By Josh White and Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, June 9, 2007
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates announced yesterday that Marine Gen. Peter Pace will step down as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in September, a move that Gates said will avert the contentious congressional hearings that would be needed to reconfirm the nation's top military officer. Pace will leave after just two years in the post, the shortest stint as chairman in more than four decades.
The surprise announcement yesterday at the Pentagon amounts to Pace being fired before a customary second two-year term. He has served as the top military adviser to President Bush and the defense secretary since 2005, leading a war effort that has frustrated the American public and appears no closer to a conclusion.
Gates said that his decision was rooted in political considerations and that he took guidance from members of Congress who warned that Pace could face a maelstrom on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers would dissect the military's failures in Iraq. Pace has been at the center of war planning and policy since the days immediately following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when he started as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
Pace's departure -- along with the simultaneous retirement of Adm. Edmund Giambastiani, his vice chairman -- completes a nearly clean sweep of top military advisers linked to the tenure of Donald H. Rumsfeld as defense secretary. Both military officers were close to Rumsfeld and have been criticized for not challenging him.
In office since Rumsfeld was ousted after the November elections, Gates has shown a desire to distance himself from Rumsfeld's Pentagon. Since he arrived, new commanders have moved into Iraq and the U.S. Central Command, which oversees the Middle East, and the White House has added Army Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute to a unique position coordinating war policy. As he noted yesterday, Gates had planned to retain both Pace and Giambastiani but decided against that when it became clear that Pace would face a difficult reconfirmation hearing.
Gates said his decision had "absolutely nothing to do with" his view of either officer's performance.
"I think that the events of the last several months have simply created an environment in which I think there would be a confirmation process that would not be in the best interests of the country," Gates told reporters at the Pentagon during an afternoon news conference. "I am disappointed that circumstances make this kind of a decision necessary."
Gates said he has recommended that Bush nominate Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chief of naval operations, as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs for a term beginning Oct. 1. Mullen is the longest serving of the service-branch chiefs of staff, taking the top Navy position in July 2005. Gates also recommended that Marine Gen. James Cartwright, now head of the Strategic Command, be nominated to replace Giambastiani.
A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Mullen commanded three ships, a cruiser-destroyer group, the George Washington Battle Group and the U.S. 2nd Fleet/NATO Striking Fleet Atlantic. He also served in leadership positions at the Naval Academy, on the Navy staff and in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He was vice chief of naval operations from August 2003 to October 2004.
"Mullen has a reputation for being a rigorous, careful manager. People in the Navy describe him as a programmer rather than a visionary," said Loren Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute. "He represents a general trend in the administration away from crusaders and toward problem-solvers."
At his news conference, Gates quipped that when his senior military adviser contacted Mullen shortly after Gates's arrival and asked him what his biggest concern was, he said: "The Army."
In contrast with Pace, who was seen by some in the armed services as too deferential to Rumsfeld, Cartwright has a strong reputation in the Marine Corps and elsewhere in the military. "He's probably the perfect replacement for Giambastiani," said one Marine general. "He is very smart, tremendously well organized, he understands the Pentagon, and he has good networks in Washington."
Richard Kohn, a military historian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, predicted that the moves probably will not change the course of U.S. military affairs. "It's largely symbolic," Kohn said. Yet as a symbol, the ousting of the two top officers in the U.S. military establishment is striking, he said, "particularly as another reminder that Mr. Rumsfeld and his methods and style are now gone."
Gates contacted senior members of the Senate Armed Services Committee in recent weeks and heard bipartisan warnings that hearings for Pace could go badly. Yesterday, senators soundly praised Pace for his 40 years of service, but many Democrats expressed a desire to move toward new leadership. Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said he had solicited the opinions of a broad range of his colleagues in response to a request from Gates about a possible hearing this summer.
"I found that the views of many senators reflected my own, namely that a confirmation hearing on General Pace's reappointment would have been a backward-looking debate about the last four years," Levin said in a statement.
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), also a member of the committee, on Thursday called for Pace's firing in order to find a new direction. Yesterday, Reed said that Gates made the right decision and that he hopes it "will encourage a continuing reevaluation of our strategy around the globe and particularly in Iraq."
Spokespeople for Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, and John W. Warner (R-Va.), declined to discuss any private conversations the lawmakers may have had with Gates.
But congressional staffers said there was concern from both parties that Pace's confirmation hearing could evoke bitter debate about Iraq war policy. Some said Pace's recent comments to reporters at the Chicago Tribune about the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, in which he said homosexuality was immoral, would also be a distracting issue.
"It was apparent to people on both sides that this was going to get ugly, and not just over Iraq," said one staffer.
National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said yesterday that Gates informed the president a little over two weeks ago that consultations with lawmakers on the Hill regarding Pace's renomination had not gone well and that it was Gates's recommendation to not go forward. Gates called national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley on Thursday night to discuss yesterday's announcement.
In a statement released yesterday from Rome, Bush said he will accept Gates's recommendations and praised the outgoing officers, saying Pace did a "superb" job in a time of war. "I have relied on his unvarnished military judgment, and I value his candor, his integrity, and his friendship," he said.
Pace, the military's 16th chairman, was the first Marine general to serve in the position; he also has the distinction of serving one of the shortest terms in history. Pace replaced Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers in 2005 after Myers served for four years, but Pace will leave after two years, the first chairman to do so since 1964.
Kori Schake, a West Point expert on defense strategy and budgets who worked on the staff of Bush's National Security Council, said Pace's legacy is likely to be downbeat. "There will continue to be some pretty serious questioning about whether General Pace andAdmiral Giambastiani made too many compromises of their military judgment," Schake said.
Pace's departure "in many ways is one of the final parts of the closing chapter to the decisions made in 2002 to 2006," said retired Army Col. Douglas Morrison, a former planner for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "We have turned the page. Chapter closed."
Staff writer Michael Fletcher contributed to this report.