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Bush’s Pick for Top Military Post Reflects His Pentagon Priorities

By Craig Gordon
NEWSDAY -- WASHINGTON

President Bush’s choice for the United States’ top military officer, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, comes with hands-on experience with the president’s key Pentagon priorities: space-based defense, the Asian theater and a sweeping but troubled military restructuring.

Bush nominated Myers to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, calling him “the right man to preserve the best traditions of our armed forces while challenging them to innovate to meet the threats of the future.”

Myers, 59, went from a childhood fear of airplanes to flying combat missions over Vietnam, and most recently was vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He also has commanded U.S. forces in the Pacific, and he headed the Air Force Space Command until last year.

In that post, Myers became an expert in computer and space warfare, leading some analysts to say his choice reaffirms Bush’s commitment to press ahead with a missile-defense system, even as Democrats in Congress, European allies and some inside the Pentagon question its need, cost and effectiveness.

That issue is likely to be one of the most contentious facing Myers, but several analysts also said they believed he would use a self-effacing, level-headed demeanor to smooth differences inside the Pentagon and out.

“I think Myers is a pragmatic choice. I think he’s for reform, but I don’t think he’s going to upset the apple cart,” said Ivan Eland, director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank. “He’s very pragmatic and realistic about what missile defense can do. You don’t get up that high in the hierarchy by having rabid, radical views.”

In another controversial area, Myers is working on a major strategic reassessment of America’s military in the post-Cold War era, ordered by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and due next month. Rumsfeld has talked of the need for a smaller and more rapidly deployable fighting force, but that, too, has run into strong opposition in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, where some already are lining up to oppose possible base closings.

Several analysts said Myers’ experience in the Pacific fits well with the Bush administration’s increased focus on threats in the region, particularly from China and North Korea.

“The experiences that he’s had cut across all of the priorities which the administration seems to have enunciated in the eight months it’s been in office,” said Dan Smith, chief of research for the Center for Defense Information, a military affairs think tank.

At a news conference in Crawford, Texas, where Bush is vacationing at his ranch, Myers said he was “eager to get back to work to building the kind of military that President Bush envisions.”

If confirmed by the Senate, Myers will replace Army Gen. Henry Shelton, who steps down Sept. 30. Myers would be the first Air Force officer to head the Joint Chiefs in almost 20 years.