Ambassador Douglas Lute: Making Decisions Amid the Chaos of War

This episode marks our first with an individual who has made decisions regarding our military, in times of war: Decisions that impact the safety and well-being of millions of people, potentially for years to come. How exactly does one navigate such extraordinarily high stakes situations?

Ambassador Douglas Lute is a retired three-star general and the former US Ambassador to NATO. In 2007, then-President George W Bush appointed him to oversee the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, a role that earned him the title —one that doesn’t exactly thrill him— of war czar. Ambassador Lute additionally served as Director of Operations on the Joint Staff, where he oversaw U.S. military operations worldwide.

Listen in as Ambassador Lute discusses what it means to be an effective leader in the military, the lessons he thinks we have —or, for that matter, haven’t— learned from our military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even the unexpected details of his first meeting with the second President Bush.


Ambassador Douglas Lute (Lieutenant General, U.S. Army, Retired) served as the U.S. Ambassador to NATO during the Obama Administration. President George W. Bush appointed him as the Deputy National Security Advisor for Iraq and Afghanistan from 2007 to 2009.

Ambassador Lute additionally served as Director of Operations on the Joint Staff, where he oversaw U.S. military operations worldwide.


Podcast Transcript

Eric Jaffe: We make decisions every day. While some of them are small. Others can have a huge impact on our own lives and those around us. But how often do we stop to think about how we make decisions? Welcome to Deciding Factors, a podcast from GLG. I’m your host, Eric Jaffe. In each episode, I’ll talk to world-class experts and leaders in government, medicine, business, and beyond, who can share their firsthand experiences and explain how they make some of their biggest decisions. We’ll give you fresh insights to help you tackle the tough decisions in your professional life.

Eric Jaffe: In the two years since we launched Deciding Factors, I’ve had the chance to chat with an incredible group of decision-makers across a wide range of expertise from healthcare and education to the future of social media in the workplace. But today’s episode is our first with an individual who’s made decisions regarding our military in times of war. Decisions that impact the safety and wellbeing of millions of people. I wanted to know, how exactly does one navigate such extraordinarily high stake situations? Fortunately, in addition to his decades of experience, our guest today brought thoughtfulness, candor, and introspection to help walk us through that process. Ambassador Douglas Lute is retired three star general, and the former US ambassador to NATO. In 2007, then president George W. Bush appointed him to oversee the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, a role that earned him the title, one that doesn’t exactly thrill him of War Czar.

Eric Jaffe: Ambassador Lute additionally served as director of operations on the joint staff where he oversaw us military operations worldwide. Listen in as ambassador Luke and I discuss what it means to be an effective leader in the military, the lessons he thinks we have, or for that matter haven’t learned from our military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even the unexpected details of his first meeting with his former boss, president George W. Bush. Ambassador Lute, welcome to the podcast.

Douglas Lute: Hey, it’s great to be with you.

Eric Jaffe: Perhaps you could start by just giving us a little bit of background. How did you end up in the military and eventually becoming the War Czar?

Douglas Lute: Well, my military background goes way back because I left Michigan city, Indiana, where I grew up largely aspiring to be a basketball player, which every 17 and 18 year old in Indiana so aspires and went to the military academy at West Point. Based on my experience at West Point, I never looked back. And so by the time I became a general officer, served first in central command. So the sort of the middle east centered on the middle east, as the operations officer, as a two star general. I then went to the joint staff. So in the Pentagon and served in a similar position, but now as a three star and over watching military operations worldwide.

Douglas Lute: And it was from that position that I went to the White House and I went to the White House because president Bush decided as part of his surgeon to Iraq, that he wanted closer, personal attention. He wanted to pay day-to-day attention to the wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan. And therefore he needed a senior staff officer, literally just down the stairway from the oval office that he could call on when he had questions. And he didn’t want to pose these questions bureaucratically through the secretary of defense, and so forth. He wanted to cut through all that and have someone he could turn to. That’s what took me to the White House in July 2007.

Eric Jaffe: Did he know you and interview you personally for that role? Just out of curiosity?

Douglas Lute: I did not know him, but he did interview me one on one for the role. Yeah.

Eric Jaffe: Got it.

Douglas Lute: It’s funny, in the course of the interview, so we’re sitting in the oval office in front of the fireplace there where a lot of foreign dignitary sit as they’re meeting with the president and we’re talking about a number of things and I said, you know Mr. President, this job is all about supporting you in your decision to surge troops in Iraq. And frankly, my advice from the Pentagon was not to surge. So I was not in favor of your surge. And I said, I just felt like I should tell you that because if you’re about to hire me, it’d be a good thing for you to know this. And President Bush to his credit said, I have no problems with that. He said, there are good arguments on both sides. And he literally said I love you for telling me that.

