A Democratic challenge to Gen. Peter Pace indicates that uniformed officers no longer are exempt from the partisan fire on Capitol Hill once reserved for civilian policymakers.
Last Friday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates made the stunning announcement that he would not recommend Pace to serve a second two-year term as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Marine Corps four-star general had not been a target previously of Democrats' ire on the war, but Gates said lawmakers made it clear the confirmation process would be ugly.
"It would be a backward looking and very contentious process," Gates said at a Pentagon news conference.
The announcement was a surprise, particularly because the Senate in recent months confirmed other military officers with close ties to the Iraq war with little fuss.
Showing some muscle
In January, Senate Democrats helped confirm Gen. David Petraeus to take over the Iraq war despite their opposition to Petraeus' recommendation that the U.S. send thousands more combat troops into Iraq. The following month, Democrats endorsed Gen. George Casey as Army chief of staff after he led the Iraq war for 2 1/2 years.
Their approval kept with a long-held tradition on Capitol Hill that lawmakers level any stinging critiques at civilians and praise uniformed officers for their service to the nation.
"General Casey knows Iraq and the challenges the Army faces there," Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in February. "The principal failures that led to the chaos in Iraq were due to the civilian leaders."
But when it came to Pace, Levin signaled a new era in which uniformed officers close to the president would be held accountable.
In an interview with reporters this week, Levin said Pace's nomination would have been more contentious than other uniformed officers because he was the closest military adviser to the president on a failing war.
Levin also noted the White House had hammered Democrats for approving Petraeus' nomination while opposing the general's recommendation to send more troops to Iraq.
"So by the president's and the White House's own logic, a vote for or against Pace then becomes a metaphor for where do you stand on the way the war is handled," Levin said.
Other senators expressed a similar view, indicating Democrats would no longer back the once popular Marine Corps general.
"General Pace has served the nation and the Marine Corps with great fidelity for over 30 years," said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I. "But, at this time, I believe that Secretary Gates has made the right decision."
Although House members lack the power to confirm military officers, they too appear willing to break from the tradition of not criticizing the military leadership. Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher said Wednesday she thought Pace was guilty of a dereliction of duty because of his support for President Bush's Iraq policy.
Tauscher, D-Calif., a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said Pace lost standing among members in March when he said homosexual acts were immoral and that the military should not condone the behavior by allowing gays to serve openly. He later apologized, including in a personal letter to Tauscher, for expressing what he said were his personnel views.
Tauscher said his comments on gays "showed his ignorance" and "had to be deeply discounted because they came from a man who had presided over a war that we got into on a lie and what I consider to be a serious dereliction of duty in having our troops and our readiness so destroyed by the policies of this administration."
Pace's demise comes amid increasing frustration by Democrats on their ability to force Bush's hand on the Iraq war. Following a meeting with the president and his top advisers on Wednesday, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq "the great divide in the room."
"We all want stability in the Middle East, we all want peace, we all want a place that people can prosper," Schumer said. "But it is our view it really can't happen unless the policy in Iraq changes. It's their view that the policy in Iraq furthers stability in the Middle East, and it's hard to see that happening as things continue to decline, whether it's in Iran, in Syria, in the Israel-Palestinian conflict."