In nominating Army Gen. David Petraeus as chief of U.S. Central Command in Tampa, President Bush rewarded the general who implemented his controversial troop surge and ensured that the current strategy in Iraq would continue into the next administration.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced the pending nomination Wednesday six weeks after Adm. William Fallon, the outspoken CentCom commander, announced his resignation.
"I am absolutely confident he is the best man for the job," Gates said of Petraeus, the troop commander in Iraq, at a news conference. Noting that Fallon's exit was unexpected, Gates said, "I'm faced with a critical combatant command where a commander is needed ... who knows what's going on in the region."
The nomination, which must be confirmed by the Senate, is neither a surprise nor a sign of a major shift in Middle East policy, military analysts say. CentCom's headquarters is at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa and is responsible for operations in 27 countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan.
To Bush's critics, the nomination shows that the administration won't brook a commander like Fallon, whose views on Iraq troop levels may have differed from the president's.
"It's absolutely zero surprise and means absolutely no change'' in American policy in the Persian Gulf, said Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information, a Washington think tank.
"President Bush will leave office as he came in: listening to nobody who isn't seen as a team player," Wheeler said.
Others praised Petraeus' elevation and said he may be the commander most responsible for a reduction in violence in Iraq in the last year as a proponent of Bush's "troop surge."
"Gen. Petraeus will now bring the consummate skill and experience he had developed over a lifetime in uniform to the significant task of guarding our national security interest in a challenging and vital region," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Gates said he expected the Senate to confirm the nomination as part of a personnel shuffle that may yet take months.
Petraeus will be asked to stay in Iraq until the summer or fall, Gates said.
In the meantime, Army Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, Fallon's top deputy, continues as acting CentCom commander.
Bush will nominate Army Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno to replace Petraeus in Iraq, where Odierno has served as the four-star general's deputy commander.
Petraeus, 55, was in Baghdad and was not granting interviews.
Analysts say Fallon may have fallen out of favor with Bush by pushing too strongly for a quicker reduction of troop levels in Iraq. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius described Fallon as "a headstrong blowtorch of a man speaking truth to power."
It also was clear to many that Petraeus, Fallon's nominal subordinate, had Bush's ear. He reportedly spoke to Bush weekly, a relationship that may have grated the career naval officer.
But the last straw for Fallon might have been a recent article in Esquire that portrayed him in glowing terms and said he could be the only thing standing between Bush and war with Iran.
Fallon called the article inaccurate but acknowledged it made his position at CentCom untenable.
"Petraeus' management style may end up being much different than his predecessor," said Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores.
Nonetheless, Young said he does not see Petreaus as Bush's rubber stamp.
Fallon upset some at MacDill when he eliminated up to 1,100 positions at headquarters in the last year, nearly a third of CentCom's total staff.
CentCom officials declined comment, so it remains to be seen if Petraeus plans to reverse Fallon's cuts.
Petraeus told Congress earlier this month that he has recommended to Bush that the United States complete by the end of July a withdrawal of 20,000 troops from Iraq.
Then, Petraeus said, he proposes a 45-day period to assess if further pullouts are warranted. Bush has endorsed the plan.
Petraeus told Congress that Iraq's armed forces continue to improve, violence is reduced and political reconciliation among religious factions is continuing.
But Petraeus has said he would be unlikely to support any additional troop buildup. "That would be a pretty remote thought in my mind," he said.
Senate Democrats promised to take a close look at Petraeus' nomination, though confirmation is expected.
With a presidential election looming, however, the traditional stint of up to four years for a CentCom commander is not guaranteed.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in a statement that any war commander must be committed to "implementing major changes in strategy" if directed to do so by a new president.
But some said Bush had few viable choices as Fallon's replacement.
"Gen. Petraeus was the obvious choice, the only choice," said Chet Richards, a former CIA analyst and Air Force colonel. "We'd all be scrambling to figure out what signal Bush was sending if he didn't nominate him."
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. William R. Levesque can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3436.