Army Musical Chairs

(Pablo Martinez Monsivais - AP)

Playing the role of team manager, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced some major changes to his lineup of Army generals, which may have far-reaching implications for American policy in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as for the long-term health of the U.S. Military.

Let's look at today's moves:

Gen. David Petraeus to CENTCOM. After ousting Adm. William "Fox" Fallon for various sins, Gates tapped his top Iraq commander to run the organization responsible for both of America's wars and a bunch of other hotspots. As my friends at Abu Muqawama note, the challenge will be for Petraeus to command CENTCOM in a way that embraces all of these places, and shows no improper preference for Iraq (although Iraq is the main effort for CENTCOM, so some preference will be natural). Another challenge will be for Petraeus to sustain himself and his staff in yet another grueling assignment. Granted, he'll be home-based in Tampa, Fla., but I don't imagine he'll spend much time there.

Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno to MNF-I. Odierno, who recently returned home from a tour as the corps commander in Iraq under Petraeus, will now return to take the top spot. By various accounts, including Tom Ricks's Fiasco, Odierno took the wrong mindset with him to Iraq during his first deployment in 2003-04 as the 4th Infantry Division's commander, pushing heavy-handed tactics that reportedly did a great deal to fuel the insurgency during that time. He apparently, though, had a "Road to Damascus" moment between his two tours, returning to Iraq in late 2006 as a general who preached the gospel of enlightened counterinsurgency. My question is whether Odierno can make the leap from corps commander to top commander and adjust his mental paradigm and personal relationships accordingly for the new job.

Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli to Vice Chief of Staff. Chiarelli commanded the 1st Cavalry Division early in the Iraq war and then returned to command the corps a year later, handing the guidon over to Odierno in late 2006. He's a thoughtful guy who pushed his unit to think more holistically (and less militarily) about how to win hearts and minds. I'm a bit surprised to see him moved into the vice chief of staff job, because I thought he was a shoe-in to take the top Iraq job that Odierno just got. But these are both four-star jobs and both important. And, there's definitely some institutional politics going on here. Unlike some of the other generals, Chiarelli remains relatively untainted by the Bush administration and the war in Iraq, because he served as a relatively apolitical corps commander and division commander. So putting him in at Vice means that the Army might get to keep him in a Democratic administration. Look for Chiarelli to be the next MNF-I or CENTCOM commander in January 2009 -- or to join the Joint Chiefs, either as chairman of the Joint Chiefs or chief of staff of the Army.

For more commentary, check out:

- Abu Muqawama: "CENTCOM is not IRAQCOM" and "Breaking: Petraeus to CENTCOM"

- Attackerman: "Marching With Feet Tied"

- Danger Room: "Petraeus Gets Promotion; Odierno Gets Iraq (Updated)"

- Tom Barnett: "Better for America that Petraeus does CENTCOM instead of EUCOM"

- Bill Kristol: "The allegedly lame duck Bush administration has. . . hit a home run."

- Shawn Brimley: "Impressions on Military Shifts"

By Phillip Carter |  April 23, 2008; 2:27 PM ET  | Category:  Army
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Do you really expect a Democratic President to push Petraeus and Odierno out in Jan. 2009? Such a move would likely be seen as a step in the wrong direction regarding politicization of the military. Either or both generals might resign if they disagree with the policy of the new President, but I can't imagine a Democrat asking either to leave.

Posted by: Analyst | April 23, 2008 4:07 PM

The USA does not need Generals that are political azz kissers, we need Generals that are militarily competent and can think, evaluate, and make changes as the situation demands. No department in the 'We the People' government should be held hostage to politics of a specific party. Put the best people in charge and let them do that job.

Posted by: ghostcommander | April 23, 2008 4:20 PM

Tinpot generals. Yuck.

Posted by: M. Stratas | April 23, 2008 4:28 PM


Your ignorance is astonishing. Commentary from a former junior officer on general officer assignments is about as credible as a brief for the Supreme Court written by a law school applicant. For example, don't you even know that COCOM CINCs and Service Chiefs and Vice Chiefs serve normal terms that are rarely truncated by a change of administration?

