Joint Chiefs Nominee Mullen a 'Problem Solver' Adm. Mike Mullen, whom Defense Secretary Robert Gates wants to be the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is a pragmatist who did not favor the troop "surge" in Iraq, his friends say. The Navy chief's confirmation hearing is this summer.

Joint Chiefs Nominee Mullen a 'Problem Solver'

Joint Chiefs Nominee Mullen a 'Problem Solver'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is recommending that the Navy's top officer, Adm. Mike Mullen, be nominated by President Bush to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Pentagon's highest-ranking officer and the senior military adviser to the president.

Mullen's confirmation hearing is expected sometime this summer, as early as July. If he is confirmed by the Senate, he will take over in September from Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the current chairman and the first Marine to hold the job.

Mullen is seen as a problem solver and a pragmatist. He did not favor the so-called "surge" in U.S. forces in Iraq — the added 30,000 American troops that are now patrolling Baghdad and Anbar Province in an effort to tamp down the violence. Friends and associates say Mullen worries that the Army is stretched too thin in Iraq, and that he complains that Iraqi officials are not doing enough to make the needed political and economic changes in their country. He will likely push for reductions in U.S. troops through this year and next.

A Hollywood Childhood

Mullen, 60, is a 1968 Naval Academy graduate who hails from Hollywood. His parents were in the movie industry. His father worked as a press agent for MGM Studios and his mother was a secretary for comedian Jimmy Durante. Mullen was recruited to the academy to play basketball. The yearbook describes the lanky "Mullo" as an easygoing midshipman with a "quick smile and amazing wit," who also played soccer and lacrosse on fields that stretch along the Severn River in Annapolis, Md.

He never planned on making a career in the Navy, but he forged strong friendships at Annapolis. His classmates included Sen. James Webb, the Virginia Democrat, Iran Contra figure Oliver North, and retired Gen. Mike Hagee, who recently stepped down as the Marine Corps' top officer.

Mullen is now the most senior admiral in the Navy, a distinction known among sailors as "the Old Salt." He has two sons who are Navy officers, one of whom has served a tour in Iraq.

"He has the highest sense of integrity," Hagee says. "He also has the common touch. By that I mean he can talk with seamen. He can talk with admirals."

Mullen arrived at the academy in 1964. Not long after, American combat troops were sent to Vietnam. Mullen graduated and found himself on a destroyer, which was shooting shells at enemy positions off the coast. He began his career at the start of one unpopular war; now, it appears he will end his career helping to extricate America from another one.

Mullen is not considered one of the brainy futurists or crusaders who once surrounded Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. He is more in the mold of the Pentagon's pragmatists: Gates and Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England.

"All the people at the top of the Pentagon today, including Admiral Mullen, are problem solvers," says Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute. "When they look at the war, they don't consider it a crusade for democracy. They think about how to fix a problem that clearly is not going very well."

Favors Reducing Troop Levels

Thompson says Mullen will likely be among those pressing for cuts in American troops in Iraq, which now number around 160,000.

"There's not much evidence high levels of troops have made a difference," Thompson says. "Second, there is increased concern that the casualties among U.S. troops will undermine the U.S. effort even further, making it impossible to put together any solution to the problem we face."

Those casualties are partly a result of the hefty increase in U.S. troops. Many troops are patrolling away from their secure bases, in more dangerous neighborhoods, inner-city outposts or police stations in remote parts of Anbar Province. Over the past two months, the death toll for American troops has risen and it's expected to spike right through the summer. Friends say that, like other top officers at the Pentagon, Mullen did not favor this "surge;" he saw it as too little, too late.

Retired Adm. Bob Natter, a fellow academy graduate and long-time friend, says Mullen worries that the political and economic problems in Iraq are not being addressed. There has been no movement on an oil law, reforming the strict de-Baathification law or expected provincial elections.

"He very much understands this is as much, if not more, of a political issue for the Iraqis to resolve as it is a military issue," says Natter. He says Mullen is also concerned that Iraqi forces are still not ready to take over.

'Close Call' on Sept. 11

Mullen has spent years in command at sea and at the Pentagon, where he was stationed on Sept. 11, 2001. He was at a budget meeting with then-chief of naval operations Adm. Vern Clark when American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the building. Mullen said it felt like an earthquake in his native California.

His nearby office filled with smoke. His staff said they could feel the aircraft roll under their feet four stories below.

Mullen scrambled to make sure his staff was safe, then made his way out of the Pentagon and into a parking lot. He borrowed a cell phone to call his wife Deborah, then walked some six miles along the highways to the Navy Yard with a Pentagon official. It was all so quiet and eerie. It reminded him of a 1950s movie called On the Beach, which depicts survivors of a nuclear war.

"It was a close call. Maybe it's fate, maybe it's not," Mullen told Carl Tamulevich, a close friend and classmate at the academy. The two men play golf together in Annapolis whenever Mullen can cut loose from the Pentagon.

Eye-Opening Experiences in Italy

Mullen went on to get a sort of graduate-level course in terrorism: He went to Naples, Italy, to take charge of the NATO Joint Force Command and of all U.S. Navy forces in Europe. There, he observed the danger of al-Qaida's spreading reach in Europe and North Africa. He worried that the military remained structured around Cold War-era concerns and was unprepared to deal with this unconventional threat. He believed that the military must work more closely with the FBI and the CIA to get its arms around terrorism.

From his perch in Naples, Mullen saw the Pentagon with new eyes — as an agency mired in budgets and procurement plans, turf battles and inter-service rivalries. "They forget it's one team and one fight," Mullen told one Washington official.

It was that insight that impressed Defense Secretary Gates, who recalled that his top military assistant asked Mullen what concerned him most. "The chief of naval operations said, 'the Army,'" Gates recalled, when announcing the selection of Mullen.

When Mullen became chief of naval operations in 2005, he sent thousands of sailors to Iraq to fill in for overstressed Army and Marine forces. Now Mullen worries that those sailors are becoming stretched as well.

"I've seen our leading edge explosive ordnance technicians over there who are very much leading the fight. And I am concerned — their pace is very, very high," Mullen said recently on the Navy's Web site.

Easing the demands on U.S. troops will be a key question for Mullen. His confirmation hearing will be held this summer.

Related NPR Stories