You don’t need to be a defense expert to see the biggest lesson of Friday’s leadership purge at the Pentagon. When you’re in the military, losing wars is a bad career move. That’s what America is doing in Iraq right now — losing — and the political system has had enough of the senior officers who presided over the debacle. Defense secretary Robert Gates said when he replaced the discredited Donald Rumsfeld that he wasn’t planning to fire anybody, but it turns out that he doesn’t have a choice. Congress is sick of the whole transformation and counter-terror crew, so they have to go. Once you get beyond the headlines, four other lessons are apparent.
1. Sea services rising. As Peter Spiegel pointed out in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, officers from the sea services now thoroughly dominate the joint command structure. Although the departing Joint Chiefs chairman and vice chairman were both alumni of the Navy Department, they are being replaced by two more representatives of the sea services — Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Mullen and Gen. James Cartwright of the Marine Corps, currently head of the U.S. Strategic Command. In the past top joint staff positions rotated among all four services, but that practice is in abeyance. In addition, commands that traditionally were dominated by the other services, like Central Command and Southern Command, are now led by admirals. So if you thought the disappearance of the Red Navy had made the sea services irrelevant, think again.
2. England’s growing empire. The ascendancy of Navy alumni to top positions within the Pentagon isn’t confined to uniformed personnel. While the Army and Air Force have seen their civilian service secretaries forced out during the Bush years, Navy secretary Gordon England rose to become the Deputy Secretary of Defense, running large swaths of the defense establishment so that Secretary Gates could focus on Iraq. England played a role in securing the top joint jobs for Mullen and Cartwright, and he also maneuvered the former naval acquisition chief, John Young, into the Pentagon’s most senior acquisition post, replacing Rumsfeld protégé Kenneth Krieg. The part of the story few people know is that England was a leading contender to succeed Rumsfeld as defense secretary — he has longstanding ties to the Bush family — and only lost out because of the need to bring in an outsider who could change course in Iraq.
3. Goodbye to ideology. David Cloud certainly got it right in Saturday’s New York Times when he described Adm. Mullen as a “low-key pragmatist.” Mullen is known within the Navy as a consummate programmer who can rigorously link requirements to resources. He thus matches the technocratic mind-set of Secretary Gates in eschewing ideology for practical problem-solving. Much of what has gone wrong for the Bush Administration, both in its counter-terror policies and in its transformation agenda, is traceable to an excessive reliance on faith-based ideas. The new team at the Pentagon will be more concerned with what the numbers show than whether policies are politically correct. In the “red versus expert” vernacular of Mao’s cultural revolution, the experts have won the struggle to control America’s defense posture.
4. The triumph of professionalism. Everybody knows that Donald Rumsfeld mis-managed the occupation of Iraq. What many observers do not realize is that Rumsfeld mis-handled every other facet of defense policy too. It wasn’t that his goals were wrong, but that his management skills were so poor. The Gates-England-Mullen team will have to pick up the pieces left by Rumsfeld’s true believers and restore a measure of professionalism (not to mention civility) to a dispirited defense establishment. That will not be easy against the backdrop of Iraq, but the good news is that the next administration will inherit a close-knit and capable team of senior military leaders rather than the beleaguered survivors of a failed strategy.
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