BTW, what makes you so certain that there will be a Democratic administration in January 09? Based on the polls and the way the Democrats insist on savaging each other, that is by no means a given. You should stick to practicing law and stay away from things that you don't understand.

Posted by: Oakton | April 23, 2008 5:05 PM

What, we're surprised at another upheaval? Not really, folks. This administration still believes Americans are falling for their incompetence. Bush appears to reward people who do not criticize him, and rewards those who would otherwise embarrass him, and we're taking that to heart, now.

... either way, when the Def Secy says he can't get drones operating in Afghanistan, it's time for a "lay-off." These people migrate out of the great State of Texas. What is really going on there--those people head east when the going's getting rough for them in the Lone Star State.

Posted by: Old Colonial | April 23, 2008 5:07 PM

At least Petraeus' appointment improves appearances as far as chain of command issues are concerned. I doubt there will be any more teleconferences with the White House and the Iraq commander that cut out the head of CENTCOM.

Posted by: Zathras | April 23, 2008 5:33 PM

Hey Oakton,

Perhaps you should refresh your memory: combatant commanders and other senior general officers serve at the pleasure of the president. Cheers.

Posted by: TE Lawrence | April 23, 2008 6:11 PM

FYI for John Q. Public. All these guys are smarter, more hard working and more principled than ANYONE YOU HAVE EVER MET IN YOUR LIFE. Before you throw stones at any of these men, get a clue about what they do day in and day out for you and me. They are all true American heros.

Posted by: Retired Army LTC | April 23, 2008 6:48 PM

Chiarelli was the brains behind that empty uniform George Casey during the second half of Casey's command. If nothing else, he did seem to reduce the number of Iraqi civilians being killed by US soldiers. He seems OK.

I don't believe for one moment that Odierno has really changed his stripes, at least in terms of still being a neoconservative jerk. I'm surprised neither this blog nor the links mention the fact that Odierno's son, a captain, got his arm blown off in Iraq.

Odierno may have been forced to adapt his tactics, but he's still a guy with all the charm and philosophical depth of Tommy Franks. Just this month he was speaking at the Heritage Foundation.

If the Iraq war and Bush's presidency had been less of a disaster, nasty bullies like Franks and Odierno would be buzzing around the GOP, looking to become the next generation of warmongering deficit-building conservative politicians. As it is, they're damaged goods.

Posted by: OD | April 23, 2008 6:52 PM

TE Lawrence,
Yes, every Title 10 Regular officer serves at the pleasure of the POTUS. And, in fact, the President has removed senior officers at his displeasure, from McClellan to MacArthur to Fallon. Exactly what has that got to do with this discussion? Name one four-star who was replaced just because a new administration was inaugurated.

Posted by: Oakton | April 23, 2008 8:14 PM

Hey, Oakton, why not knock some of the rough edges off and try to be civil? Carter did nothing wrong. Whereas you just come across as a jerk. If the best you've got to offer is to insult the blog author, maybe you ought to find something else to do.

Retired LTC: One of the most amazing posts I've ever seen from an Army officer. You go, guy.

Posted by: Publius | April 23, 2008 8:23 PM

TE Lawrence,
Sorry. The 'moron' comment was uncalled for and I apologize. Some of the officers involved here are former colleagues of mine and I'm a little steamed about some of the crap being dished out today all over the WP comments sections about some very capable and distinguished Americans.
My bad.

Posted by: Oakton | April 23, 2008 8:26 PM


Speaking of incompetence and the Supreme Court, what would you say about someone who nominated Harriet Miers to sit on it for life?

Posted by: Bullsmith | April 23, 2008 8:26 PM

You, on the other hand, are a moron. Terribly sorry if that makes me sound like a jerk.
Your bad.

Posted by: Oakton | April 23, 2008 8:29 PM

You have been supplanted here as the Designated Moron.
Who said a word about the Supreme Court? Can you manage to stay on topic while wiping the drool off your keyboard?

Posted by: Oakton | April 23, 2008 8:31 PM

You made a Supreme Court reference in analogy, and I responded with Miers to make a point. People who are uniformed will doubt any of Bush's appointments simply based on his record of poor choices. I meant no aspersions to any of the men promoted today, nor do I have reason to. I do however very much like this blog and found your initial criticism excessive. Your subsequent post addressed that issue amply.

