WASHINGTON - The Bush administration sidelined Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Friday, announcing plans to replace him as the nation's top military officer rather than reappoint him and risk a Senate confirmation struggle focusing on the Iraq War.
"It would be a backward looking and very contentious process," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said at a Pentagon news conference where he announced he would recommend Adm. Mike Mullen to replace Pace.
Mullen is the chief of naval operations, and Gates praised him for having the "vision strategic insight and integrity to lead America's armed forces."
At the same time, he made clear he had made his decision with reluctance, saying he wished it had not been necessary.
"I am no stranger to contentious confirmations, and I do not shrink from them," Gates said at a hastily arranged news conference.
"However, I have decided that at this moment in our history, the nation, our men and women in uniform and Gen. Pace himself would not be well served by a divisive ordeal. ..."
As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for two years, and vice chairman for the previous four, Pace has been involved in all of the key decisions leading to the 2002 invasion of Iraq and the planning for the post-Saddam Hussein era.
"President Bush appreciates Gen. Pace's long and distinguished service to the country and as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff," said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe, who was traveling overseas with Bush. "He is an example for all our men and women in uniform and has been an integral part of the president's national security team."
The war, now in its fifth year, has claimed the lives of more than 3,500 U.S. troops, and has become intensely unpopular with the public. The new Democratic majority in Congress has shown an eagerness to challenge Bush's handling of the conflict, and the president has already vetoed one bill that included a troop withdrawal timetable.
Gates said he made his decision after consulting with Republican and Democratic senators alike. Asked whether the developments indicated GOP support for the war was waning, he replied, "No, I don't think it says that."
Less than a month ago, Pentagon officials circulated word that Pace was in line for another two year term. His current term expires on Sept. 30.
Gates said he also will recommend Gen. James E. Cartwright, currently the commander of the Strategic Command, as the next vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He would succeed Adm. Ed Giambastiani.
The defense secretary said he had originally intended to name Giambastiani to a second two-year term, but Mullen's selection had foreclosed that possibility. It is customary for the chairman and vice chairman to come from different branches of the service.
Gates heaped praise on Pace, a Marine of more than 40 years. "He has served our country with great distinction and deserves the deepest thanks of the American people for a lifetime of service to our country and for his leadership. I have thoroughly enjoyed working with him, trust him completely and value his candor and his willingness to speak his mind," he said.