July 1, 2007  

Protecting the chief

Keeping Pace was not an option in war-wary Washington

President Bush pulled the plug on Gen. Peter Pace to avoid what Defense Secretary Robert Gates described as a “quite contentious” renomination hearing.

That was an understatement. The bid to have Pace named to a second term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff would have been an unrestrained political spectacle, former Pentagon official Ray DuBois said.

Imagine handing rival candidates for president the opportunity to attack the policies of the man each hopes to succeed in a heavily covered, possibly televised, webcast public hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., would surely have seized the opportunity to reiterate his disappointment with the policies of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, said DuBois, who served in a number of senior posts under Rumsfeld. And Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., would publicly polish her anti-war credentials, he said.

The hearing would have become a forum for such Bush foes on the committee as Sens. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., and brainy Iraq war skeptic Carl Levin, D-Mich., the chairman. Then there are the experienced military veterans who question Bush’s Iraq strategy, including Sens. James Webb, D-Va.; Jack Reed, D-R.I.; and John Warner, R-Va.

“It would have been a grueling confirmation,” DuBois said. Instead of the usual hour or two, a Pace confirmation might easily have lasted two days. “He would have been reported out positively” although not unanimously, DuBois said. But then the nomination would have gone to the full Senate, where the debate again might have gone on for days, he said.

“Pace, the man, the general, the Marine, would have been the subject of ad hominem attacks” that would really be aimed at the president, his top aides and his war policies, DuBois said.

Gates acknowledged that he was told as much by Republicans as well as Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“The focus of [Pace’s] confirmation process would have been on the past, rather than the future,” he said. “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 the Senate.

So after 40 years of service, Pace is being forced to retire. He is to be replaced by Adm. Mike Mullen, chief of naval operations, who isn’t expected to have any trouble getting confirmed. Since he was cloistered in the Navy, “you can’t blame Mullen” for what’s going on in Iraq, said James Carafano, a scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation. So for senators, “there’s no bang for the buck going after this guy.”

Adm. Edmund Giambastiani, meanwhile, will be replaced as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff by Gen. James Cartwright, a Marine and now chief of the Strategic Command.

So an admiral replaces a Marine general, a Marine general replaces an admiral and embarrassments are avoided.

Will it make any difference in how the U. S. fights the war in Iraq? Not likely, defense experts say.

“People simply have to get it out of their heads that somehow the answers to Baghdad are to be found in Washington, D.C.,” said Carafano, who spent 25 years as an Army officer. “Crocker and Petraeus are the only ones who matter,” said Carafano, referring to Ryan Crocker, the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. and multinational forces in Iraq. Everyone else — Congress, the State Department, the National Security Council — “is a bit player,” he said.

That includes the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Bush’s latest Iraq wartime innovation, the “war czar.” That would be Army Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute.

Here’s how Lute explained his newly created job to the Senate Armed Services Committee: He is to be “a full-time senior manager for implementation and execution of the president’s strategies for Iraq and Afghanistan, and to manage the interagency policy development process for Iraq and Afghanistan, and to help develop our ongoing strategy for these two theaters in close coordination with the assistant to the president for national security affairs.”

Here’s the translation by committee chairman Levin during Lute’s June 7 confirmation hearing: “He’ll be responsible for bringing coherence to an incoherent policy, a policy that is still foundering after more than four years of war in Iraq.”

Lute’s confirmation hearing offered a milder sample of what the White House decided to avoid by not renominating Pace. Reed, a U.S. Military Academy graduate who spent eight years as an Army Ranger, told Lute: “Your appointment represents a devastating critique of the national security apparatus of this White House, because all you’re being asked to do was what [National Security Adviser Stephen] Hadley and [Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice were supposed to be doing for the last several years — identify problems, coordinate resources, bring them to the attention of the president, get presidential direction. And that has been abysmal.

“I’m afraid that your position will be someone who’s there to take the blame but to not really have the kind of access to the president and the resources you need to do the job.”

Reed continued: “I presume you will be reporting to Mr. Hadley?”

“No, sir,” Lute said. “I’ll be reporting to the president and coordinating with Mr. Hadley.”

“And Mr. Hadley will be reporting to the president independently?” Reed asked.

“On matters outside of Iraq and Afghanistan, yes, sir,” Lute said.

“That I find interesting,” Reed said. “I mean, frankly, Afghanistan, Iraq and, related to that, Iran, are the most critical foreign policy problems we face. And the national security adviser to the United States has taken his hands off that and given it to you? Is that your understanding?”

“Sir, that’s the design, yes,” Lute replied.

“Well, then he should be fired,” Reed said.

Lute is likely to be confirmed, but few envy him the task. “I’m certainly going to support you,” Reed said. “But I don’t think I’m doing you a big favor, to be blunt.”

“The media calls him a czar,” Carafano said, but Lute’s job description is pretty unczarlike. He will sit in an office at the National Security Council and make policy. At least so far, precious little policy made in Washington has much real effect on the fighting on the ground in Iraq.

“This guy is not a war czar,” DuBois agreed. “The war czar is the president and the secretary of defense. This guy is really an interagency coordinator.”

Trying to get multiple U.S. government agencies to provide more effective support to Crocker and Petraeus in Iraq makes Lute more a brigadier of bureaucrats than a war czar.

As for Mullen, he can expect “some tough grilling,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., but in the end he also is likely to be confirmed. As chief of naval operations since July 2005, “Mullen does not have the baggage of having commanded forces in the conflict” in Iraq, said Andrew Krepinevich, director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

And on the plus side, the CNO has already scored points with the Senate for nonparochialism. Since taking charge of the Navy, Mullen has made an effort to find ways the Navy can contribute more to the ground campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, easing the burden for soldiers and Marines. As a result, thousands of sailors are on the ground today performing tasks typically assigned to ground troops.

Gates praised Mullen as “a very smart strategic thinker” and said, “As we try to look to the future in terms of where we need to be five years from now, or 10 years from now, I think Admiral Mullen will bring a tremendous perspective.”

But what about now in Iraq? “They can make all the changes they want in Washington, but it’s not going to change anything on the ground in Iraq,” Carafano said.

Or in the White House.

“There’s no appointee of the president’s that can do what the president does not want to do,” said Scott Lilly, a veteran congressional staffer and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

If there is to be a new policy for Iraq, it depends more on Bush than on his top advisers, agreed Lawrence Korb, a former assistant defense secretary, now a colleague of Lilly at the Center for American Progress. “The thing about this administration is, when they bring new people in from the outside, they don’t listen to them.”

“For better or worse, the die is cast right now,” Krepinevich said. Bush “will wait to see how things progress with the surge.”

Gates made it clear that Pace was being pushed out not for poor performance but for political expedience. It was more important to shield the president from political embarrassment than to debate his war policy. AFJ