A significant military readiness deficit, the weight of ongoing Iraqi operations, preparation for eventual withdrawal of troops from Iraq, the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan and an emboldened Iran are just a few of the serious problems the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff will face. This doesn't even bring us to a nuclear North Korea, recent Russian hostility to the West or continuing turmoil in the Gaza Strip.
President Bush has turned to Adm. Michael Mullen and Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright as chairman and vice chairman. Their nominations are one of a rare few recent executive decisions applauded by both Democrats and Republicans. With good reason, since both men have earned confidence beyond their immediate circles. We expect their tenure to be difficult.
Adm. Mullen, currently chief of naval operations, is regarded as tough, intelligent and candid, on Capitol Hill and elsewhere. He has been praised by Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, for his "exceptional" background, and by Sen. James Webb, Virginia Democrat and a former secretary of the Navy. Other Democrats have echoed this praise. The admiral distinguished himself this week with characteristically frank Senate testimony: Security in Iraq is "not great, but better" for the troop surge — which he initially opposed — and "no amount of troops in no amount of time will make much of a difference" without unprecedented breakthroughs in the present Iraqi political impasse. Iraqi politicians are key. American officials must "bring as much pressure on them as we possibly can." This should have been clear to all for a long time, but it needed to be said.
Adm. Mullen pledged to alleviate the presently grueling troop deployment schedule. He also pledged to improve military medical care and bring more urgently needed Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP)armed vehicles to the fight in Iraq. The U.S. military is "not unbreakable." Failures in Iraq, he said to a question, include failing to "fully integrate all elements of U.S. national power in Iraq, "invading with "an insufficient force" and orchestrating a "divisive" de-Ba'athification process.
Gen. Cartwright, most recently head of the U.S. Strategic Command in Nebraska, is a fitting deputy who this week sounded more optimistic than Adm. Mullen. He shows understanding of the size of the problem in Iraq. Victory, though achievable, is "going to be a challenge." Militants in Iraq "seem to have an unlimited pool from which to draw from if you're on the battlefield. In other words, as we defeat, others come in behind."
Preventing terrorists from finding haven in Iraq and discouraging a spiral of instability in the Middle East, correcting the decline of military readiness and being always ready for the unexpected, is a tall order. These two capable officers have their work cut out for them.