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 Gates said that Pace wouldn't be renominated to a second term. In his place, Adm. Mike Mullen, current chief of naval operations, would take over when Pace'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 Gates, who said that terminating Pace had ``absolutely nothing to do'' with his performance. In fact, Gates had sent the names of Pace and his second in command, Adm. Edmund Giambastiani, to the White House for approval.
Gates said he was disappointed that circumstances ``make this kind of decision necessary.'' What those circumstances are, exactly, is anyone's guess. Gates said only that Pace's reappointment to another term would have proved a ``divisive ordeal.''
Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, chair of the Armed Services Committee, apparently let Gates know that confirmation hearings for 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 Pace, in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, said he believes that homosexuality is morally wrong. Pace 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 Pace's removal seems doubtful. Others surmise that his replacement by a Navy admiral is sending a message to the Army to shape up. Mullen has said that one of his first priorities is to upgrade the Army. 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 Clinton, who also sits on the Armed Services Committee and who, you may have heard, is running for commander in chief. No one benefits more from Pace's removal than 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, Clinton couldn't endorse 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.
Though Pace's views may be moral issues for him personally, 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, and otherwise caused confusion.
There's no telling for now what kind of backroom understandings may have led to Pace's walking orders. Maybe it was really all about a new beginning. But the pained expression on Gates' face and his oblique responses to questions during his news conference suggested something else.
And the Clintons, as always, bear watching.