Now that President Obama has filled most of the senior national security positions, there's one crucial spot left: chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The front-runner is Marine Gen. James Cartwright. He's favored by the White House and has an impressive resume of military and academic honors, but he's lacking in one department: any fighting experience.
That poses a dilemma for the Obama administration: At a time of two long wars and intervention elsewhere, should the nation's top military officer be a general who hasn't fought in any conflict?
The White House substantially remade its national security team last week, formally tapping CIA Director Leon Panetta as the next Defense secretary and bringing Gen. David Petraeus home from Afghanistan to replace Panetta at the CIA.
But the White House was silent on who should replace Adm. Mike Mullen as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Mullen, who enjoyed an unusually close relationship with retiring Defense Secretary Robert Gates, is scheduled to leave his post in October.
Senior Pentagon and White House officials say that Cartwright, the current vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, is the front-runner to ascend to the top slot.
Cartwright has long been seen as one of the military's brightest stars and has served as a four-star general since 2004. He has a mastery of complex technological issues like missile defense. During the administration's heated Afghan war debates last year, Cartwright won plaudits from many senior White House aides—and angered many in the military, including Mullen—by bucking the Pentagon's leadership and working independently to provide Obama with more options for escalating the conflict than the president had received from the armed forces.
In Obama's Wars, Bob Woodward writes that Cartwright worked behind the scenes with Vice President Joe Biden to refine a so-called "hybrid" plan that would have limited the Afghan war surge to 20,000, far less than other senior Pentagon officials—including Mullen, his nominal boss—had recommended. Woodward writes that Mullen felt Cartwright had improperly gone beyond his back, while Cartwright felt he was simply fulfilling his legal obligation to provide independent military advice to the White House.
But there is a bigger question looming over Cartwright—the fact that he has never served in a war zone or commanded troops in either Iraq or Afghanistan. People both in and out of the military believe that effectively disqualifies him, particularly since Cartwright comes from the Marine Corps. Along with the Army, the Marines have done most of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 90 percent of the roughly 6,000 American troops killed in the two wars were either soldiers or Marines. It's also extremely rare for a chairman of the Joint Chiefs from the Army or Marine Corps to lack combat experience: Gen. Hugh Shelton, the most recent Army officer to hold the post, served in Vietnam and the first Gulf War, while Gen. Peter Pace, the last Marine to serve in the job, fought in Vietnam.
"Senior military leaders should have practiced their profession if wars happen during their careers," said retired Army Col. Bob Killebrew, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. "For all our advanced degrees and triple-vowelled civil affairs doctrines, the whole purpose of the military profession is to fight; intelligently if possible, but fighting remains at the center of the business. If all other things are equal, we must promote the fighters."
Cartwright's many defenders argue that his long record of senior Pentagon postings—including his two terms as vice chairman—give him an unparalleled understanding of the complexities of the chairman position, which doesn't involve commanding troops in combat but requires a keen mastery of managing the Pentagon bureaucracy and dealing with Congress and the White House.
Looming over the specific questions about Cartwright's future is a broader question about the nature of modern warfare itself: In guerrilla conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan, which lack defined front lines and keep senior officers far from the fighting, just how important is it for a general to have actually served in a command position there?
Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Charlie Dunlap, who recently stepped down as the service's deputy judge advocate general, warned that senior officers with extensive experience in Iraq or Afghanistan might suffer from "this-war-itis" when a chairman of the Joint Chiefs should have "next-war-itis," which allows them to focus on possible future conflicts with nations like China.
"Combat experience is a great asset, but the absence of it should not be a disqualifier for someone who otherwise has demonstrated leadership in difficult situations," Dunlap said, emphasizing that he was not specifically referring to Cartwright. "Moreover, the ability to demonstrate moral courage inside the Beltway may well be the most needed qualifier for the next CJCS."
Many of those who are skeptical of Cartwright—either for his lack of combat experience or his perceived closeness to Obama—believe the chairman job should go to Adm. James Stavridis, who commands NATO and all U.S. forces in Europe and is widely respected in military circles for his keen intellect and diplomatic savvy.
Stavridis, like Mullen, is a Navy officer who has commanded forces at sea but never in Iraq or Afghanistan. That is seen as less of an issue for Stavridis than it would be for Cartwright because the Navy hasn't been as involved in Iraq and Afghanistan as the Army and Marine Corps.
Regardless of how much importance Obama ultimately chooses to place on a nominee's combat experience, the president won't have much time to decide who he wants in the job. Cartwright’s term ends in August, and he'll retire if he's not chosen to succeed Mullen. Panetta won’t assume the helm of the Pentagon until July 1 at the earliest, which means that he and Obama will have to almost immediately make a call that could reshape the future of the Pentagon.