WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has decided Marine Gen. Peter Pace will not serve a second term as the nation's top uniformed officer, saying Friday that the military could not afford a bruising confirmation fight.
Pace will be the first chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff since the Lyndon Johnson administration not to be renominated. Gates' decision underscores the political crisis that has enveloped the Bush administration over its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- conflicts that Pace has been closely identified with.
Gates announced he would recommend that Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, a Los Angeles native who is chief of naval operations, become Joint Chiefs chairman when Pace's term runs out at the end of September.
The replacement of Pace marks a major course reversal. At a Pentagon news conference, Gates said that until a few weeks ago, he had fully intended to recommend Pace for another two-year term. But Republican and Democratic senators told him that Pace would face contentious questioning about the Bush administration's conduct of the Iraq war.
"I just think that a divisive ordeal at this point is not in the interests of the country or of our military services," Gates said, appearing somber and downcast.
He continued: "I wish that that were not the case. I wish it were not necessary to make a decision like this, but I think it's a realistic appraisal of where we are."
For Pace, the decision closes out a military career that took him from street combat in Vietnam to the inner sanctum of former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's war planning unit. Before becoming chairman in 2005, Pace spent four years as the Joint Chiefs vice chairman and, as a result, became identified with Rumsfeld and the planning for the Iraq invasion.
Although mostly respected within the armed services, Pace has been criticized for not standing up more to his civilian bosses during the run-up to the Iraq war and after the invasion, when the administration failed to realize the size and scope of the insurgency. Pace's spokeswoman said he would not comment on Gates' decision.
"Pace is going to be remembered as a likable, loyal officer who carried out the wishes of an unpopular administration without challenging them, because he thought it was his responsibility," said analyst Loren B. Thompson of the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Virginia that studies military issues.
Pace's forthcoming retirement is the latest in a series of changes in the upper reaches of the administration's military and foreign policy team. Besides picking Gates to replace Rumsfeld in November, President Bush has replaced his military commanders in Iraq and in the Pentagon's Middle East headquarters, and he has nominated a new "war czar" to take over war policy within the National Security Council.
Gates also announced he would recommend a new Joint Chiefs vice chairman: Marine Gen. James E. Cartwright, currently the head of U.S. Strategic Command. Navy Adm. Edmund P. Giambastiani Jr., the current vice chairman, announced his retirement last week. Giambastiani was also closely tied to Rumsfeld and was his first senior military advisor.
White House officials traveling with Bush at the Group of 8 summit in Germany said Gates had informed the president a little over two weeks ago that his discussions with senators had not gone well. Gates called national security advisor Stephen J. Hadley on Thursday night to alert him of his decision, and Hadley told Bush on Friday morning, according to the White House.
"America has been blessed by Pete's lifetime of service," Bush said in a statement released by the White House. "And I wish all the best for the Pace family as this good man begins a new chapter in his life."
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) was among the lawmakers Gates consulted. Levin said he had told Gates that he and other senators would probably focus on decisions made over the last four years when questioning Pace at a confirmation hearing.
Pace also was likely to face questions over his assertion in March that allowing gays into the military would be condoning behavior he considered immoral.
Some Democrats chided the administration for dumping a respected military leader to avoid a confirmation fight.
"It is a sad state of affairs when this administration withdraws a general they believe is qualified simply to avoid having to publicly defend their failed Iraq policy," Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) said.
Republicans pointed their fingers at Democrats, saying that although some of the criticisms aimed at Pace may have been justified, the confirmation hearings would have descended into political theater.
"I don't think you have to be a political Einstein to figure out the confirmation proceedings would have been, rightly or wrongly, a trial of all past mistakes in Iraq," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-N.C.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a telephone interview.