When the retirement of the CENTCOM Commander, Admiral William Fallon, was disclosed last month, we suggested that his logical replacement was already in theater.
Apparently, Defense Secretary Robert Gates had the same thought. Earlier today, he announced that General David Petraeus, the architect of the successful "troop surge" in Iraq, will replace Fallon in the CENTCOM post. Petraeus's successor in Baghdad will be Army General Ray Odierno, who served as deputy commander of coalition forces during much of the surge. Odierno was widely hailed for his effective implementation of the surge strategy, which dramatically improved security conditions in Iraq.
In making today's announcement, Mr. Gates emphasized that General Petraeus's transition to CENTCOM will be slow and careful. He told reporters at the Pentagon that Petraeus won't arrive at the command's Tampa headquarters until late summer or early fall. That will allow him to remain in Iraq during a critical period, monitoring the security situation, as surge forces depart.
When Petraeus's name first surfaced in conjunction with the CENTCOM job, there was some speculation that he might operate from his Baghdad headquarters on an interim basis, following the example of General H. Norman Schwartzkopf, who led the command during the First Gulf War. After Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Schwartzkopf moved his headquarters to Saudi Arabia and remained there through the conclusion of Operation Desert Storm.
But Gates' comments suggest that Petraeus will remain focused on the Iraq mission during his remaining months in Baghdad, and ensure a smooth transition to General Odierno. Moving CENTCOM headquarters to the forward area--even on a temporary basis--has always been politically sensitive, one reason command remains based at MacDill AFB in Tampa.
General Petraeus will enter the CENTCOM post after Fallon's relatively brief tenure. Admiral Fallon left the position in March, amid reported disagreements with Mr. Gates and the Bush Administration over policies toward Iran. Fallon's deputy, Army Lieutenant General Martin Dempsey, has served as acting commander since the admiral's departure. Fallon retired from the Navy earlier this month; General Dempsey is expected to remain in CENTCOM's number two position when Petraeus arrives at MacDill.
The decision to send General Petraeus to CENTCOM forced a quick shuffle in the Army hierarchy. General Odierno, a veteran of multiple tours in Iraq had been nominated for his fourth star and a posting as the service's Vice Chief of Staff. While he will still get his promotion, Odierno's new job will send him back to Baghdad, rather than Washington, D.C. The vice chief position will now be filled by Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli, another officer with extensive exerience in Iraq. Chiraelli has also been selected for promotion to four-star rank.
Revealing Petraeus's selection for the CENTCOM post, the defense secretary described him as the best man for the job:
"..Mr. Gates said that he and President Bush settled on the four-star general for the post because he is best suited to oversee American operations, not just in Iraq but also in Afghanistan and other areas where the U.S. is engaged in asymmetric warfare, a euphemism for battling terrorists and non-uniformed combatants.
"I am absolutely convinced he is the best man for the job," Gates said.
While most observers expect Petraeus to be quickly confirmed, Senate Democrats may use the general's confirmation hearings to criticize the Iraq War and Bush Administration policies. Two of the three presidential candidates--John McCain and Hillary Clinton--are members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which will question the general as part of the confirmation process.
Mr. McCain, the panel's ranking Republican, is a strong supporter of Petraeus and the troop surge. Mrs. Clinton, on the other hand, criticized General Petraeus during his first "progress report" to Congress last fall, claiming that acceptance of his assessment required the "willing suspension of disbelief."
With Clinton now fighting for her political life against Barack Obama, it will be interesting to see if she goes after Petraeus again, or continues her march toward the political middle, offering support for a commander who reversed a dire security situation in Iraq.
Her Democratic rival, Mr. Obama, is not a member of the armed services committee. However, he will vote on General Petraeus's nomination when it reaches the full Senate.