Eric Jaffe: Wow.

Douglas Lute: Yeah. Which will always stick with me. And I think it’s a measure of his character. He didn’t shy away from descent. He literally hired me to be just down the hall, despite the fact supporting him in this decision to surge. Right? Despite the fact that before the decision I had argued another case. So it’s a measure of the man, I think.

Eric Jaffe: Yeah. That’s a fascinating anecdote. In doing my research, I noted that vice president Cheney famously said your role was created to “ride rough shot over the bureaucracy to make sure we get the job done.” So what is, and what was the role of the War Czar, and then what kind of decisions were you making in that role?

Douglas Lute: To begin, I think a touch of context, right? So I went to the White House as an active duty US army three star general in the summer of 2007 in the midst of what has become known as the Bush surge into Iraq. And this was president Bush’s set of decisions that taken to try to reverse the sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia Iraqis, which was tearing Iraq apart at the seams. And in the course of that decision to surge, about 30,000 more US troops president Bush took a related decision that he wanted to bring onto his staff someone who could keep him a prize day-to-day of happenings in Iraq and somewhat Afghanistan as well. But in 2007 it was 90% Iraq. And then not only keep him informed, but look for points of friction or under performance in the US war effort and try to relieve those tensions, try to smooth things out, try to coordinate from the White House in an effort to facilitate the war effort.

Douglas Lute: The press actually named me the Czar of the War Czar. And I didn’t actually take very kindly to that naming because I wasn’t really in charge of anything. I was a facilitator. I was a coordinator. I was a staff officer in the west wing of the White House, but it wasn’t in the chain of command, but it did have me report to President Bush six days a week for the last 18 months of his administration every day seven o’clock in the morning with a report on overnight events. And then that also gave me a seat at the national security console table in the White House situation room for the key decisions on Iraq and Afghanistan.

Eric Jaffe: You were adjacent to reporting to you and had the era of the most senior decision maker of one of the most consequential decisions arguably in US foreign policy history. Could you walk us through how you, if at all, were able to influence President Bush or other members of the cabinet to make decisions, how did you approach your role from that perspective?

Douglas Lute: Many people with whom I’ve spoken about this role, imagine that I was fully immersed in the military campaign. Actually, I was much more consumed day-to-day with the politics of Iraq. And my role was to keep things on track. So keep us performing against the program, timelines, objectives, and so forth. Keep the president informed and most important, identify for the president those points where we appeared to be drifting off path, off course, and then offer alternatives, options, to bring us back on track. So you have to do the math of resources and what this would mean in terms of dollars, troops, diplomats, allies, time, and so forth. And this process leads to the NSC meeting with the president and the chair with a series of options under consideration. It is not the role of the NSC staff to put our finger on one option or another, but rather as arbitrators of the process, giving the cabinet officers, the bureaucratic players around the table, equal opportunity to have their say, to present their views, and then whether there’s agreement or disagreement, present that picture to the president who ultimately is the decider.

Eric Jaffe: I wonder now with the benefit of some time to reflect and think it through, what were the key attributes that you need either from a leader or from the team that is presenting to that leader in order to make a good decision?

Douglas Lute: Well, the first and foremost attribute I think of a good decision is a decision that is evidence based, that is fact based. So one of the obligations I think of the national security council staff in preparing a decision memorandum or preparing an upcoming decision making process is to search out the facts. And this would seem at the White House to be not that difficult, right? I mean, if you can’t get the facts at the White House, where can you get them? You have access to the entire power of the US government. You can get military facts from the Pentagon. You can get diplomatic facts, foreign affairs facts from the state department. We can tap into the intelligence community, and so forth. But what I found was that even inside the US government, there is a tendency sometimes for insufficient expertise or there’s a tendency that we disregard sources of facts, sources of evidence that can really help inform the decision-making process.

Douglas Lute: So here I’m referring to open sources that is public sources, publicly available sources. I’m referring to the views of some of our key allies or international partners who may have deeper experience in a complicated set like Afghanistan and Iraq than we do. Here I’m referring to the American Academic Community. In Afghanistan if you really want to understand the fabric of the problem, the texture of the challenges. In Afghanistan, you’ve got to read Barnett Ruben from NYU. You’ve got to read Thomas Barfield, a political scientist who’s written deeply on Afghanistan.

