WASHINGTON -- Bowing to congressional anger over the course and management of the Iraq war, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday that he will recommend that Gen. Peter Pace, who has been at the highest levels of war strategy and decision-making since 2001, be replaced as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when his term ends in September.
Thwarted in his desire to keep Pace on for another two years, Gates' decision cuts short what normally is a four-year stint as the nation's senior military officer and chief military adviser to the president. The past five Joint Chiefs chairmen before Pace served two two-year terms.
"I am disappointed that circumstances make this kind of a decision necessary," a somber Gates said at a Pentagon news briefing.
But the surprise announcement was hailed by many as a decisive break from the Pentagon leadership team, led by Donald M. Rumsfeld as defense secretary until he was replaced by Gates in December, that initiated and presided over worsening U.S. military engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq and imposed heavy burdens on military personnel and their families.
Gates said he has asked Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chief of naval operations, to take over as chairman of the Joint Chiefs and Marine Gen. James E. "Hoss" Cartwright, a former fighter pilot who is head of U.S. strategic forces, to be the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, replacing Adm. Edmund G. Giambastiani, who has announced his retirement.
As for other senior military positions, the chairman and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are proposed by the defense secretary and nominated by the White House, and must be confirmed by the Senate. Had he been renominated as chairman this summer, Pace would have had to endure bitter and argumentative hearings, Gates said.
"I am no stranger to contentious confirmations," Gates told reporters, "and I do not shrink from them.
"However, I have decided that at this moment in our history, the nation, our men and women in uniform and General Pace himself would not be well served by a divisive ordeal" in Congress. He added: "I wish it were not necessary to make a decision like this. But I think it's a realistic appraisal of where we are."
Known inside military circles as "Perfect Peter" Pace, the lean, boyish 61-year-old Naval Academy graduate served four years as vice chairman and was the first Marine to chair the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the huge operations and planning organization led by the four service chiefs.
In many public appearances since his appointment in 2005, Pace defended the administration's policies on Iraq and never gave a hint of any disagreements within the Pentagon or the military services over war strategy.
In public he was a tireless promoter of the troops' welfare and patriotism. But he presided over the military during a time when major questions were raised about insufficient body armor and armored vehicles for the troops, insufficient combat training, an inadequate counterinsurgency strategy, and other issues.
Pace has served "superbly," President Bush said in a statement issued from Rome, midway through an eight-day European tour. But that assessment was not widely shared in Washington.
"Pete Pace has so much lost the confidence, the trust, of Congress and the senior military leadership that his renomination would have been a blood bath," said retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales, former commandant of the U.S. Army War College.
"He was an apologist for Rumsfeld," Scales said, adding that many senior officers felt that Pace was not a sufficiently strong champion of the ground combat forces, which Rumsfeld had sought to reduce in size and stature.
Gates "held Pace in very high regard," Scales said, "but as so often in politics, what it comes down to is, is the pain worth the gain?"
Another retired general, close to Pace, said that the outgoing chairman was indelibly linked with Rumsfeld and the war and that Gates was smart to cast him off.
"Whether we like it or not, the war in Iraq is identified as a losing proposition, and so are those who prosecuted it, probably with the exception of Tommy Franks, who bailed out early," said this former officer, who asked not to be identified. Franks is a retired Army general.
Reaction on Capitol Hill was muted, with no immediate demands that Gates reverse his decision.
"We must begin to rebuild the power and influence of the United States lost through the Bush administration's mismanagement of national security over the last several years," Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said in a statement that praised Pace's "decades of service."
The Senate Armed Services Committee, which would have held confirmation hearings for Pace had he been renominated, has become steadily more critical of the conduct of the war.
The committee's chairman, Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan, said in a statement that Gates had asked him about prospects for a hearing on Pace. Levin said he cautioned that a hearing would be a "backward-looking" and tumultuous critique of the war.
Gates' choice of Pace's successor, Mullen, also a graduate of the Naval Academy, has a reputation as a deep strategic thinker. In a meeting with reporters in March he said the United States is "in a pretty tough spot right now" with two hot wars raging, wrangling with Iran and North Korean over their nuclear programs, and China expanding its military forces.
With regard to China, Mullen said, "it's not unusual" that a country with 1.3 billion people would build a strong defense and that "we just need to understand more about why they're doing it." Meanwhile, he said, the United States should expand its military-to-military contact with China.