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Joint Chiefs Shake-Up Leaves Questions

JACKI LYDEN, host:

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is recommending the nation's top Naval officer, Admiral Michael Mullen, to be nominated as the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This, after Gates announced yesterday, that the current chair, General Peter Pace, will not be reappointed to a second term. Pace becomes the first chairman since 1964 not to be reinstated. With Pace stepping down, the administration avoids a divisive reconfirmation hearing before the Democratic-controlled Senate.

To find out more about Admiral Mullen, we turn to Chris Cavas who covers the Navy for Defense News, part of the Army Times Publishing Company, and thanks for being with us, Mr. Cavas.

Mr. CHRIS CAVAS (Writer, Defense News): Sure.

LYDEN: Admiral Mullen is currently chief of naval operations. Why do you think he was chosen?

Mr. CAVAS: Because he's a straight shooter. I think if you look at Gates and you look at Adm. Mullen, they're not dissimilar personalities. They're not excitable. They're not bombastic.

LYDEN: They weren't early supporters of the administration's strategy of the war.

Mr. CAVAS: Well, it's sort of interesting right now. So we have a new secretary of defense in Mr. Gates, and he's looking for new directions in the conduct of the war. People who are not personally invested in what's been going on, they're not - these are not their programs that they're either trying to put in place or had been in place and aren't working.

LYDEN: But does it make sense to have a Navy man chairman of the Joint of Chiefs at a time when we're engaged into substantial ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Mr. CAVAS: It's a fair question. A lot of people think about that. In the modern military world, it really is a joint world. The military calls it purple, purple meeting, you know, you've got green for Army, and khaki for the Marines and light blue for - the Air Force, and blue for the Navy. While - you can put them all together and you get purple. Purple means we're all the same thing.

And it - when you get to the higher levels of command, Joint is the only way to go. Nobody's going to do this on their own anymore.

LYDEN: Should we expect a change in strategy in Iraq with Admiral Mullen chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff?

Mr. CAVAS: I don't think so. I think - I don't think we're going to see any change in strategy for the time being. We've just had a change in strategy. The surge has just finished surging. We are now surged. How does this play out? Nominally, we're all going to be talking about this in September, how's it going? I don't think we're going to see any change until then.

LYDEN: But reports had been very mixed though, coming from the field. Leaks about the surge have indicated that it is not working as well as had been hoped. Will Admiral Mullen be in the inner circle in reassessing things?

Mr. CAVAS: He definitely will. And I think he'll ask the right questions.

LYDEN: What would those be?

Mr. CAVAS: Well, you get the same thing with Admiral Fallon. People will be asking not, you know, are we going to look good doing this. They're going to ask, is this really going to work? And again, they don't have anything personal invested in this - in these operations. They're coming in at a point where they can make an assessment and perhaps, they're in a better position to recommend a different way ahead if they feel that that's necessary.

LYDEN: Since they weren't part of the originally planning. How he interact with General Douglas Lute, the Iraq-Afghanistan war czar - to use the phrase - who has been skeptical in the past?

Mr. CAVAS: I have absolutely no idea. I mean, seriously, this is…

LYDEN: So the big question mark.

Mr. CAVAS: General Lute's position is entirely new. I don't know what a war czar is. The whole concept of a war czar is outside all organizational, administrative, strategic thinking that we do. We've never had anybody like that.

LYDEN: What if I tell you that it's the first time since 1964 that a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff hasn't almost automatically been renewed after a two-year term?

Mr. CAVAS: It is surprising. And truly, that's why I think this caught a lot of people off guard. People sort of thought that the re-nomination of Peter Pace was going to be pro forma. A lot of people inside the Pentagon don't view Peter Pace as an architect of the war. Of course, he's been part of the planning.

The Joint Chiefs are not commanders, you know. They're not commanding anything. They are the senior's officers in the service. But it's essentially an advisory board to provide the services a way to think together and then present that advice to the president.

That has declined in recent years where only the chairman of the Joint Chiefs has gone to advice the president and Rumsfeld took that even further and said, the chairman is just supposed to advice me and I'll go advice the president.

So there has been a sort of a shunting aside in a lot of ways that certainly shapes the military. The military, like anybody else, doesn't want to be ignored and hopefully, things might change now.

LYDEN: Well, Chris Cavas with the Defense News. Thanks very much for coming in today.

Mr. CAVAS: Sure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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