In opting to replace his top military adviser, Defense Secretary Robert Gates is again heeding Pentagon critics, choosing to take a more pragmatic approach than did predecessor Donald Rumsfeld to try to move the war effort in Iraq forward, say analysts and members of Congress.
Secretary Gates chose Adm. Mike Mullen, now the chief of naval operations, to replace Marine Gen. Peter Pace as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a respected and politically sophisticated officer of 40 years who nonetheless was seen as a legacy of former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and a symbol of the Bush administration's failed war policies.
Gates's pick of Admiral Mullen adds a fourth Navy admiral to the exclusive group of Pentagon chiefs and geographic combatant commanders. It also puts a manager instead of a visionary in the top military adviser role, analysts say.
"We are seeing a transition from ideological crusaders to problem solvers," says Loren Thompson, a senior analyst who heads the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Washington. "The managers are replacing the true believers."
Pace, the first marine to hold the position, would have had to be reconfirmed this summer. Based on conversations with Senate Democrats and Republicans, Gates concluded the hearings would be counterproductive. Rather than entrench for such a fight, Gates said he decided it would be better for the Pentagon to present a new military face.
"I am no stranger to contentious confirmations, and I do not shrink from them," Gates told reporters. "However, I have decided that at this moment in our history, the nation, our men and women in uniform, and General Pace himself would not be well served by a divisive ordeal in selecting the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff."
Still, Gates says, he is disappointed that the political environment is such that he had to name a new chairman. Pace will serve until Sept. 30 and will receive, along with Adm. Edmund Giambastiani Jr., the Joint Chiefs vice chairman who recently announced his own retirement, a farewell that "befits their extraordinary and distinguished service," says Gates.
Marine Gen. James Cartwright, now the head of US Strategic Command in Nebraska, is the nominee to succeed Admiral Giambastiani. He and Mullen are both considered likely to be confirmed by the Senate.
"It probably would have been a contentious hearing, so there is some substance to their concerns," Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I) of Connecticut said Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation," noting that almost any Defense Department nominee is contentious on some level. Nonetheless, it is probably time for Gates to put his own man in the slot. "It was time to say thank you and now let's bring Admiral Mullen on," he said.
Pace is well regarded, even on Capitol Hill, but under Rumsfeld had developed a reputation for deferring to his unpopular boss, at least in public. Military-watchers were surprised earlier this year when the savvy Pace seemed to forget himself and commented to newspaper editors and reporters that homosexual acts were "immoral," in answer to a question about the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy for gays serving in the armed forces. Chairmen ordinarily serve two two-year terms. Pace's two years as chairman are the shortest tenure since 1964.
Gates's decision to replace Pace is seen as a politically smart move, as congressional patience for war operations runs low. The change comes as Gates and his top commanders are pushing back the date for giving a public assessment of the impact of the troop "surge" in Iraq. Early this year Gates said the surge could be assessed as early as summer. Then his top commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David Petraeus, said September would be a good time to make an assessment. Now it looks as if the assessment may be pushed back until late this year or early next.
In choosing Mullen, a 1968 Naval Academy graduate who has led the Navy since July 2005, Gates indicated that the admiral is a "strategic thinker" who considers the whole of the military, not just the parochial interests of his own service. When Gates's staff first contacted Mullen after Gates became Defense secretary in December, Mullen indicated his chief concern was not the Navy but the Army, Gates says.
In April, Mullen told a group of academics and other analysts that America's military focus is rightly on Iraq and Afghanistan, but he said it must include regions around the globe.
Mullen's nomination to the Pentagon's top uniformed job puts another Navy admiral in a high-ranking spot. Admirals are now leading US Central Command, which is overseeing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as US Pacific Command and US Southern Command.
Michèle Flournoy, a former Pentagon official under President Bill Clinton, says it doesn't much matter who fills what slot in the normally service competitive-conscious Pentagon. "When we're at war, it's a secondary concern to have balance in these jobs," she says. Flournoy praised the nominations of both Mullen and Cartwright. "Both have reputations for speaking their minds, truth to power," she says. "Frankly, that's what's needed most."