Eric Jaffe: Could you talk about how your experience serving impacted the roles that you held, these very senior roles at the White House and then as an ambassador? And specifically, how do you think about the impact of these decisions on the troops on the ground? Which of course, you have first-hand experience with versus having what some might call the emotional distance that is necessary to make the right decisions on behalf of the country?

Douglas Lute: Sure. So, I mean, it helped in a number of ways. First of all, I spoke military ease, right?

Eric Jaffe: Right.

Douglas Lute: I mean, so I was able to interpret the military reports and the intelligence reports received because I spoke their language and this actually is sort of interesting, right? That there are different bureaucratic languages, which sometimes require interpretation. So I was fluent in military processes, military capabilities and the military culture, that was very helpful. It was also helpful because I was able in both roles, both at the White House and later at NATO, I was able to serve, I hope, as a helpful bridge between other military officials and civilian officials. Because I did in a way had a foot in each camp. I wouldn’t say that this was a dramatic influence on the courses of action developed, but it was a constant reminder that this was not just bureaucracy, that this was not just a decision-making exercise that resulted in a presidential speech to the nation and then we could move on to the next such decision.

Douglas Lute: And then also understanding that presence in the field gave me an understanding for the importance of visiting the theaters of war as frequently as possible. And I tended to go to Iraq or Afghanistan regularly. So at some points in my career monthly, at other times, it waned to perhaps quarterly, but in each of these on-scene visits, I made an effort to get out of the headquarters buildings, out of Baghdad, outside of cobble in Afghanistan, and try to get down and get to refresh my sense of the feel, the texture of the problem as seen at the very tactical level.

Eric Jaffe: You’ve been a leader and also watched a lot of leaders. What do you think the right balance is between confidence and intellectual humility?

Douglas Lute: Well, first of all, I think there needs to be for the most effective decision-makers a balance struck between this search for evidence and the search for facts on which to base a decision and in almost an equal and perhaps opposite search for the facts that you don’t know, or the healthy suspicion that you’re about to be surprised by something that you didn’t consider. So it’s not that you knowingly have a fact and you set it aside or dismiss it. In my experience, the bigger challenge is to cast a wide enough net, a wide enough search for evidence and facts to bring into the decision-making process. Now, I suppose a case in point might be the assumption or the belief in the Bush administration before the invasion of Iraq that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, right? And there was clearly some evidence that he had weapons of mass destruction, but we now know because of post-invasion evidence that there was also evidence, there were also facts that he did not, and that he had disposed of them earlier.

Douglas Lute: And some of the evidence in support of Saddam having WMD, I think was not sufficiently scrutinized, tested, questioned in again, in a deliberate search for evidence. Of course, the essence of leadership is that you have a plan to address a particular situation, a problem and you take on the challenge of trying to craft a solution, but in most major public policy to include foreign policy issues, right? They are A, so complex with so many different players that in fact, it’s much less certain than one might imagine that we can actually engineer in a good American approach, right? There’s a problem, we’re going to engineer a solution. Most of these problems defy that idea. They defy a precise engineering of an outcome. And I’ve been a professional student of war and conflict because my military background that certainly plays out in war. Right?

Douglas Lute: But it plays out in other public policy arenas as well. Think about our challenges with COVID. The challenge of COVID was not something that could simply be engineered, you couldn’t just engineer an outcome. For example, we certainly on the positive side, didn’t imagine that a COVID vaccine would be discovered and delivered as quickly as it was, perhaps on the opposite end of the scale. We didn’t anticipate there’d be so many Americans reluctant to be vaccinated. So these are things that you can perhaps not always fully anticipate in the policy making process. And again, it leads you to this requirement to have some humility about what you know, and what you don’t know and position yourself, not all in on one course of action come hell or high water, but in the center of the tennis court, if you will.

Eric Jaffe: The US military is famous for its lessons learned, exercised. I wondered what are the big one, two lessons you think the US military has learned and should learn from the last couple of decades of Iraq and Afghanistan?

Douglas Lute: Well, let me play with your question just a bit because I think there’s a big difference between lessons available to be learned and lessons learned. But frankly, in my experience, even in the US military, which prides itself in adapting, based on experience, so learning lessons, it’s just too soon after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the last 20 year experience, it’s frankly too soon to assume that these lessons have actually been learned. I think there are lessons out there subject to learning, right? There are lessons that we should learn, but I don’t think we’re there yet. So for example, just in a narrow example, in my own military experience, the US army, right? I think we have to take a very sober look of how we build partner indigenous security forces. So I don’t think we can be satisfied with the multiyear multi-hundreds of billions of dollar efforts expended to build the Iraqi security forces or the Afghan security forces.

