Posted on 08 November 2010.
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WASHINGTON — With critical decisions ahead on the war in Afghanistan, President Obama is about to receive an unusual opportunity to reshape the Pentagon’s leadership, naming a new defense secretary as well as several top generals and admirals in the next several months.
It is a rare confluence of tenure calendars and personal calculations, coming midway through Mr. Obama’s first term and on the heels of an election that challenged his domestic policies. His choices could have lasting consequences for his national security agenda, perhaps strengthening his hand over a military with which he has often clashed, and are likely to have an effect beyond the next election, whether he wins or loses.
That is all the more reason that Mr. Obama’s choices are certain to face scrutiny in a narrowly divided Senate, whose Republican leadership has declared itself intent on defeating him.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has said he plans to retire next year, while the terms of four members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are scheduled to end: Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman; Gen. James E. Cartwright, the vice chairman; Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army chief; and Adm. Gary Roughead, the chief of naval operations.
Andrew J. Bacevich, a retired Army officer who is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, said this round of replacements, coming after two years of difficult and sometimes intense wrangling over how to carry on the war in Afghanistan, “is particularly important, and is likely to prove particularly difficult.”
“The challenge facing the president,” Mr. Bacevich said, “will be to identify leaders who will provide him with disinterested advice, informed by a concern for the national interest, and, in doing so, to avoid either the appearance or the reality of politicizing the senior leadership.”
At the top of the new pantheon of military power, the president needs a heavyweight to succeed Mr. Gates, an unexpected holdover from the Bush administration who stayed longer than many expected to become perhaps the most influential member of the Obama cabinet.
White House officials say the president is not prepared to announce any decisions on his new slate of Pentagon and military leaders for next year.
But speculation for the top Pentagon job in recent days has included two respected veterans on military matters, both with bipartisan credentials and hands-on experience: John J. Hamre, a deputy defense secretary in the Clinton administration who now leads the Center for Strategic and International Studies while running the Defense Policy Board, an advisory panel to Mr. Gates; and Representative Ike Skelton of Missouri, who lost his seat last week and with it the chairmanship of the House Armed Services Committee.
Another name certain to be on Mr. Obama’s list is Michele A. Flournoy, currently the Pentagon’s under secretary for policy and one of the foremost national security specialists of the up-and-coming generation. Her appointment would allow Mr. Obama to claim another first in naming a woman to become defense secretary, something he could also accomplish by moving Hillary Rodham Clinton into the job from secretary of state.
Other possible candidates include Ray Mabus, the Navy secretary who formerly served as governor of Mississippi and ambassador to Saudi Arabia; Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, an Army veteran; and Richard J. Danzig, a former Navy secretary.
It also is tricky to pick members of the Joint Chiefs, who are not only the president’s senior military advisers on questions of war but also the leaders of the individual military services, at the fulcrum of competing missions and constituencies that are never easy to balance.
A thorough revamping of the high command is especially complex at a time of persistent challenges on so many fronts, like the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the threats from Iran and North Korea and the challenges from Russia and China, all while facing the constant risk of a terrorist attack.
The new military leadership, after years of war and economic crisis, also has to cope with strains on military budgets, while caring for the health and morale of a force that simultaneously must be modernized.
There are lingering strains between top civilian aides to Mr. Obama and the military brass, over issues as diverse as how to fight and wind down the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and how to allow military service by openly gay troops.
Any commander in chief is theoretically free to replace his top civilian and military subordinates whenever he chooses, but it rarely happens all at once.
Traditionally, a new president appoints a new defense secretary and allows the chiefs to serve out their tours, which tend to fall more or less randomly across a president’s term in office. Mr. Obama was the first to carry over a defense secretary who had served a president of a different party, and Mr. Gates’s expected departure now falls coincidentally along with four members of the six-person Joint Chiefs. (The Marines got a new commandant, Gen. James F. Amos, last month, and the Air Force chief, Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, retires in 2012 unless he is rotated into another senior position, which is possible.)
The changes in 2011 are so unusual, and the national security risks today so significant, that General Cartwright, the vice chairman, offered to retire a year early, so that a new officer would be in place for some continuity, according to Pentagon and administration officials familiar with the discussions.
But General Cartwright — known for his fluency in nuts-and-bolts issues like missile defense, cyberwarfare and procurement — has been described as one of the president’s favorite officers, and was asked to stay on. He is very likely on the list of those who would be considered for promotion to chairman.
When Mr. Obama had opportunities in recent weeks to replace top members of his White House inner circle, including his chief of staff and his national security adviser, he opted to replace his inaugural “team of rivals,” populated by outsiders, by promoting trusted confidants and moving toward creating, in essence, a team of insiders.
So the questions before Mr. Obama include trust and comfort and assurances that his policy decisions will be executed the way he wants.
The expected candidates are all familiar to the White House, and all those on any list of suitable officers have blue-chip résumés but differing temperaments.
One of the first questions the president will have to answer for himself is what to do with Gen. David H. Petraeus, the former Iraq commander asked to rush to Afghanistan when Mr. Obama relieved two commanders there in a row.
Supporters say that General Petraeus has earned the chairman’s job by reason of experience, intellect and sacrifice, but that may not satisfy some political advisers around the president, who still resent the officers involved in the Afghanistan-Pakistan review last year. General Petraeus also could remain longer in Afghanistan or could be offered the job of Army chief or that of supreme allied commander in Europe, a post once held by Dwight D. Eisenhower and so hardly a dead end.
In addition to Generals Cartwright and Petraeus, another potential candidate for chairman is Adm. James G. Stavridis, currently the NATO commander and one of the Navy’s most intellectual officers; he likewise could be slotted into the job of chief of naval operations.
Three other highly regarded Army officers remain in the hunt for any of the top jobs. They include Gen. Ray Odierno, a three-time Iraq commander now in charge of the military’s Joint Forces Command; Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, who had two tours in Iraq before serving as acting commander of American forces in the Middle East and who now oversees Army training and doctrine; and Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, a two-time Iraq commander who is the Army’s vice chief of staff, with a focus on improving care for wounded soldiers. Pentagon Openings Give Obama New Options By THOM SHANKER