The Bush administration sought to avert a political fight with such Senate Democrats as Hillary Rodham Clinton and Carl Levin over Iraq and homosexuals in the military by not renominating Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace to a second term as Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman.
“The administration view was that this would not be helpful to protect America’s security,” said a defense official close to the debate. “People viewed a bruising Senate fight as not helpful in terms of public opinion, or in preparing for the interim report” expected in September from the top commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, on the troop surge.
Mr. Levin of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mrs. Clinton and others were preparing to use nomination hearings for Gen. Pace to begin major attacks on past policies on Iraq by Defense Department civilians, as well as opposing the Pentagon’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on homosexuality, said defense officials close to the debate.
A Levin spokesman had no comment on plans for Gen. Pace and instead referred to a statement issued by Mr. Levin last week.
In that statement, the senator said he was asked by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to get the views of “a broad range of senators” and concluded that many senators shared his view that a confirmation hearing with Gen. Pace “would have been a backward-looking debate about the last four years.”
The decision not to reappoint the Marine was made several weeks ago, after Mr. Gates spoke to Senate Armed Services Committee members but made public only on Friday. Instead of fighting, Mr. Gates recommended that President Bush choose Adm. Michael Mullen, the chief of naval operations, as the next chairman with the goal of avoiding a major political furor, the officials said.
A senior defense official said yesterday that Mr. Gates spoke with both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, and the discussions influenced his recommendation.
“It became clear that the focus of the hearings would be looking at the past, that they would possibly be quite contentious,” he said.
Other officials said lukewarm support for reappointing Gen. Pace among key Republicans influenced Mr. Gates’ recommendation. Sens. John McCain of Arizona, the ranking Armed Services member, and John W. Warner of Virginia, a former panel chairman, were among those Republicans, the officials said.
Gen. Pace was disappointed by the decision, which effectively ends his career, the officials said. Earlier this year, he was told that he could expect to serve a second two-year term. He angered homosexual groups and their supporters in Congress earlier this year when he called homosexuality “immoral” in a newspaper interview.
Mrs. Clinton favors ending the Pentagon’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which began in her husband’s administration and lets homosexuals serve in the military if they do not reveal their orientation.
Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, said the administration chose to “switch rather than fight” for Gen. Pace and as a result forced “a good man to end his career.”
Politically, forcing Gen. Pace out will benefit Mrs. Clinton’s presidential bid, because she will not have to vote on the reappointment and thus can avoid alienating both homosexuals, who are prominent in the Democratic Party’s liberal base, and supporters of Gen. Pace, Mrs. Donnelly said.
Other officials said the Pace decision also was influenced by Mr. Gates’ desire for a new team at the Pentagon. Gen. Pace, who spent the past seven years as vice chairman or chairman, was widely viewed as close to former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
“He certainly wasn’t one to go toe-to-toe with Secretary Rumsfeld,” said Robert Maginnis, a former Army officer and Pentagon consultant. “Perhaps he did so behind the scenes. That image may have made him tarnished him for Secretary Gates.”