However, calling me a moron cause you can't remember what you wrote in this thread is a bit harsher than is necessary, no?

Posted by: Oakton | April 23, 2008 8:43 PM

My apologies, I meant to address the above to Oakton and mistakenly typed it in the name box.

So maybe I am a moron.

Posted by: Bullsmith | April 23, 2008 8:45 PM

Believe all three created a change in the character of the fielded forces. There was something more in our traditional character in the directives issued on the conduct of forces in COIN than in the killer warrior ethos at the outbreak. These are very practical men who have handled a difficult mission at a time of national soul searching. In a way, they have given this current cabal a chance to leave and the predecessors of either party a option for direction change or effort continuation. Frederick the Great would have approved such generalship in defense of a difficult position.

Posted by: Bill Keller | April 23, 2008 8:53 PM

My analogy of comparing Carter's military experience to comment on general officers' appointments with that of a law student wannabe's writing a SC brief introduced the entire line of discussion of Bush's SC nominations?
I stand by my original estimate of your intelligence.

Posted by: Oakton | April 23, 2008 8:54 PM

And your missing its relevance to what kind of comments your going to see on the WaPo confirms my sense that your not here to converse but rather to rant and smear.

Enjoy yourself.

Posted by: Bullsmith | April 23, 2008 8:59 PM

Excellent roundup. It'll be interesting to see how this effects Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Posted by: Mark Eichenlaub | April 23, 2008 9:17 PM


I'm interested in your take on the following article.

Mukasy is playing the National Security card on criminal gangs? What gives?

Yeah, criminals COULD do any of the things listed in the article but I doubt they would. Criminals, almost more than ordinary citizens, are dependent on not overturning the apple cart. It's much easier to mug somebody when your city isn't under martial law.

I suppose you could make the argument that criminals tend to be short-sighted and stupid but I have troubles understanding why criminal activity NEEDS the weight of National Security to get the job done and I'm very concerned that we may see our rights further eroded in the name of security.

Posted by: Pluto | April 23, 2008 9:52 PM

oakton, your shortsightedness is embarassing. do you really think someone who leaves the military before the golden payoff at 20 years is somehow frozen in mental development at the rank they left? isnt your president a former junior officer?

Posted by: jwin | April 24, 2008 5:46 AM

It's good to see the Army still promotes officers according to the same principle as in my day: f--- up and move up.

George Casey -- did a bang-up job watching Iraq slide into sectarian warfare. Promoted to Chief of Staff of the Army.

Petraeus -- lays the groundwork for America to stay in Iraq for 100 years. (Thanks McCain) Promoted to CENTCOM, where he can launch other colonial ventures.

Odierno -- fueled the insurgency in the Sunni triangle during his first command. Rewarded with a second command where he did some good.

Only thing left is for the president to give these guys all the Medal of Freedom or whatever on his way out.

Posted by: Westmoreland's Ghost | April 24, 2008 11:17 AM

The heavy hitting and major bone crunching is still done by LTG Stan McC. and his merry band of men!

Posted by: The Gipper! | April 24, 2008 12:43 PM


You are not going to win any arguments by calling people morons. Furthermore, you continue to miss the point regarding the possible replacement of Petraeus, et al. if a democrat happens to win the White House (not at all an unreasonable possibility).

While it is unusual for a combatant commander to be replaced at the change of an administration, these are unusual times. As you admitted, Presidents have replaced commanders for political reasons in the past. Adm. Fallon was removed for political reasons very recently.

Whatever Gen. Petraeus's skills as a commander (and I for one, think he is perhaps the brightest one around), he has been, either by his intent or not, very closely associated with this administration's Iraq policy (can't really call it a strategy). Remember the op-ed piece he wrote for this newspaper just before a Presidential election in 2004 talking about how well things were going in Iraq. Rightly or wrongly, that can be viewed as a pretty political move.

