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Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman to step down

Navy official tapped to replace Peter Pace so that confirmation hearings don’t dwell too heavily on the past.

Facing the prospect of a contentious renomination process for Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Friday announced the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff will step down this fall.

Gates said he will recommend that President Bush nominate Chief of Naval Operations Michael Mullen to the military's top post. "The events of the last several months simply created an environment that there would be a confirmation process that would not be in the best interest of the country," Gates said at a Pentagon news conference.

Gates had intended to nominate Pace for another two-year term. But, after "consultations" with several members of Congress over the last several weeks, Gates said he concluded the focus of the confirmation process would have been "on the past rather than the future."

Even some Republican lawmakers, including Senate Armed Services ranking member John McCain of Arizona and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have had concerns about Pace's renomination, a source familiar with the decision said. "I 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," Gates said.

When he was sworn in Sept. 30, 2005, Pace became the first Marine to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs, serving as the president's chief military adviser after having spent about four years as vice chairman. He is one of few remaining senior Pentagon officials to have directed the Iraq war since its outset.

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and many others in the Pentagon's upper echelon E-ring offices have stepped aside as the war became increasingly unpopular both on Capitol Hill and across the country. "It's a realistic appraisal of where we are," Gates said of his decision.

Pace has largely defended Bush's plan to send additional troops to Iraq, although news accounts before the president's formal announcement in January of the so-called surge strategy reported initial resistance from the Joint Chiefs.

Gates hailed Mullen as a "very smart, strategic thinker." The admiral, who has headed the Navy since July 2005, is a popular figure on Capitol Hill. Along with Navy Secretary Donald Winter, Mullen has shown little tolerance for the cost overruns and schedule delays that have become common in naval shipbuilding programs, even as the service attempts to transform its fleet.

Gates also announced his recommendation that the president nominate Gen. James Cartwright, commander of U.S. Strategic Command since 2004, to become the next vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Cartwright would take over from Adm. Edmund Giambastiani, who has announced plans to retire.

Because federal law bars two officers of the same armed force from serving in the top two jobs, Gates said he offered Giambastiani another senior post. But the vice chairman said he planned to retire, Gates said.