Marine is one of the few who may lead Joint Chiefs Sheehan, on short list, would be another first

March 24, 1997|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The last two men to serve as the top uniformed officer and military adviser to the president were firsts -- Gens. Colin L. Powell and John M. Shalikashvili, one black, the other foreign-born.

Now, with Shalikashvili retiring in September as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, another possible first is on the horizon.

Marine Gen. John J. Sheehan, 56, a candid Boston Irishman who views the military bureaucracy as an enemy beachhead, is among the three front-runners.

If nominated by President Clinton and confirmed by the Senate, Sheehan, commander in chief of the U.S. Atlantic Command and one of the Corps' three four-star generals, would be the first Marine to hold the post created in the years after World War II.

The short list of prospects, Pentagon and congressional sources say, includes Air Force Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Adm. Joseph W. Prueher, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, who served as commandant of midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy in 1989 and 1990.

Also said to be in the running, but not in the top tier, are Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman, the Air Force chief of staff; Gen. Charles C. Krulak, the Marine commandant; and Gen. Wesley Clark, chief of the Army's U.S. Southern Command.

The selection of a new chairman is as Byzantine as the Pentagon floor plan and as laden with intrigue as a Kremlin power play. Each candidate has his champions, who are quietly promoting their man's strengths -- as well as the shortcomings of his rivals.

Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, whose views probably will carry the most weight with Clinton, is said to be asking confidants, "Is it time for a Marine?" a remark sources say relates more to Sheehan than to Krulak.

Penchant for firsts

Clinton has given no indication which way he is leaning, but he seems to relish appointing firsts, as, for example, Shalikashvili, Attorney General Janet Reno and Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright.

Sheehan is "tough, honest and smart," said retired Marine Gen. Joseph P. Hoar, who four years ago became the first Marine to reach the finals, only to be edged out by the Polish-born Shalikashvili.

"I consider [Sheehan] something of a visionary," said retired Adm. Leon "Bud" Edney, former chief of the Atlantic command, where Sheehan served as his director of plans and policy. "He could lead the services beyond their parochial vision."

Sheehan has irritated some of his fellow Marines -- most recently Krulak, the commandant -- for boldly pressing for cuts in headquarters staff and for supporting the use of Army troops aboard aircraft carriers, a mission traditionally reserved for Marines. More than most officers, Sheehan is devoted to the concept of the services working more efficiently together, so-called "joint" efforts.

Edney calls the relationship between the two top Marines "strained." Privately, others use harsher language. Some believe Krulak is trying to dash Sheehan's prospects, using faint praise coupled with pointed asides hinting that the Atlantic commander may be too abrasive for the top job.

Krulak, asked if he was trying to to block Sheehan's candidacy, responded in writing: "I think General Sheehan and I have a sound relationship and I will not dignify any comments about attempts to derail his chance at the position." Their relationship is "both healthy and one of mutual respect," he said, with "many more agreements than disagreements."

Known for candor

Sheehan's manner has clearly rubbed some the wrong way.

"Candor is one of [Sheehan's] strengths, but some people get hTC turned aside by candor," said retired Gen. Carl E. Mundy Jr., Krulak's predecessor as commandant.

Mundy sent then-Maj. Gen. Sheehan to Edney's staff in 1991 -- rather than to command troops -- a move some saw as a retaliation for his maverick ways. One Marine colonel labeled Sheehan "the Phoenix," because he seems to have risen from the ashes.

Mundy discounts such talk. "He needed joint credentials for further movement," Mundy said. "That was an important assignment."

Sheehan, who declined to be interviewed, earned an English degree at Boston College in 1962 and won a Silver Star for combat in Vietnam. During the Persian Gulf war, he coordinated amphibious plans for the 17,000 Marines off Kuwait. In his current command, he is responsible for all military activities in the Atlantic, including operations in Haiti, and has control over 80 percent of the nation's combat forces.

But it has been his crisp speeches and willingness to take on the military power structure that have gained him attention of late. He told a Naval Institute symposium last summer that there must be a "radical restructuring of our armed forces," suggesting a bloated bureaucracy by noting that there are 150,000 military personnel around Washington and only 129,000 sailors in the Atlantic fleet.

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