WASHINGTON — Facing what he expected to be a "contentious" renomination process in Congress, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced Friday that he won't name Marine Gen. Peter Pace to another term as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and will replace him with a Navy admiral.
Gates said he'd initially planned to ask Congress to allow Pace to remain in the job, but that he changed his mind after both Republicans and Democrats told him that Pace's renomination hearing would focus "on the past rather than the future."
Pace, who served four years as the Joint Chiefs vice chairman before he was named the chairman in 2005, has become increasingly unpopular on Capitol Hill as frustration has grown over the war in Iraq. Previously, Pace had headed Southern Command in Miami.
Gates said he'd name Adm. Mike Mullen to the post. The chairman is officially the highest ranking military officer and the chief adviser to the president on military matters.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which would have considered Pace's nomination, praised the decision. He said Gates had asked him to survey fellow senators.
"I found that the views of many senators reflected my own, namely that a confirmation hearing on General Pace's reappointment would have been a backward-looking debate about the last four years," Levin said in a statement. "I think going in that Admiral Mullen is well-qualified."
Pace's two-year term expires Sept. 30. To serve another two years, he would have needed a waiver because he'd already served the maximum six years as either the chairman or the vice chairman.
Even Republicans who planned to support Pace said the confirmation would have been about the country's frustration with the direction of the war.
"Rightly or wrongly, we all know it would have turned into a trial of past mistakes in Iraq at a time when we should be looking forward," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
There'd been signs that portended change. During a news conference May 24, Gates dismissed a question about whether he'd renominate Pace with a curt, "That's in the future." Pace was just feet away.
Gates also announced that he'd name Marine Gen. James Cartwright to be vice chairman, replacing Adm. Edmund P. Giambastiani Jr., who'd announced earlier this month that he planned to retire. Cartwright currently heads Strategic Command, which oversees the nation's nuclear arsenal. It's customary for the chairman and vice chairman to come from different military branches.
Republicans were quick to praise Pace and Giambastiani for their service and to endorse Mullen's nomination.
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., made it clear that the confirmation process would be a forum for dissecting Bush administration policy in Iraq.
"Senators will be looking very closely at Admiral Mullen and General Cartwright's views to make sure they are committed to changing course in Iraq," Reid said in a statement. "Both men must be advocates for our troops, not for a failed policy."
Gates said his decision "had absolutely nothing to do with my view of General Pace's performance."
In describing Mullen, Gates said he had "tremendous strategic sense." Mullen is a 1968 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy.
Gates said he hadn't decided who'd replace Mullen in his current post.
Pace's departure is the latest in a string of Defense Department personnel changes since Democrats took control of Congress in last November's elections, which generally are thought to have been a rebuke of administration policy in Iraq.
Bush replaced Donald H. Rumsfeld with Gates the day after the elections. In the months since, there've been a new commander at Central Command, which overseas U.S. military operations in the Middle East, a new commanding general and No. 2 in Iraq and a new U.S. ambassador to Iraq.
Mullen has had little day-to-day involvement in Iraq policy. Last month, while fielding questions from sailors at Pearl Harbor's Sharkey Theater in Hawaii, he said he thought that the war on terrorism would last years.
"The enemy now is basically evil and fundamentally hates everything we are, the democratic principles for which we stand," he said. "This war is going to go on for a long time. It's a generational war."
A former senior Army officer, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, said Mullen's nomination was certain to rattle some senior Army and Marine officers because he's the third Navy commander to be named to a top-level post at a time when the United States is in ground wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"This is going to raise some extraordinarily perplexed eyebrows among some ground people," he said.
(Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report.)