The general did not actively lobby for the chairman's job but would have been happy to undertake the post, friends say.
President Obama has decided to pass over Gen. James Cartwright for the U.S. military's highest post as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to defense sources.
Said to be Obama's "favorite general," Cartwright enjoys bipartisan support in the Senate -- which would have been asked to confirm him -- and was believed to be the front-runner to take the post when Adm. Michael Mullen retires this summer.
However, serving as the nation's No. 2 military officer since August 2007, the Marine general has frequently crossed swords with Mullen. It is widely believed this discord jeopardized the 61-year-old officer's hopes of continuing his military career.
Cartwright's spokesman declined comment on the matter.
The Rockford, Ill., native did not actively lobby for the chairman's job but would have been happy to undertake the post, according to a number of military officials.
He is widely regarded as a brainy and enormously capable officer who has established close ties with top Pentagon and White House civilians, but has clashed with a number of his peers over both substantive issues and operating style.
Strains between Cartwright and Mullen became apparent early on, when the two differed over how much authority the general could wield at the Pentagon as Joint Chiefs vice chairman, defense officials have told Global Security Newswire.
Cartwright's prior assignment as head of U.S. Strategic Command -- which has operational control over the nation's nuclear arsenal, among other global responsibilities -- afforded him enormous decision-making power that he largely lost in his promotion to the JCS deputy slot.
As commander of the Omaha, Neb.-based military organization between 2004 and 2007, Cartwright ushered in sweeping changes that encouraged development of conventional "global strike" alternatives to nuclear arms and an innovative management approach that used electronic social media to cultivate the perspectives of lower-ranking military personnel .
Along the way, the one-time fighter pilot is said to have alienated a number of powerful leaders throughout the military services, principally in his role in support of Defense Secretary Robert Gates' initiative to slash Pentagon acquisition programs and make the defense budget more affordable.
Talk of potential reductions in Navy aircraft carrier battle groups and limits on Air Force plans for a future nuclear-capable bomber made Cartwright some serious enemies in the services and on Capitol Hill, as proponents for these and other programs circled the wagons to protect their interests.
During last year's administration debate over the war in Afghanistan, Mullen particularly resented a move by Cartwright to go around the chairman in independently offering the White House options for a smaller troop increase than others in the armed services were discussing, sources said. The vice chairman's role is to be an independent adviser to the president, but Mullen reportedly saw the episode as evidence of Cartwright's disrespect and failure to act as a team player.
The dynamic raises the question of whether a Joint Chiefs vice chairman's independent voice, distinct from the chairman's, should be seen as fidelity to civilian masters or military infighting, according to some defense thinkers. Complicating the situation is that a vice chairman typically substitutes for the chairman in roughly 40 percent of Pentagon and interagency meetings.
One factor some have mentioned as undoing the general's prospects to become chairman has been his lack of combat experience.
From his post at the Pentagon, Cartwright is said to have played a key role in developing a detailed menu of options for the May 2 raid in Pakistan that resulted in the death of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. However, the general has served neither in Iraq nor Afghanistan, and some cited this experience deficit as a showstopper, particularly at a time when so many other senior officers have gone to war.
Military insiders, though, said this played little to no actual role in nixing Cartwright for the chairman's job.
Rather, the general's separation from his wife and gossip about personal dalliances -- none of which have been substantiated -- played a far greater role in sending the general into retirement, according to well placed sources. Cartwright was investigated last year by the Pentagon inspector general on reports of an improper relationship with a member of his staff, but was cleared of any wrongdoing.
"The combination" of rumor-mongering and the general's actual marital separation -- which became known in the Pentagon roughly three months ago -- "was [a] perfect [tool] for the people who didn't want him to get the seat," said one source. This and several other officials spoke on condition of not being named, citing the sensitivity of the matter.
In the U.S. military -- an institution that remains more socially conservative than the general public -- unmarried officers rarely make it to general officer rank, and a separation or divorce is typically a career-killer. For a prospective chairman of the Joint Chiefs to be undergoing a personal issue of this sort was also unacceptable to a White House reportedly hypersensitive to any allegations of impropriety, some said.
For a time it seemed that Obama and Gates -- who will soon be replaced as Defense secretary by CIA Director Leon Panetta -- were prepared to go forward with the Cartwright nomination, despite the general's marital status, according to defense officials and others.
However, that changed over the past week or so, possibly because of Mullen's continued opposition to the move or because of emerging signs from Capitol Hill that Cartwright's confirmation might be contested, sources said.
The Marine general's last day of active duty is anticipated to be August 3, though he will likely take leave from his post as JCS vice chairman before that. He is not expected to take another job in the Obama administration, at least not in the immediate future, according to defense officials.
One candidate to fill Mullen's shoes being talked about this week is Army Gen. Martin Dempsey. He is said to have indicated little interest in the job, having just become the new Army chief of staff. However, he could still accept the nomination if asked by the president, sources said. The White House is now scrambling to settle on its candidate for chairman, as a public announcement is expected as early as next week.