat, Rhode Island): I presume you will be reporting to Mr. Hadley.

Lt. Gen. LUTE: No, sir. I will be reporting to the president and coordinating with Mr. Hadley.

Sen. REED: And Mr. Hadley will be reporting to the president independently?

Lt. Gen. LUTE: On matters outside of Iraq and Afghanistan, yes, sir.

Sen. REED: That I find interesting. Frankly, 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? Is that - do you understand?

Lt. Gen. LUTE: Sir, that's the design, yes.

Sen. REED: Well, then he should be fired.

WELNA: But for Lute, there was only bipartisan support. Here's Oklahoma Republican Jim Inhofe.

Senator JIM INHOFE (Republican, Oklahoma): I was one of those who didn't think this position was necessary. However, I would say this and that if it is necessary and we're going to do it, you're the ideal person for the job.

WELNA: Next week, the panel is expected to recommend Lute's confirmation by the full Senate.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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