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 Corps Gen. 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.
Mr. Clinton picked Army Gen. Hugh Shelton to succeed Gen. Shalikashvili in 1997. Gen. Shelton served just one year under President George W. Bush and Mr. Rumsfeld. But it was enough time to develop a dislike for the assertive Mr. Rumsfeld. Gen. Shelton's loyalties remained with Mr. Clinton, as he emerged as a sharp critic of Mr. Rumsfeld's war management.
Gen. Shelton's criticism continues in his book to be released this month, "Without Hesitation."
In contrast, Mr. Rumsfeld conducted an intense screening process to find a more loyal chairman. He tapped Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, who has remained loyal to the Bush era in retirement.
Even though the four service chiefs, who are responsible for combat readiness, have diluted powers compared with the chairman, a president wants a loyal team.
"You want to find someone who can run a large organization, who otherwise kind of keeps his mouth shut so that he is not an embarrassment," Gen. McPeak said.
The Obama White House was embarrassed during last summer's gays-in-the-military debate. The president's men worked out a deal with congressional Democrats to vote on repealing the military's ban on openly gay service members before the Pentagon completed an impact study ordered by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. The White House did not consult with the four service chiefs, who responded by openly breaking with Mr. Obama, writing letters saying a vote should be delayed.
According to Bob Woodward's "Obama's Wars," the president clashed repeatedly with Adm. Mullen during intense White House debate in 2009 over a new Afghanistan strategy. Mr. Obama wanted an option for removing troops as soon as possible. He accused the chairman and other leaders of giving him options only for more troops and a long stay in Afghanistan.
Mr. Obama ultimately fired his top commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, after members of the general's team were quoted in Rolling Stone magazine making critical comments about the president, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and others in the White House.
"This stark divide between the nation's civilian and military leaders dominated Obama's Afghanistan strategy review, creating a rift that persists to this day," Mr. Woodward wrote.
With Mr. Gates, a Bush administration holdover, signaling he is also leaving next year, the president will have an unprecedented chance to reshape the national security team that advises him and carries out orders.
Retired Gen. James L. Jones, a former Marine Corps commandant, is leaving as the president's national security adviser after less than two years. He is being succeeded by Thomas Donilon, a Democratic Party activist who has closer ties to the liberal establishment than does Gen. Jones and who has fought with Mr. Gates.
Mr. Woodward described Gen. Cartwright, the vice chairman, as the White House's favorite general. One reason: He drew up an Afghanistan troop strategy that differed from Adm. Mullen's ideas. The assessment makes Gen. Cartwright the early favorite to replace the admiral.
"The president has a right to pick a chairman as compatible as he can find," Gen. McPeak said.
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