Leadership: Suck Up To Senators Or Else


June 15, 2007: The recent announcement that General Peter Pace would not be re-nominated to serve as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been misinterpreted by a number of people. Rather than this being a capitulation by the administration, this is the United States Senate deciding to fire General Pace. The misinterpretation, though, is easily explained. In essence, it's because the Senate has the last word on the assignments of three-star and four-star officers in all of the services.

To understand why the Senate has the ability to fire General Pace, the first thing to keep in mind is that every commissioned officer in the United States military has to be confirmed by that body. For those officers from the ranks of ensign or second lieutenant to major general or rear admiral, this is a one-time deal each time they are promoted. Each time they are given a new assignment, they do not require Congressional assent. The Senate also confirms an officer's retirement.

For three and four-star admirals and generals, the rules change. In their cases, the Senate not only votes on promotions and retirements, but also votes to confirm the three-or-four-star general or admiral to each new job, even if there is no promotion involved. In essence, the President of the United States and the Secretary of Defense do not have the final say on those personnel decisions, the U.S. Senate does.

What might lead to the Senate blocking a promotion or a new assignment? Well, a general or admiral may do or say something that greatly displeases a Senator. In 1994, Admiral Frank Kelso's retirement with four stars was challenged by a number of Senators who were trying to make a point about his presence at the 1991 Tailhook convention, which got very wild (to put it mildly). Kelso's retirement as a full admiral was confirmed with a wide margin, but the Senate was tied up with both debate and a floor vote.

In General Pace's case, comments he made back in March regarding the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy may have been what guaranteed a fight for a second term. His comments in support of that policy angered a number of Senators, some of whom were running for President and others who sat on the Senate Armed Services Committee. At the very best, General Pace would have been grilled over those comments by those Senators, who would be preening in hopes of getting support from those who favor using the military as a laboratory for their social experiments.

That, and the Senate majority's general opposition to Administration policy in Iraq, would have made a confirmation battle very difficult, to put it mildly. Furthermore, even if there were a majority of Senators who supported a second, two-year term for General Pace, it might not have sufficed due to the filibuster - it would take as few as 41 Senators to block a confirmation. Or a single Senator can place a hold on a nomination - and the presidential candidates would have clamored to place that hold.

In essence, General Pace was not the victim of the Bush Administration refusing to stick up for him. Instead, key members of the Senate - seeking to please their political supporters, who oppose both the war in Iraq and the "don't ask, don't tell" policy - had decided that General Pace had to go. Since they had the final word on postings for those generals and admirals who have more than two stars, that was the end of the discussion. Pace's termination sends a message to other generals and admirals - don't upset a Senator. It also means that generals and admirals will clam up rather than give frank advice due to General Pace's fate. - Harold C. Hutchison (haroldc.hutchison@gmail.com)


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