Army general seen as Joint Chiefs front-runner

May 25, 2011 - 1:44 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — A general who just last month was installed as the Army's top officer has emerged as a surprise front-runner in President Barack Obama's search for his next top military adviser, the final move in Obama's drive to reshuffle the upper tiers of his national security team.

Marine Gen. James Cartwright had long been rumored to be Obama's favorite as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But Obama informed Cartwright over the weekend that he was no longer a candidate, a defense official said on Wednesday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal deliberations.

Focus around the Pentagon has instead shifted to Army Gen. Martin Dempsey — a widely experienced officer who served two tours in Iraq and began a four-year term as Army chief of staff on April 11.

Other names may still emerge. An announcement of Obama's choice could come as early as next week, after he returns from his European tour.

It is not unusual for a service chief like Dempsey to be promoted to chairman of the Joint Chiefs, but rarely, if ever, has one been elevated so quickly. The current chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, was selected after serving as the Navy's chief for a little over two years. Mullen is due to retire in October.

Cartwright, the current vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has been a close adviser to the president, routinely shuttling back and forth to the White House, often as a stand-in when Mullen is traveling. Mullen's term began in 2007 under President George W. Bush, and Obama nominated him for a second two-year term in 2009.

Cartwright's chances were hurt by private criticism of his management style and the public release of a Pentagon investigation into claims of misconduct with a young female aide.

The Pentagon's inspector general cleared Cartwright of the most serious claims, which suggested he'd had an improper relationship with the woman. But the investigation found that he mishandled an incident in which the aide was drunk and either passed out or fell asleep in his hotel room, where he was working, as his security personnel stood nearby.

In addition to Dempsey, Army Gen. Ray Odierno is mentioned as a possible choice to succeed Mullen. Odierno also is thought to be a top candidate to succeed Dempsey as Army chief if Dempsey becomes Joint Chiefs chairman. Odierno is currently commander of U.S. Joint Forces Command, which is being dismantled in a Pentagon reorganization.

Dempsey fits the bill as among the most battle-tested of today's four-star generals, with two tours of duty in Iraq and a stint as acting commander of Central Command, which covers most of Central Asia and the Middle East. Not well known publicly, he has a reputation inside the Army for forthrightness and innovative thinking.

In his search for Mullen's successor, Obama is getting advice from members of his national security team including Mullen, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and possibly Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. Obama has selected Petraeus to be his next CIA chief, and has asked current CIA Director Leon Panetta to take over as defense secretary when Gates leaves at the end of June.

The Petraeus and Panetta moves are subject to confirmation by the Senate, as will be Obama's choice of a new Joint Chiefs chairman.

By law, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs is the senior military adviser to the president and the secretary of defense but does not command any troops. As its top officer, the chairman serves as the public face of the military and frequently interacts with foreign military leaders. Most chairmen serve two terms of two years each, although Gates in 2007 decided not to recommend a second term for Gen. Peter Pace, who was the first Marine to be chairman.

The last Army general to hold the chairman's post was Hugh Shelton, from 1997-2001.

Dempsey commanded the 1st Armored Division in Iraq in 2003-04 and later was in charge of U.S. training of Iraqi security forces. He later was tapped to take over U.S. Army Europe, but that changed abruptly in early 2008 when Navy Adm. William J. Fallon stepped down as commander of Central Command and Gates asked Dempsey to temporarily take on that job. At the time, Dempsey was deputy commander under Fallon.

In December 2008 he moved on to head U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command and served there until early this year. In that job he was responsible for steering the Army's thinking on how to fight wars, large and small.

On the day he become Army chief of staff, Dempsey wrote in a brief note to all soldiers that while the Army and other branches of the military are likely to face declining budgets, the Army must never skimp on three qualities: trust, discipline and fitness.

"These qualities have to exist in every unit and in every soldier of our Army all the time," he wrote in his note April 11. "When I come to visit your organization ... I'll want to know what you're doing to develop a climate of trust, to ensure the discipline of your soldiers, and to increase the fitness of the force."

With Cartwright's term as vice chairman ending in August, Obama also is preparing to select his successor. Among those mentioned most prominently is the current Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Norton Schwartz.

Schwartz took over the Air Force three years ago when Gates sacked the service's top civilian and uniformed leaders in a dustup over a series of nuclear-related mishaps. Since then, Schwartz has been credited with quietly restoring proper oversight of the mission and rebuilding Gates' confidence in the Air Force.

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Associated Press writers Pauline Jelinek and Robert Burns contributed to this report.