WASHINGTON — Within weeks, roughly a dozen of the U.S. military’s most popular and highest-ranking officers will begin rotating out of some of the highest-profile jobs in the armed forces.

Those due for change this year include the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the vice chairman, several service chiefs, NATO’s supreme allied commander Europe and other combatant commanders, as well as the Afghanistan War’s commanding general and his top two deputies.

In the Pentagon, the musical chairs hinge on President Barack Obama’s selection of the next chairman. Adm. Mike Mullen is set to retire Oct. 1, after serving a second two-year term. Since last fall, the leading candidate to replace him has been the vice chairman, Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, although he has not been asked.

Cartwright’s term officially ends in August, but several military sources close to the selection process say the top candidates have received no indication of the timing of the president’s decisions, due this summer.

If Obama calls Cartwright to the chairman’s seat, the rest of the picture becomes fairly clear, according to senior military and civilian defense sources who spoke to Stars and Stripes on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the selection process or because they were not authorized to discuss pending personnel decisions.

Former Iraq War commander Gen. Ray Odierno is the top candidate to succeed Cartwright as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the No. 2 ranking military officer. NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe Adm. James Stavridis is the top candidate for chief of naval operations, the Navy’s seat on the Joint Chiefs, succeeding retiring Adm. Gary Roughead.

If Cartwright is passed over, the tea leaves get cloudy.

Cartwright as chairman?

Cartwright gained public notoriety last fall when Bob Woodward reported he was “Obama’s favorite general” in the book “Obama’s Wars,” which has been spotted under the arms of many senior Pentagon officials. But other Pentagon and White House leaders have sneered at the attention, even seeming less enamored with Cartwright this year, according to several officials.

In March, news broke that the Defense Department Inspector General had investigated Cartwright last year for alleged misconduct on a March 2009 trip to Tbilisi, Georgia. Cartwright spent “several hours alone” with a drunken female subordinate in his room talking on a bench at the foot of his bed, where she was found slumped over asleep the next morning, witnesses told the Defense Department.

According to a mostly redacted report made available to the public, the inspector general recommended Cartwright be punished for his “failure to correct,” and behavior “not consistent with standards for executing leadership responsibilities,” over what they found to be the second public drunken incident by the subordinate, who has remained unnamed.

Cartwright rejected the inspector general’s findings and said he was counseling a distraught and intoxicated staffer appropriately and privately through a personal emotional crisis. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus found the charges were not substantiated.

One military official close to the investigation said many believe word of the report was leaked to reporters specifically because of Cartwright’s candidacy for the chairmanship.

That Cartwright never served in Iraq or Afghanistan and has never deployed in combat has not been loudly protested among senior ranks, two officials said.

Odierno in Cartwright role?

If Cartwright can make it through, many believe his likely replacement would be Odierno, the celebrated former Iraq War commander.

“No one can tell with any certainty what move is next, but I’m as certain of anything that Odierno will be vice,” said a defense official with intimate knowledge of the selection process.

Odierno returned from Baghdad in September to take over Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Va., which Defense Secretary Robert Gates promptly ordered shuttered by the end of this summer. Odierno is well-known in Washington from serving as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s senior military adviser and is respected on Capitol Hill.

If Cartwright is passed over, Stavridis could be in line for chairman or vice chairman, three military officials said.

In that scenario, Odierno would be considered to take the NATO command, two military officials agreed. A strong candidate for vice chairman would be Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz. One defense official said other NATO candidates being discussed include Gen. Lloyd Austin, the Iraq War commander, and Gen. Carter Ham, who became U.S. Africa Command commander in March. Vice CNO Adm. Jonathan Greenert, a submariner, then could step up to CNO.

Odierno also is being considered for chairman, two officials said, but he is a long shot because he assumed his first combatant command less than a year ago. One senior military official has said not to be surprised to hear Gen. Martin Dempsey, the new Army chief, floated as an outside alternate.

What about Petraeus?

That leaves the administration with one key placement: Gen. David Petraeus.

“There is a lot of chatter and a lot of speculation out there right now about what General Petraeus may do in the future. And all of it is premature and thus we aren’t commenting,” his spokesman, Col. Erik Gunhus, said.

Petraeus is expected to leave his Kabul-based command of International Security Forces Afghanistan, and has confirmed discussions to make him director of the CIA. But in the Pentagon, talk of him as the next chairman has all but disappeared, leaving many wondering whether he is worn down and ready to leave the military.

“Anyone who thinks Gen. Petraeus is exhausted hasn’t run with him at 6,000 ft. altitude here or gone on a battlefield circulation with him lately!” one alliance officer from Kabul who knows Petraeus well said in an email. “And I can tell you that Gen. Petraeus is not eager to leave Afghanistan; as a matter of fact, it’s well-known that he pledged to see this through another fighting season if that was necessary.”

But several military sources say Petraeus’ replacement likely will be Marine Lt. Gen. John Allen, Central Command’s deputy commander.

That move would bypass Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, the ISAF training commander. Caldwell wrote an opinion piece in the Chicago Tribune in February that one defense official said took the Joint Chiefs by surprise and was considered bad form by some because he celebrated the “unnoticed” work of his own command. Caldwell has served in that post since October 2009 and is due for a rotation.

Meanwhile, Gates announced that the war’s operational commander, Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, will be promoted and replaced by Lt. Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, commander of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., and former commander of Afghanistan’s eastern regional operations.

With the clock ticking, Pentagon officials are left waiting and wondering their fates. Some blame three unexpected major events in delaying the administration’s decisions: the Japan earthquake and tsunami, the Libya bombing campaign and the budget showdown.

Sources close to some candidates say they’ve yet to see any significant behind-the-scenes vetting. But many of those officials expect announcements to begin coming down soon, to give the administration and Congress adequate time to line up confirmation hearings this summer.

Unless he gets the call, Cartwright faces retirement in just more than 90 days.

Twitter: @StripesBaron

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now