The Army stepped to the fore last month, winning one of the armed forces' most coveted commands after having seen Marine Corps generals selected in recent years to head operations in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Europe.
The Pentagon announced that Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, Army vice chief of staff and the last commander in Iraq, would take over U.S. Central Command — a pivotal post, given the unrest in Egypt and the possibility of war in Iran. After Senate confirmation, he will succeed Marine Gen. James N. Mattis.
The Air Force had been in the running for the four-star post because any decision to strike Iran's nuclear sites would involve a large bombing campaign lasting days.
Previously, a Marine general was tapped to run NATO and another Marine selected to succeed that officer to lead the war in Afghanistan.
"Lloyd Austin has strategic vision and significant operational savvy, which will be extremely helpful in dealing with Iran and the rise of radical Islam in the Middle East," retired Army Gen. Jack Keane said.
The inside politics of winning what is called a geographic combatant command is downplayed publicly by the Pentagon.
But for the military branches, such an assignment is an important prize. There is the prestige of commanding combat troops, ships and planes, with a direct chain of command to the defense secretary.
It also gives each general a seat at the table when discussing budget priorities and more face-time with the lawmakers who control Pentagon spending and policies.
Leader of the pack
The Marine Corps may be the smallest military branch, but in recent years it has scored big in the competition and broken new ground.
This year, Marine generals owned the top command assignments for the Middle East and Afghanistan, and were tapped to head forces in Europe and the southern hemisphere, leaving the Army leadership a bit chagrined.
A Marine never had headed European Command and NATO forces until 2003. Now, a second, Gen. John R. Allen, the current Afghanistan commander, is in line. His posting is dependent on an inspector general inquiry into his email exchanges with a married socialite in Tampa, Fla., home to U.S. Central Command, where Gen. Allen had served.
"These leadership decisions are emblematic of the Marine Corps' effectiveness and high-level contributions to global military operations over the last decade," said Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican, who served as a Marine officer in Afghanistan and Iraq. "Marines were a force in Iraq, and they have been equally effective in Afghanistan. These results are possible because of the strong leadership and tactical know-how that is a reliable Marine Corps characteristic."
Ask why Marines have been winning the plum posts, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas G. McInerney observed, "They are better at politics."
Retired Gen. James T. Conway, a former Marine commandant, chalks up the good showing to the Corps' "institutional excellence."
He said attaining combatant command status will better prepare future commandants, the most coveted post for any senior Marine.
"The four-star combatant, or combat theater, commander will have sat at the table with the defense secretary, will have dealt significantly in the joint environment, will have testified frequently before Congress, and will have an external view of his own service," Gen. Conway said. "In other words, he will come to the job of commandant much better prepared for a fast start than would otherwise be the case."
The "joint" assignments, so-called because all troops of different branches fall under one headquarters, are the armed forces most prestigious, for some officers even out-shinning a seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a service chief.
A commanding presence
Central Command has emerged as the indispensable command given its geographical responsibility for nations where al Qaeda and Islamic extremists are seeking to establish a foothold and overthrow governments.
Who gets which four-star commands can be filled with intrigue.
The Washington Times reported earlier that the Army pushed one of its own, Gen. David M. Rodriguez, a veteran Afghan commander who now heads the in-service Forces Command to succeed Gen. Allen.
In the end, President Obama and Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta chose another Marine, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, now the No. 2 Marine officer, to succeed Gen. Allen. Gen. Dunford is scheduled to take over in Afghanistan early next year.
He and the White House will confer often as the last major presence of American troops flow out of the country in the coming two years, leaving a residual force of trainers and special operations warriors. Some in the Army believe the White House decided it will have smoother relationship with Gen. Dunford.
Gen. Austin had recommended keeping more than 10,000 troops in Iraq as a stability force, but an agreement with the Iraqi government could not be reached.
Gen. Allen and Mr. Panetta now are discussing the pace of withdrawing most troops from Afghanistan in 2013 while leaving a residual contingent in 2014.
Mr. Panetta awarded Gen. Rodriguez the post of U.S. Africa Command, now held by Army Gen. Carter F. Ham.
In November, another Marine won appointment to a combatant command: Gen. John F. Kelley took over the Miami-based U.S. Southern Command from Air Force Gen. Douglas M. Fraser.
SouthCom's major missions include counter-narcotics, aiding Colombia in its long war with Marxist guerrillas and keeping an eye on Venezuela and anti-U.S. President Hugo Chavez.
Mr. Panetta followed a defense secretary tradition in naming a chief adviser to a four-star command.
"He's been my senior military assistant since I came to the Pentagon last year," Mr. Panetta said of Gen. Kelley at the change-of-command ceremony. "He's always been at my side as a trusted confidant and a trusted friend."
The Obama White House has awarded command plums to the Corps, despite it being the only service that openly opposed lifting the ban on gays in the military. Since repeal, however, Marine leadership has worked to make integration as smooth as possible.
Marine boosters such as Mr. Hunter, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, say the Corps overcomes its lack of troop clout by producing leaders who are good in battle and polished on Capitol Hill.
Gen. Mattis, for example, led Marines in southern Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq in 2003.
The Corps stands at just less than 200,000 troops, far outsized by the country's other land force, the Army, with 552,000 soldiers.
Marine generals stepped to the fore in 2003, when President George W. Bush named the first Marine to head NATO, Gen. James L. Jones.
A year later, Gen. James Cartwright became the first Marine to lead another combatant command, U.S. Strategic Command. That post has gone to Air Force generals and Navy admirals who control the bulk of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
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