Sometime this summer President Bush will pick a new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to lead a U.S. military that has been battered by the war in Iraq. When you ask military officers who should get the job, the first thing many say is that the military needs someone who can stand up to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
The tension between Rumsfeld and the uniformed military has been an open secret in Washington these past four years. It was compounded by the Iraq war, but it began almost from the moment Rumsfeld took over at the Pentagon. The grumbling about his leadership partly reflected the military's resistance to change and its reluctance to challenge a brilliant but headstrong civilian leader. But in Iraq, Rumsfeld has pushed the services -- especially the Army -- near the breaking point. The military is right that the next chairman of the JCS must be someone who can push back.
The process of selecting the next chairman is one of those subterranean Washington political affairs that the public often learns about when it's over. But it is already a subject of lively discussion among current and former officers. Since there's so much at stake in this year's decision, here's a JCS form sheet, based on conversations with current and retired officers and Pentagon civilians:
To appreciate the difficulty of the job, think about the body language when Rumsfeld holds a news conference with the current chairman, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers. Rumsfeld is feisty, irreverent, outspoken; Myers is decorous, upright, respectful. Perhaps that's the way it should be, but some in the military argue that Myers has taken deference too far. His friends counter that working for Rumsfeld isn't easy and that Myers has tried, quietly and behind the scenes, to challenge the secretary when he was over the line.
Iraq has been a delicate dilemma for Myers -- he needs to support the president's policy publicly while also challenging the civilians privately. Critics think Myers sometimes erred in sounding too dutifully supportive, as in comments he made during an April 2004 visit to Iraq. The insurgency had exploded so violently then that there was contingency planning to evacuate the Green Zone. But Myers blandly called the intense fighting "a symptom of the success that we're having here in Iraq," according to a forthcoming history of the war by The Post's Thomas E. Ricks.
The leading candidate to succeed Myers is the current vice chairman, Marine Gen. Peter Pace. He has served as Myers's deputy since October 2001 and is the image of the solid, square-jawed Marine. His supporters say that after four years of dealing with the White House and Pentagon civilians, he has unique skills, especially in operating at the interface of political and military affairs. Pace's detractors argue that he has been co-opted by Rumsfeld. They complain that he will sometimes pull his punches in meetings with the secretary and avoid criticizing him face to face.
Some observers think Rumsfeld has already decided to recommend Pace, and that he's likely to pick Navy Adm. Edmund Giambastiani as Pace's vice chairman. Giambastiani is a leading military expert on Rumsfeld's pet topic of high-tech "transformation." A Pace-Giambastiani team might help Rumsfeld lock in his legacy, but at a cost of continued grumbling in the Pentagon corridors.
A second Marine candidate is Gen. James Jones, who's currently the NATO commander. He's smart and sophisticated, with the polish of a corporate CEO. It's said he was considered for chairman last time around but signaled that he wasn't interested, and he was recently on the short list for director of national intelligence. Jones wouldn't be pushed around by anyone, but observers wonder whether he would have the right chemistry with Rumsfeld and Bush.
The third candidate mentioned most frequently is Army Gen. John Abizaid, commander of Centcom. He's probably the strongest strategic thinker in the Army. It's said that Rumsfeld was ready to appoint him as Army chief of staff in 2003 but that Abizaid preferred to be in the field. He's tough, smart and outspoken, and is said to have challenged Rumsfeld, quietly but effectively, in the past.
When Bush thinks about picking the next Joint Chiefs chairman, he might recall an unusual gesture by Myers's predecessor, Army Gen. Hugh Shelton, who told his service chiefs to read a book called "Dereliction of Duty." Its subject was how the Joint Chiefs failed to challenge Defense Secretary Robert McNamara adequately during the Vietnam War. It took the Army decades to recover fully from Vietnam; that's a history the next JCS chairman must not repeat.
Rumsfeld won't be defense secretary forever, but a Joint Chiefs chairman who can stand up to him is the right military leader post-Rumsfeld.