- The Washington Times - Monday, October 18, 2010

President Obama, who has clashed with the military top brass over war and gays, will soon have a chance to reshape the Joint Chiefs of Staff as he faces contentious decisions next year on withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and on ending some weapons systems.

The admirals and generals who today make up the six Joint Chiefs were largely nurtured by Bush administration Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who took a keen interest in finding and promoting officers who impressed him.

Mr. Obama has had differences with some of them. The outgoing Marine Corps commandant, Gen. James Conway, for example, has openly questioned the White House’s July 2011 deadline to start a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. Mr. Obama and his top military adviser clashed privately over Afghanistan troop strength, a new book reveals.

Next year, the president will have the opportunity to replace four of the six, unless he breaks with tradition and extends their tenures. The pending exits include the Joint Chiefs chairman, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, whose term ends in September, and Marine CorpsGen. James Cartwright, the vice chairman, whose term ends in August.

Also due to retire in 2011 are the heads of the Army, Gen. George Casey in April, and the Navy, Adm. Gary Roughead in September. Mr. Obama made his first appointment to the chiefs this summer when he nominated Gen. James Amos to replace Gen. Conway.

Retired Gen. Carl Mundy, a former Marine Corps commandant who served on the Joint Chiefs under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, said Mr. Obama’s chance to reshape the body “probably does” help the president, “especially in the case of the chairman. He is, after all, the principal military adviser to the president.”

Gen. Mundy noted that Mr. Obama took the time to personally interview Gen. Amos. “Obama may be more involved than my experience,” he said.

Collectively, the six chiefs advise the president, although all but the chairman have limited access to the commander in chief.

Retired Gen. Merrill McPeak, Air Force chief of staff under George H.W. Bush and Mr. Clinton, said Mr. Obama’s choice for Joint Chiefs chairman will be the most critical.

“It certainly makes a difference with the chairman,” said Gen. McPeak, who backed Mr. Obama in his 2008 presidential run. “There’s a lot of interplay with the chairman.”

Gen. McPeak recalled how a general by the name of John Shalikashvili caught the eye of Mr. Clinton in his first year in office. Gen. Colin L. Powell, a Bush administration holdover, was then chairman (and broke with Mr. Clinton’s desire to lift the ban on gays in the military). Gen. Powell accompanied the Polish-born Gen. Shalikashvili to the White House to brief the new president on violence in the Balkans.

Gen. Shalikashvili’s next assignment: Joint Chiefs chairman, compliments of the president.

“With Shalikashvili, there was a personal aspect to that,” Gen. McPeak said. “Clinton kind of fell in love. Here was this guy Shalikashvili, with a marvelous story. A recent immigrant. Still spoke English with a heavy accent, who ended up being a four-star Army general. I think Clinton was captivated by that story and begun to form a personal relationship with ‘Shali.’”

Gen. Shalikashvili became a loyal partner, both at the Pentagon and in retirement. He has been a political supporter of Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton, which shows that making the right pick for chairman can be almost as important in private life as it is in government.

President George H.W. Bush was not as fortunate. His chairman, Navy Adm. William Crowe, became a vocal critic in retirement. The admiral endorsed Mr. Bush’s opponent, Mr. Clinton, in 1992, and came to his defense over the candidate’s avoidance of the military draft.

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