Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Gen. Pace, the Pentagon, and Paris

If TV news is any guide, the American people are more worried about whether Paris Hilton has to spend another night in jail than the single most critical issue facing this country today. Apparently the media has confused the polls showing decreasing public support for the White House’s handling of the Iraq war with its own Nielson ratings.

What are these people thinking?

On Friday Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that he was replacing General Peter Pace as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest-ranking position in the uniformed services and the President’s number one military advisor. I learned about the Secretary’s rather stunning decision while channel surfing, dropping in on the end of his announcement as it was being covered live on CNN. As the press conference ended, CNN shifted to their Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr to get some perspective on the Secretary’s announcement.

When asked by news anchor Betty Nguyen whether this might be an effort by Sec. Gates to separate himself from the conduct of the Iraq war to date, Ms. Starr replied “Since he's come in, Secretary Gates has taken great pains, actually, in many of his dealings with the news media, to distance himself with the conduct of the war as it was in the past. This appears very much to be another step…” A Defense Secretary trying to distance himself from the war?

Ms. Starr then went on to comment on Gen. Pace’s proposed successor, Admiral Michael G. Mullen, the current Chief of Naval Operations, at which point Ms. Nguyen broke in, saying, “Barbara, we thank you for that. We're going to talk more about it at the top of the hour. We do have some live pictures out of California and Paris Hilton that we want to talk about.” [See CNN's transcript at: http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0706/08/cnr.04.html]

Incredulous, I switched to the other news stations, only to find that they were already staked out at the Hilton home or the courthouse, and had clearly not even covered the Secretary’s announcement.

Secretary Gates made clear that his decision not to renominate Gen. Pace to a traditional second two-year term as Chairman was not a reflection on Gen. Pace’s qualifications for the job -- far from it. Mr. Gates went out of his way to stress that this was, in fact, a political decision designed to mute criticism of the Administration’s Iraq policy, stating his fears that the Senate confirmation process would be “quite contentious,” and would focus “on the past, rather than the future.”

Whether the decision to nominate Adm. Mullen will significantly deflect Congressional attacks on the White House during his upcoming confirmation hearings remains a question for another day.

That this major development in the evolution of the White House’s Iraq policy -- a policy that will be the centerpiece of the Bush presidency’s legacy and that will likely influence U.S. foreign and military policy for decades to come -- can finish second in the minds of the media and the public to such meaningless celebritology is mind-boggling to me. Also not terribly surprising.

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