White House favorite for chief military adviser might retire

The field to become the next Joint Chiefs chairman is considered a small one — but defense sources say a White House favorite might soon hang up his uniform.

With the term of Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen expiring in October, President Obama will soon begin mulling who should be his new chief military adviser.

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Atop many Washington defense insiders’ lists to replace Mullen is Gen. James Cartwright, the sitting Joint Chiefs vice chairman. The Marine Corps general greatly impressed Obama and other White House officials during the administration’s 2009 Afghanistan policy review, sources say.

What’s more, White House officials feel “Cartwright was really terrific on the new START nuclear weapons treaty,” said Larry Korb, a former Pentagon official now with the Center for American Progress. “They really like him. It’s known they want Cartwright for chairman.”

But the White House might not get its man. Sources say Cartwright likely will end his 41-year military career this fall, when his term as vice chairman will expire.

“I am aware of Gen. Cartwright's intent to retire,” said one senior Pentagon official, who requested anonymity because “I have not heard of a formal request.”

Several sources close to Cartwright say the Marine general likely will hang up his uniform when his term as vice chairman expires in October. One called retirement “a likely outcome.”

Maj. Clifford Gilmore, Cartwright’s spokesman, told The Hill on Jan. 13 that Cartwright “intends to serve out his current term,” adding his boss has yet to make a decision on what will come next.

Some defense insiders said the retirement talk could be a smokescreen designed to shield Cartwright’s behind-the-scenes pursuit of the chairman post.

One thing is certain, says Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute: “The likely retirement by Gen. Cartwright would really open up the competition for chairman of the Joint Chiefs.”

If Cartwright retires, “it could open the door to the Air Force or Army getting back the top job -- something those services have been shut out of for some time,” Thompson said.

The chairman post has been held by a four-star Navy or Marine Corps official since October 2005.

Cartwright is widely respected around Washington, including on Capitol Hill. He is considered one of the military’s top thinkers.

In recent months, another candidate has emerged: Adm. James Stavridis, U.S. European Command chief and NATO’s supreme allied commander for Europe. Like Cartwright, Stavridis is well-respected in Washington and known for a razor-sharp intellect.

Cartwright’s potential retirement could open the door for a current service chief who had previously been mentioned as a vice chairman candidate: Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz.

The former U.S. Transportation Command chief took over as air boss after Defense Secretary Robert Gates fired his predecessor and the service secretary. Those moves were prompted by the Air Force misplacing nuclear weapons, resisting Gates’s desires and botching several tries at buying new airframes.

Defense sources say Schwartz has a robust resume chock-full of joint assignments, and has earned the respect of Gates and other key officials for bringing the Air Force through tough times.

And while Gen. David Petraeus’s name is also mentioned, sources doubt the Afghanistan commander and former U.S. Central Command chief has the kind of trust from the president needed to be chairman.

“I doubt they would want Petraeus in there,” Korb said. “Not only would there be trust issues, but it would open the possibility of a challenger to Obama on defense issues.”

Most recently, Cartwright’s name had surfaced as a candidate to become Obama’s new national security adviser. When another former Marine Corps four-star general, James Jones, left that post, the job went to then-deputy national security adviser Thomas Donilon.

In August, online trade journal DoD Buzz reported Cartwright would soon leave his vice chairman post. That report did not mention retirement.