A deeply respected general gets the boot - and one wonders why

The Baltimore Sun

Gen. Peter Pace - the first Marine Corps officer to serve as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - is being precipitously let go.

In a surprise announcement last week, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said that General Pace wouldn't be renominated to a second term. Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chief of naval operations, would take over when the general's term expires Sept. 30.

As the highly qualified, deeply respected Pace is being ushered out the door, it is reasonable to wonder why. Is it because he was doing a lousy job? Not according to Mr. Gates, who said that terminating General Pace had "absolutely nothing to do" with his performance and expressed disappointment that circumstances "make this kind of decision necessary." What those circumstances are, exactly, is anyone's guess. Mr. Gates said only that General Pace's reappointment to another term would have proved a "divisive ordeal."

Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, apparently let Mr. Gates know that confirmation hearings for General Pace would focus on the past rather than the future, and that the process "would be quite contentious."

Well, we can't have that. We're at war, the stakes are high, and we're told that contentious debate is out? It is better, presumably, that we install someone who won't cause a stir. Someone who thinks more like the Democratic majority, perhaps. Someone who, let's say, doesn't think that homosexuality is immoral.

Flash back to March 12 and recall that General Pace, in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, said he believes that homosexuality is morally wrong. He later expressed regret for his remarks, saying he should have kept his personal beliefs to himself. But the die was cast.

When it comes to certain social issues, particularly those based on moral belief, a person is well advised to keep his thoughts to himself. Whether that single remark would cause General Pace's removal seems doubtful.

Others surmise that his replacement by a Navy admiral is sending a message to the Army to shape up. Still others say the move is a way for the Democratic Congress to further undermine President Bush.

What we do know is that even in wartime, everything is political. Thus, a better route to understanding may be to pose the question raised by Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness: "Cui bono?" Who benefits?

One doesn't need much of a running start to make the leap to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who also sits on the Armed Services Committee. No one benefits more from his removal than Mrs. Clinton, who would have had to vote for or against the man and be stuck with a position that could hurt her.

As the Democratic candidate for president, she couldn't endorse General Pace, now identified in some quarters as anti-gay. Her husband is responsible, after all, for the 1993 "don't ask, don't tell" policy that evolved as a compromise to his campaign promise to lift the ban on gays in the armed forces.

As a future commander in chief, Mrs. Clinton could ill afford to be perceived as siding with the liberal agenda and the gay lobby, which continues to push for the original Clinton promise. Democratic Rep. Martin T. Meehan of Massachusetts has reintroduced his 2005 bill to lift the "don't ask, don't tell" policy and the law barring professed homosexuals from the military.

Though General Pace's views may be moral issues for him, they reflect the secular concerns addressed in the 1993 statute defining military personnel eligibility (it has no name other than Section 654, Title 10). The statute prohibits homosexuality for strictly secular reasons in the service of military objectives: unit cohesion, military discipline, order and morale. It's not about the rights of gays to serve, but about the rights of non-gays to be protected from forced intimacy with people who may be sexually attracted to them.

Bill Clinton's policy accomplished little more than lifting the "Are you homosexual?" question from military induction questionnaires.

There's no telling for now what kind of backroom understandings may have led to General Pace's walking orders. Maybe it was really all about a new beginning. But the pained expression on Mr. Gates' face and his oblique responses to questions during his news conference suggested something else.

Kathleen Parker's syndicated column appears Mondays and Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is kparker@kparker.com.

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