Female generals aim for top US post: President is urged to consider one of four women to head the Joint Chiefs of Staff

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The Independent Online
AMID suggestions that a woman should be considered as Bill Clinton's top military adviser, 16 US generals and admirals are dining at the White House tonight, parading their political and diplomatic skills in front of their Commander-in-Chief. Mr Clinton must decide before the end of the month on a new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

No female generals are among the guests and some influential people in military circles are asking why not. If Mr Clinton can appoint a woman to be Air Force Secretary, why not a woman as the principal military adviser to the President, the Defense Secretary and the National Security Council? Women make up about 11 per cent of the US military, and there are 21 female generals and admirals on active duty.

The current chairman, General Colin Powell, the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs, steps down next month and Mr Clinton has been presented with a wish-list of generals by the Pentagon. Because admirals and army generals have filled the post for 11 years, tradition would dictate that the next chairman would be an air force officer, but officials say the President has an open mind on the subject.

Traditionalists in the Pentagon argue that none of the female generals and admirals is qualified by seniority, none has four-star rank or battlefield command experience. But Admiral William Crowe, Gen Powell's predecessor, noted in his memoirs that it mattered more what Gen Powell understood about civilian and military bureaucracies than about tanks.

Lawrence Korb, who was an assistant defence secretary under Ronald Reagan, says these critics ignore the fact that women do everything in the military except command combat units, and also ignore the 'unique perspective a woman could bring to the post'. He points out that Gen Powell's expertise came not from serving in the field but from attending war colleges and civilian universities, as well as long experience in Washington. Several female generals fit that bill.

Mr Korb names four women he thinks would be qualified for the job, including army General Claudia Kennedy, 46, marine General Carol Mutter, who is 48, air force General Karen Rankin, 50, and Admiral Looise Wilmot, also 50. He also points out that previous presidents have not hesitated to pick less experienced officers: General Earl Wheeler, chairman 1964-1970, was primarily a staff officer with little battlefield experience.

The leading candidate is marine General Joseph Hoar, who succeeded General Norman Schwarzkopf at Central Command, which covers the Middle East and trouble-spots such as Somalia. No marine has ever served as chairman, but that might fit Mr Clinton's desire to break with tradition.

The new chairman will have to deal with severe domestic strains as well as distant conflicts. High on the agenda are such touchy topics as how to shrink the forces budget, what to do about homosexuals and sexual harassment and how best to deal with the fact that some of the uniformed rank and file still look askance at their Commander-in-Chief for avoiding the draft in the Vietnam War.