Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Challenges and Perhaps More Influence

As President-elect Barack Obama convened the first meeting of his national security advisers on Monday, there was just one person at the table whom Mr. Obama did not choose to have there: Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

He did not really choose Gates, I'd say, as much as accept him. A prudent choice, nonetheless.

Admiral Mullen, who was selected by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates for a two-year term, has been on the job for a year. Come January, he will face perhaps the biggest challenge of his career: pivoting from one commander in chief to another, in the middle of two wars. Friends describe him as an even-tempered, intellectually curious and politically astute presence who sees the world beyond the immediate battles of the Pentagon and the White House, all skills that they say will serve him well in the new administration.

Seems a good choice made by Gates. The Admiral is son of a Hollywood press agent who counted Ann Margret, Anthony Quinn and Julie Andrews among his clients. It was a different day then than it is now; Mullen grew up in what seems much a middle class home, and relied on a scholarship to go to college, and he got one when he was recruited to play basketball for the Naval Academy at Annapolis. So the President and the Admiral have basketball in common. A good thing, having something personally in common.

“He’s not dogmatic or doctrinaire, and he’s also not a lap dog,” said Lt. Gen. Gregory S. Newbold of the Marine Corps, who retired in 2002 after objecting to Mr. Rumsfeld’s plans for a small Iraq invasion force and then aired his views in Time magazine as part of what became known as a “revolt of the generals” against Mr. Rumsfeld in 2006.

Lap dogs are bad for effective governing and military strategy. Mullen now speaks to some of those generals who revolted against Rumsfeld. That is very good.

These days Admiral Mullen gives regular dinners at his 19th-century home on a small naval compound near the State Department, where the walls are hung not with medals but with framed Playbills from nearly every Broadway show that he and his wife have attended. Recent guests have included Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser to the first President Bush who enraged the second when he publicly warned against war with Iraq. Mr. Scowcroft is now advising Mr. Obama.

Scowcroft, himself a retired military, is enjoying a prominent role these days, an elder statesman with impeccable credentials.

Admiral Mullen has also reached out in recent weeks to Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, who is retired and was reviled by the Bush administration for saying publicly on the eve of the Iraq war that far more troops would be needed than had been committed by the Pentagon under Mr. Rumsfeld. General Shinseki has since been chosen by Mr. Obama to be secretary of veterans affairs.

Also good that Mullen reached out to Shinseki, another one of Obama's great choices.

Adem Altan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images — Adm. Mike Mullen, who is serving a two-year term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has a world view that friends say is closer to that of President-elect Barack Obama than to President Bush.

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