Personally, I think the piece was a little bit out of his lane as a military commander. I think he crossed the line into public advocacy of the administration's approach. That made him a political figure. He himself stepped into the political realm and hitched his wagon to the administration. So if a democrat is elected in November, it would not be surprising or unwarranted for the new President to replace Petraeus as CENTCOM commander.

However, he is so skilled and so bright that I would hope he would find himself in another command and possibly end up as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Odierno is another matter. He is not as apparently burdened with any political affiliations. However, if it is true that he has spoken at the Heritage Foundation, it might suggest that he, too, has hitched his wagon to the GOP horse.

Commanders, like any other citizen, have the right to speak their mind and affiliate with whomever they choose. But Presidents also have the right to put in place commanders who they are confident will properly execute their policies. There is no doubt that these two generals are outstanding officers and public servants. But they have said things and acted in a way that might give a new President reason to question whether they will be able to carry out his (or her) policies in the way that he envisions.

Mr. Carter, I am sure, was not attacking the skill or dedication of anybody. I think he was just stating the political reality of the situation. No need for you to take it personally.

Posted by: DM Inf | April 24, 2008 12:59 PM

Who is Petraeus replacing and why? Not mentioned in the articles.

Posted by: janece | April 24, 2008 1:30 PM

Oakton: If you are telling the truth that these are former colleagues of yours and you at the same time run around calling people morons and making assessments of their intelligence, how does that reflect on your former colleagues? It seems to me that the US army has a problem with its intelectual attitude, anyone not agreeing with your consensus is automatically a "lefty tool"/"moron" etc. This leads a long way to explain why you invaded Iraq *without any godamn plan of occupation*. I mean, Shineski etc. were not with the party line, so they obviously were a bunch of morons, right?

Now creep back into the cave if namecalling is all you got, sir.

Posted by: fnord | April 24, 2008 1:36 PM

It is true in a narrow sense that incoming Presidents do not fire their predecessors' four-stars immediately after inauguration (i.e. January). However, four-stars who are too closely identified with perceived failures of the previous administration tend not to be retained after their current tours expire, nor are their two- and three-star proteges promoted to replace them, a more tactful but no less effective way to purge the inherited bureaucracy.

For example, in 1953, Admiral William Fechteler had only been chief of naval operations for two years when the new president declined to reappoint him to the second half of the normal four-year term. President Eisenhower felt that a new chief executive deserved to appoint his own military advisors, and wanted to make a clean sweep of Truman's Joint Chiefs of Staff, who had not distinguished themselves during the ongoing Korean War.

When General David Jones completed his four years as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Reagan administration made a big point of replacing "Carter's chairman" with General John Vessey, whom Carter had passed over as Army Chief of Staff when Vessey declined to endorse Carter's plan to pull troops out of South Korea.

More recently, Rumsfeld et. al. swept into the Pentagon in 2001 intending to sideline so-called "Clinton generals" like Shinseki. And Peter Pace would not have been replaced early as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff if the Democrats had not taken the Senate in the 2006 midterm election.

So yes, a perceived affiliation with the Bush administration and its policies is very much relevant when predicting which senior officers will continue to be allowed to shape the military under the next President.

Posted by: morinao | April 24, 2008 1:49 PM

I don't think there is a large political price to pay for replacing any of these guys. Lord knows, Generals that disagreed with the Bungler got early retirement parties, nary a peep out of the media or the Republican party. If Clinton or Obama make wholesale changes to the command structure who's going to complain? These generals have backed an endless war the American people are unwilling to fight, if a Democrat is elected, doesn't that mean they should be replaced since that is no longer the policy? I don't mean to suggest they aren't "good soldiers", they were simply chosen for their views by the current administration, it seems highly likely the next administration has different views, shouldn't they be allowed to assemble a team to implement their vision?
Once upon a time, soldiers mixing in politics was frowned on by the military. That is no longer the case and the 4 stars don't seem hesitant at all to speak their minds on purely political questions. Why should they then be insulated from the consequences of loosing a political argument?
It doesn't enhance our war fighting capability, but then again they aren't trying to do that when they prevaricate during congressional hearings. If your going to climb in the tank with the sharks, you better expect to get bit.

Posted by: DIjetlo | April 24, 2008 4:49 PM

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