Bush pick embodies new military direction

Myers's background in space and Asia signals White House's plans for Pentagon.

In one sense, President Bush's choice to be America's top military officer is a bit of a maverick, one with a background in the unconventional realm of space. And his selection is unusual, in that it sends a strong signal about the high-tech direction the Bush administration wants the US military to take.

Yet, in another sense, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers is the natural choice to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He's already the vice chairman of the group - a man known for his low-key manner and ability to smooth his way through tough political battles.

In reality, this Kansas native will have to draw on both his maverick and soothing sides to succeed in a tense environment. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's reform ideas have set many teeth on edge among the powerful. If real reform is to happen, observers say, Myers will have to be both a consensus builder and an articulate advocate for change.

"Myers is coming in at a tough time," says Adm. William Crowe, who was Joint Chiefs chairman under President Reagan.

Indeed, as he attempts to smooth many feathers around town, his own background - and the symbolism of a former space-force commander heading the Joint Chiefs - could make things more complicated.

Myers is "one of the most significant choices in recent memory," says John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org in Virginia. His selection makes clear how serious the Bush administration is about pushing forward on space defense. He is "one of the more explicit proponents of weapons in space," Mr. Pike says.

• He has advocated forcefully for testing "laser dazzlers" against America's own satellites - so the Pentagon can build better defenses against this kind of weapon, which China and other countries are developing.

• He has pushed for a unified approach to cyberwarfare - knocking out enemy infrastructures with "keystroke" attacks. "If you can degrade an air-defense network ... through manipulating ones and zeros," he said last year, referring to the language of computers, that's "a very elegant way to do it, as opposed to dropping 2,000-pound bombs...."

• And he has boasted about Kosovo being the first fully "space-enabled war," when US forces used tools like global positioning-satellite systems to guide bombs to their targets.

TOP BRASS: President Bush has chosen Air Force Gen. Richard Myers (left) as his pick for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
LM OTERO/AP

Furthermore, he has strong experience in Asia - having commanded US forces there. It's a region Rumsfeld sees as key to US military future. With much of the top brass still focused on Europe, this could boost tension.

"Looking back, I'd be hard-pressed to think of a chairman for whom it was so clear why they were chosen - and what their job will be," says Pike.

Others make less of his background and say his proficiency at defusing conflicts, especially in Washington, will be key.

One crisis he helped calm was in Okinawa, Japan, in 1995, when three US servicemen were charged with raping a Japanese schoolgirl. He ordered commanders to weed out "potential lawbreakers" and apologized to Japan. His Washington experience includes a stint as the military adviser to Secretaries of State Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright.

One of Myers's biggest challenges will be brokering a ceasefire between Rumsfeld and the two powerful groups he has irked - the top brass and some members of Congress.

Even before being confirmed, his loyalties are being tested. Will he side with the Bush team or the brass? "If he sides with the administration, he'll have a hard time with the military," Admiral Crowe says. "If he sides with the military, Rumsfeld will be mad."

The biggest tension between the two is over current versus future needs. Rumsfeld would move the US into space-based radar systems, longer-range bombers, and unmanned planes. That puts programs like the B-1 bomber and the Navy's beloved aircraft carriers at risk. But the chiefs say this would leave the US vulnerable in the short term. "Their responsibility isn't to protect us 10 years from now - it's to protect us today," says Crowe.

All in all, Myers's biggest job will be to build consensus in Washington and among the public. Without it, says Crowe, "they're not going to get very far."

Staff writer Howard LaFranchi contributed to this report from Washington.

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