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Gates Nominates Mullen to Replace Pace as Pentagon Leader

June 8, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Pentagon reshuffle. We hear from two reporters who cover military affairs and the Pentagon, Josh White of the Washington Post, and Mark Thompson of Time magazine.

Mark Thompson, to you first, what’s going on?

MARK THOMPSON, Time Magazine: Well, Basically, Judy, the taint of the war has become pervasive. And over the past year, we’ve seen all the top war leaders in the military and the civilians at the Pentagon depart the scene. Basically, Secretary Gates said, “Listen, the trouble this guy would run into, General Pace, if we re-nominated him to be chairman on Capitol Hill, basically wouldn’t be worth it.” So basically they’re cutting their losses and trying to start with a fresh slate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Josh White, it did sound as if Secretary Gates was trying to put the blame, if you will, or the onus of this decision on Capitol Hill, the senators who would have been voting, debating. Is that where the onus really lies?

JOSH WHITE, Washington Post: Well, at this point, what he said is, he went to Congress, he went to some senior leaders, especially with the Armed Services Committee, and asked how this would go. How would a confirmation hearing go forward with Chairman Pace having to answer some very difficult questions? And they warned him very frankly that it would not go well, that it would be ugly.

It’s the kind of issue that the Pentagon really doesn’t want to have to deal with at this point, a dissection of the last several years of the war. They’ve been going through this over the last several months. I think it’s a recognition that the past is something that Secretary Gates wants to put behind him, and he wants to move away from the Rumsfeld Pentagon, from the Rumsfeld war policies, and look forward to finding a solution.

Nomination of a Navy admiral

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Mark Thompson, isn't the administration going to face questions on the Hill no matter who is being nominated?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, sure, but we've got -- for example, you know, the new chairman is going to be a Navy guy. The Navy was its own cabinet-level agency until 1947. They tend to be more free-thinkers. The new head of Central Command, Admiral Fallon, is a Navy admiral.

So I think you don't have the boots on the ground guys, but now you've got some fresh thinkers who are able to come in and say, "I'm not encumbered by the past decisions we made on this war. I can make new decisions." And come September, when General Petraeus reports, I think that's exactly what they're going to have to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What's the reaction you're hearing, Josh White, inside the Pentagon? What are they saying?

JOSH WHITE: Well, there was a bit of surprise, I think, initially, because this did come a bit out of the blue. There had been some calls on Capitol Hill for replacement of top leaders, but Secretary Gates had intended to move forward, both with General Pace and with Admiral Giambastiani, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

However, there was a recognition that, yes, this would have been a very, very difficult thing to deal with on the Hill and that, even though Pace is very well-regarded, that his reputation is largely that he was agreeing with Donald Rumsfeld, that he was there somewhat as a "yes" man, and that, moving forward, this gives Secretary Gates the opportunity to bring people in, a new face, a new direction, like he's done with a number of other areas within the Pentagon.

Differing opinions on General Pace

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, you've been talking to people at the Pentagon, as well. What were you hearing?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, basically, some people in the Pentagon argue that General Pace was basically a tool. He was carrying out the civilians' policy, and it's really not fair to punish him. Conversely, other people in the military...

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean the policy of the president and Secretary Rumsfeld?

MARK THOMPSON: Right, the war policy, the conduct of the war. But other people who are more opposed to the war basically said that General Pace and people like him made hope a policy in this war, and they thought it would go a lot better than it did. And they're upset that, you know, General Pace didn't speak out more loudly to try to fight the war in a different way, and they figure that he's getting what he deserves.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Josh White, do we read this as a decision mainly by Secretary Gates himself? To what extent is President Bush behind this?

JOSH WHITE: Well, it's unclear at this point, though. Secretary Gates has shown up to this point that he's willing to make these types of decisions quickly and on his own. If you remember, back when the Walter Reed story was breaking, he was willing to take out the top Army leadership in a very short order when he felt that things weren't going the way that they should be.

I think this was a very difficult decision for him. I'm sure it was in consultation with others, people at the White House. But I think Secretary Gates has shown himself as decisive and willing to make these types of decisions when they need to be made.

You know, this is well enough in advance of any hearings that might take place. It allows Congress to both learn more about Admiral Mullen, but also to essentially avoid having to deal with preparing for a Pace hearing.

Impact on war policy

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you get the sense, Mark, that this was a Gates decision?

MARK THOMPSON: Yeah, I mean, he went to the White House about two weeks ago and basically told the president and Steve Hadley that this is really going to be tough, and is this what we want to do? And, fundamentally, a decision was taken that maybe this wouldn't be the smart fight to have right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do we look, Mark, for a change in policy? Let me put it this way: Do we expect policy to change in a way, because of these two new leaders coming in?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, I think basically what it means is it's no longer an uphill fight. When Admiral Fallon or Admiral Mullen goes to Capitol Hill, they won't have in their rucksack, you know, four years of decisions that a lot of people on Capitol Hill felt were ill-advised. Instead, they'll come in with a fresh set of eyes, and I think Congress will cut them some slack that General Pace wouldn't have had.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think -- same question, Josh White. I mean, what does this say -- what could it say about administration policy toward Iraq?

JOSH WHITE: Well, some of the experts that I've been talking to today say it's not going to be a major change in policy. It's just a new face on the policy as it is.

But there's been a willingness, certainly on the part of Secretary Gates and within the White House, to re-look at how things are going. Obviously, they've not been going well. There's been a desire to take a new direction; bringing in the new war czar into the White House to look at these types of issues is one of those types of steps.

Certainly, having someone in there who is not going to have to face the scrutiny of what went wrong is very important. Having someone in there who can, instead, look entirely forward, I think, is exactly what the message that Secretary Gates is sending.

A fresh set of eyes

JUDY WOODRUFF: How different a look do you get the sense that Secretary Gates is prepared to have?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, I think everything now -- we've all been talking for weeks, if not months, about how important September is going to be. And I think Secretary Gates likes the idea that the people accepting the reports from General Petraeus will be a fresh set of eyes, a fresh team. They won't be encumbered by the past. And consequently, if they think General Petraeus comes in with an argument that makes sense, they will be able to embrace it and perhaps sell it on Capitol Hill in a way that, you know, General Pace could not.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One last thing. Putting somebody from the Navy in charge at a time when we've got two ground wars going on, the significance of that, Josh White?

JOSH WHITE: Well, it's actually quite significant. The Army has lost a number of key posts around the world that the U.S. combatant commands and within the top military leadership. This is coming off of the first Marine Corps general to be the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, now a Navy admiral.

I think, looking at this, it's a message that things on the ground are not going very well. They want someone from the outside to evaluate the policies and look at how things are going on the ground to see if things can change for the better.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You add anything? You mentioned a minute ago fresh eyes.

MARK THOMPSON: Well, not only that, but, I mean, when this war began, Navy admirals, among all the senior leaders at the Pentagon, were the most dubious about the way this war was going to be conducted. And I think the sense that now we have Navy guys in charge of prosecuting the tail end of this war sort of validates their skepticism that they had at the very front end.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Interesting, because to some it would seem counterintuitive. All right, Mark Thompson, Josh White, thank you both. We appreciate it.