When Adm. Michael Mullen briefed President Bush last fall on an initiative that would leverage what was left of American goodwill around the world – building what the admiral calls "the 1,000 ship navy" – Mr. Bush gave him the nod, recognizing the idea as valuable.
Now, Mullen is nearing probable confirmation as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Pentagon's senior man in uniform, and he's likely to advocate expanding such programs that reach out to other countries – and to promote the mind-set that goes along with it.
Mullen's naval concept, which will probably form his legacy in his current job as chief of Naval Operations, is effectively a "global maritime partnership" in which the United States asks the navies from other countries to join US efforts to fight terrorism and interdict drugs. The countries would also share information and conduct reciprocal training. It's the kind of initiative that symbolizes how Mullen thinks about how the US must work with other nations instead of acting alone.
"How we stay engaged around the world, which we must do, how we build and maintain partnerships, which we must do, will largely determine our ability over the long term to do for the nation all that it expects of us," Mullen said Tuesday during confirmation hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee. "We must rebalance our strategic risk carefully and as soon as possible."
It's the kind of tone that many believe the US needs as it attempts to rebuild partnerships and alliances around the world after years of going it alone, say analysts. The 1,000-ship naval concept illustrates it simply, they say.
"It would not be surprising to see the same type approach at Joint Chiefs of Staff, but maybe expanded beyond the naval domain," says Robert Work, a senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a think tank in Washington.
Mullen would represent a fresh face at the Pentagon. That was the reasoning when Defense Secretary Robert Gates recommended Mullen for nomination, especially since Gates thought the nominee could help Congress to look forward and not backward. It's a political move that Secretary Gates hopes will remove some of the rancor between the Defense Department and members of Congress over the Iraq war.
Gates is unwillingly replacing Marine Gen. Peter Pace, whom Gates said he would have liked to keep as chairman, but who will now retire in September. Gates was especially struck by Mullen when the latter said this winter that as chief of naval operations, one of his biggest concerns was the overall health of the Army.
Finding a way out of Iraq will be a task falling largely on Mullen's shoulders, as Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, reminded him at the hearing yesterday.
"First and foremost, the next chairman and the vice chairman will be called upon to work with the senior civilian leadership of the Department of Defense, the National Security Council, and the president to address the ongoing crisis in Iraq," Senator Levin said.
Mullen said he supports the buildup of American forces in Iraq but that at the same time, the Pentagon must plan for a drawdown. That echoes Gates's own statements last week in response to concern by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) of New York.
Mullen also said he will push for a return to a "2 to 1" deployment ratio, which means that troops will deploy to Iraq – or elsewhere – and then be allowed to stay at home for at least twice that amount of time. Currently, marines and soldiers are deploying with half that amount of time at home in between.
"We are a military at war, and war is ugly and messy and painful," Mullen said.
While analysts believe he has vision, he's seen more as a manager than a visionary, some believe, and will work to mend fences and focus on positioning the US so that troops can ultimately withdraw from Iraq.
Bush also nominated Marine Gen. James Cartwright as vice chairman. He also appears likely to be confirmed by the Senate in the coming weeks.