General Peter Pace, Casualty of War

Gen. Peter Pace and Adm. Edmund Giambastiani, who climbed to the top rungs of the U.S. military in large part because of their proximity to Donald Rumsfeld, are now seeing their careers end for essentially the same reason. Rumsfeld's successor as Defense secretary, Robert Gates, realized that any attempt this fall to give General Pace two more years as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff would risk what Gates, with characteristic understatement, call "quite contentious" Senate confirmation hearings. His concerns, announced at the Pentagon on Friday afternoon, were almost certainly well-founded.

Pace was widely disparaged on Capitol Hill as Rumsfeld's main man. The reputation is understandable; Pace did owe his promotion to chairman (the first Marine to ever hold the job) to the fact that, in his previous job as vice chairman, he found a way to get along with the demanding and irascible Rumsfeld, a knack that eluded most of Pace's colleagues. (Giambastiani, who announced his retirement last weekend, similarly owed his vice chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs to his successful spell as Rumsfeld's military assistant.) But the reality was more complicated. Behind the scenes, Pace battled Rumsfeld and his more ideological aides. Pace thought Guantánamo ought to be closed; he believed the U.S. should follow the Geneva Conventions even in its treatment of Al Qaeda; he supported efforts to reopen dialogue with China—and he consistently warned of the folly of risking war with Iran. Last fall, it was Pace who cajoled both civilian and Army leaders in the Pentagon to recognize that the time had come for a new strategy in Iraq.

Pace carefully kept those tussles behind the scenes. He had been at the helm for six years: four as vice chairman and the last two as chairman. Inevitably, as Gates said this afternoon, "the focus of his confirmation process [for another two years as chairman] would have been on the past rather than the future." Gates later said: “I just think that a divisive ordeal at this point is not in the interests of the country.” Rick DeBobes, chief of staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee, backed Gates’s account. Pace, he said, simply had too much baggage. “I don’t think it was any one thing,” said DeBobes. “The entire way in which the wars [in Iraq and Afghanistan] have been waged would have been at issue.”

The man tapped to replace Pace, Adm. Michael Mullen, the current chief of naval operations, should sail through. He is, by common consent in the Pentagon, the smartest of the current service chiefs. (With a Navy admiral as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the vice chairman couldn't be an admiral, too. So Giambastiani had to go, as well.) No stranger to high command, Mullen was vice chief of naval operations before spending a year in Europe running NATO's Mediterranean operations; he returned as chief in the summer of 2005. Mullen will take over with no illusions about the job: "We're in a pretty tough spot right now," he told a bunch of reporters recently. "I mean ... we're in the middle of two wars, and a lot of our time, energy and effort [as service chiefs] is going into where we are and what's the best way ahead. And it's not just Iraq and Afghanistan; it's the region—and the world ... These are tough problems, tough times." Later in the same session, Mullen repeated his concerns: "Not just as a service chief, but as much as a joint chief, I am very concerned. I'm concerned about the strategic—I'm not sure what the right word is—context, or, you know, exactly where we are right now because of what's going on in the Middle East. General Pace has spoken [of] his strategic risk assessment. I participated in that. I agree with it. He has upgraded it from moderate to significant. I agree with that."

In announcing Pace’s departure, Gates acknowledged the script was not playing out as he’d planned. "I am disappointed that circumstances make this kind of a decision necessary ... I wish that that were not the case, but I think it's a realistic appraisal of where we are." Pace's career is ending because politicians on the Hill want to blame him for decisions made by the country's civilian leadership in regard to a war that has become deeply unpopular. Yet the reality is that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs is not even in the chain of command when it comes to operational matters. He's an adviser, nothing more. And when his advice is rejected by the civilian leadership, the doctrine of civilian control of the military calls for the chairman to salute, carry out the decision as best he can and offer no public dissent. Pace is, in effect, being penalized for doing just what he should have done. It’s just the latest indication of a disturbing politicization of the American military; the pols give the orders, and the generals pay the price. Perhaps it’s understandable why the folks on Capitol Hill have gotten comfortable with things working that way.