Pentagon Prepares For Changes At The Top



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This will be a year for change at the Pentagon and top commands. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says he's leaving sometime this year. Also leaving are Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and General David Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan.

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We're going to talk, now, about the changes at the top of America's military.

The Armed Forces are stretched thin. There's the unrest in Libya, which at the moment is limited to humanitarian relief, we've just been hearing about that. There are two long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And in the middle of all this, three key figures are set to step down. They are: Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and General David Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan.

We're joined now by NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman to talk about this.

Good morning.

TOM BOWMAN: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What are you hearing about General Petraeus? I mean, when might he step down?

BOWMAN: Well, what we're hearing, Renee, is that Petraeus will likely leave in the fall. And he was asked in an interview with AP when he would leave. He kind of brushed it aside and said he's focused on the mission. But we're hearing that the key person to replace him is a Marine Lieutenant General John Allen.

Now, Allen is not a household name, like Petraeus, but he was a key guy in Iraq. A few years back, he played a big role in what was called the Sunni Awakening, getting the tribes to oppose al-Qaida, and that turned things around in Iraq.

Some people I talked with say this is a done deal. Others say, listen, it's going to be a while before Gates recommends someone to the president.

MONTAGNE: You mentioned General Petraeus is a household name. What could, would, or might come next for him?

BOWMAN: Well, that's a big question. At this point, we're told Petraeus is not being looked at for the top military job - chairman of the Joint Chiefs. And his supporters, frankly, are amazed. They say, listen, this is the most accomplished general of his generation, who essentially saved the Iraq operation.

But he also has his detractors. Some see him as too ambitious, too political. He was criticized, you know, by some for being too close to President Bush. So if he's not offered the top job, military job or something else, he'll likely retire.

MONTAGNE: Okay, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mullen, he'll be leaving in September. What do you think he'll be remembered for?

BOWMAN: Well, Mullen has made a lot of inroads with Pakistan, with military leaders there - much closer ties. But he'll really be remembered for, I think, pushing for an end to "don't ask, don't tell," the law that barred gays from serving openly in the military. And Mullen framed this as a moral issue. He said it's wrong to ask people to lie about who they are - people who serve in uniform. And he was really out front on this. And I think he convinced a lot of members of Congress to change the law. His likely replacement is the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Jim Cartwright.

MONTAGNE: And the third key Pentagon figure is Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

BOWMAN: That's right. Gates has said he will leave this year. He told Congress, this will be my last budget, before Congress. And his departure will mean a real vacuum, I think, especially for the president. He gave the president cover on budget issues, on increased troops for Afghanistan. He also cut a lot of Cold War weapons systems. And he pushed the military to be more innovative; to buy more drones, for example, to be ready for counterinsurgency.

And as far as who will replace Gates, couple of names we're hearing is the CIA Director Leon Panetta, who also was a member of Congress, and also John Hamre, who served as the number two Pentagon official under President Clinton.

MONTAGNE: Well, just briefly, Tom, given that these are three really big names, is there a problem having all new people moving into these slots approximately at the same time?

BOWMAN: You know, I think there is a problem. It's a hard transition for anybody moving into the Pentagon or chairman of the Joint Chiefs. But to do it in the middle of two wars like this is very difficult. And clearly, it looks military operations could increase in Libya, as well. So it's going to be a hard transition.

MONTAGNE: Tom, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.