WASHINGTON — In choosing to recommend an admiral as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has for the second time given a high-profile job to someone from the Navy -- a service that has, for the most part, worked only on the fringes of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The choice of Adm. Michael G. Mullen comes just five months after Gates surprised many in the military, including some members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, by picking an admiral to become the new head of Central Command. Adm. William J. Fallon is the first Navy officer to head the Pentagon headquarters responsible for the Middle East, which now oversees the two major wars.
Pentagon watchers said the choice of the so-called sea services -- including the Marine Corps, whose Gen. James E. Cartwright was chosen as the Joint Chiefs' new vice chairman -- for the military's most difficult assignments was a testimony to the Navy's growing reputation as the most intellectually rigorous of the services.
"There's no obvious reason a Navy guy would be put in charge of Centcom, or why we would have two sea service people replacing two other sea service people at the top of the Joint Chiefs," said Loren B. Thompson, an analyst at the Lexington Institute, a Virginia-based military think tank. "But the reality is that they seem to be able to work with big ideas and big political leaders better than the other services."
The decision has caused some consternation within the other services, particularly the Army, which is doing the bulk of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. There also have been grumblings within the Air Force, whose only current regional command is in North America.
One command coveted by the Air Force was the headquarters of what is generally regarded as the second-most difficult regional command: the Pacific. For that position, Gates once again turned to the Navy, tapping Adm. Timothy J. Keating.
Although four-star Army generals are the ground commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, some Army advocates say that the service has been unfairly shortchanged because it was disparaged by former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld as a hidebound organization unable to adjust to modern, expeditionary warfare.
Asked what accounted for the lack of Army officers in high-profile interservice, or "joint," commands, retired Army Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey said simply: "Rumsfeld bias."
Rumsfeld and his civilian aides "set in motion for five years a series of decisions that discredited Army leadership," McCaffrey said. "It strikes me as extremely unusual that the principal load-bearing institution of national defense is the U.S. Army; Rumsfeld thought it was irrelevant at best."
One example of a respected Army officer who has failed to be appointed to a top command, current and former Army officials said, is Gen. Richard A. Cody, a decorated Apache helicopter pilot who led the first attack on Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War.
Cody, the Army's vice chief of staff who has won widespread credit within the Pentagon for publicly acknowledging Army failures in the Walter Reed Army Medical Center scandal, was expected to be promoted to any number of recent command jobs. But Army officials said his independence and his repeated insistence that the Army should be enlarged antagonized Rumsfeld, costing Cody a command assignment.
The rise of Naval officers under Gates, some analysts said, is also a reflection of the growing administrative power of the Pentagon's No. 2 civilian, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon R. England, who spent two years as Navy secretary early in the Bush administration. Because Gates has focused on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in his brief tenure, England has been left to handle many of the department's internal operations.
Navy officers say their worldview is uniquely fitted for the current environment, in which threats are global and understanding foreign cultures is critical. Because Navy officers must constantly patrol the world's seas and regularly interact with international governments in ports abroad, they say, the Navy has developed a culture that is more open to a broader view of American power.
Gates cited that vision at a news conference Friday in which he announced Mullen's selection. He recounted a round of phone calls made to the service chiefs by his top military aide, who had just returned to Washington after a tour in Iraq.
"He asked Adm. Mullen what was the thing he was most concerned about. The chief of naval operations said: the Army," Gates recalled. "He has a broad view of what the needs and requirements of the services are, and of the nation, and I think he brings also a tremendous strategic sense."