Douglas Lute: Now maybe the fact that we’re doing this again now with the Ukrainians, right? This gives us a new vignette, a new model on which to work, but certainly, the experience in Iraq and Afghanistan leaves us wanting for how we go about doing this. And if we appreciate that in future going forward, working with partners and allies, building indigenous partner capacity is going to be a key role for the US army. And frankly, in my view, given our 20 years, we’ve had two decades of experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. I don’t see sufficient changes at that level that reflect that we’ve actually done the learning.

Eric Jaffe: Super interesting. And I’ll ask you a follow-up question that you might not like, or maybe you’ll disagree with the premise of it, but can you imagine a fundamentally different way of prosecuting operation Iraqi freedom that may have led to a more positive outcome than the one that the US military chose?

Douglas Lute: Well, I think in shorthand the military campaign that led to the fall of Saddam and the seizing of power and Baghdad and so forth, right, the initial six or eight weeks can be deemed a military success, but where we fell short was, so now what? So now we own this, what are we going to do about how are we going to administer Iraq? And I think quite frankly, that some of the pre-war assumptions about what would follow the fall of Saddam border on hubris and border on even a touch of arrogance that we knew what would happen, we imagined we knew what would happen with the fall of Saddam.

Douglas Lute: And of course, those assumptions, those scenarios played out very differently. And so that left us unprepared because frankly, we didn’t enter that war with sufficient humility and develop post-Saddam options that accounted for something like the very virulent insurgency that cropped up within weeks of the fall of Baghdad. So, actually, when I talk about decision-making based on evidence and that balance by humility, I think the post-Saddam scenario in Iraq is a good example of what I’m getting at. And it’s one of the reasons it’s on my lessons list, right?

Eric Jaffe: Lastly, ambassador Lute, if you were privately advising somebody who were let’s say overseeing our efforts with Ukraine, if you could give one big macro piece of advice for someone, what would it be?

Douglas Lute: So it would be in short to take no shortcut on strategy. What I mean by this is that strategy can be defined as the alignment of ends ways and means over time. Okay? So the alignment of ends, what you’re trying to accomplish with ways, the methods, the techniques, how you’re trying to reach those objectives. And then finally the resources, the means, right? And in a classic sense, we only have a strategy when ends ways and means logically are aligned. And then you continue to check that alignment over time, because strategy tends to fall out of alignment, right? Your objectives change or you have too few resources, and so forth. So I think the challenge now in the first hundred days of the Ukraine war is to be as clear as possible on our objectives, and here I give President Biden credit.

Douglas Lute: A couple of weeks ago, he published in the New York Times and Oped that was a statement of his objectives, right? But then I would ask have we assembled the appropriate ways to achieve those objectives, and most important, have we fully resourced the project, the waring? And I think there’s evidence that this is a work in progress. Have we been pushing the Europeans hard enough to break their reliance on Russian energy? What are we doing about breaking the sea blockade that’s essentially blocking one-third of the world’s supply of wheat coming out of the black sea? How are we approaching that? I haven’t seen much on that. So there are some ways here that could be further considered. And then finally, in terms of resources, I’ll go back to where I’m most familiar, the military angle.

Douglas Lute: I think frankly, we’ve done a historically good job of providing military assets to the Ukrainians, but I don’t think we’ve given them enough fast enough. If this were a moving target, the war in Ukraine, right? And we are on a rifle range and we’re trying to hit the target. Right? I think our pattern has been that we’re constantly shooting behind the target as it moves away from us with too few resources and the resources we provide too slow being provided too slowly. So we have work to do and the one key thing that I would focus on would be this alignment of ends ways and means with a mechanism to constantly check it over time to ensure that these three elements of strategy stay aligned.

Eric Jaffe: Well, Mr. Lute, thank you again. A really, really fantastic conversation. I really appreciate you coming on.

Douglas Lute: Okay. Thanks, it’s always good to be with GLG.

Eric Jaffe: That was the singular ambassador Douglas Lute. While it’s extremely difficult to analyze the complexities of war, even with the benefit of hindsight, making rational decisions to miss the furthering chaos of war time is exponentially more challenging. My conversation with ambassador Lute provided the rare opportunity to hear from a leader who navigated the fog of war from so many different perspectives. We hope you’ll join us next time for a brand new episode of Deciding Factors featuring another one of GLGs network members. Every day GLG facilitates conversations with experts across nearly every industry and geography, helping our clients with insight that leads to true clarity. Feel free to leave us a review on Apple Podcasts, we’d love to hear from you. Or email us at if you have feedback or ideas for future show topics. For Deciding Factors and GLG, I’m Eric Jaffe, thanks for listening.