In a small, windowless office with barren walls in the Pentagon's E-ring, four-star Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright sits behind an empty desk. He's spent the month of August on "terminal leave," tying up the loose ends of his 40-year military career, in which he rose to become the second-highest-ranking uniformed military man in the nation, before losing his chance at one final promotion.
"Hoss," as he's known to his friends, was always a controversial figure within the military aristocracy: a Marine with a penchant for technology, an iconoclast who made his reputation bucking the conventional wisdom, an insider who was always trying to force the Defense Department to think outside the box. He was often impolitic and caught up in controversy, but his determination to drive the discussion on things like missile defense, cyberwarfare, and military strategy made him stand out as the general who talked straight and wasn't afraid to ruffle feathers.
It was these very qualities that made him "Obama's favorite general," according to Bob Woodward's book Obama's Wars. When asked whether that was true, Cartwright said he believed it was -- once upon a time. He also acknowledged that Obama promised to promote him to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but then reneged on that pledge after a whisper campaign against Cartwright, reportedly coming from within the Pentagon, made his appointment politically difficult for the White House.
But looking back he has no regrets.
"I wouldn't change anything. I wouldn't do it any different," Cartwright told The Cable, in the first interview he's given since stepping down. His retirement became official this week.
The break between Cartwright and his two bosses, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen, came after the contentious debate in late 2009 over the surge of troops in Afghanistan. Cartwright worked with Vice President Joseph Biden on a plan that placed a greater emphasis on counterterrorism than counterinsurgency, and included a smaller footprint with fewer additional troops. They presented that plan to Obama without the prior approval of Gates and Mullen.
Gates has publicly denied that this episode cost Cartwright the chairman's job and said in June that "Hoss Cartwright is one of the finest officers I've ever worked with."
But Cartwright acknowledged in his interview with The Cable that his insistence on giving options for alternative policies in Afghanistan, alternatives Gates and Mullen didn't like, caused a falling-out that along with the whisper campaign in which critics accused him of insubordination and leaked details of an inspector general's investigation into a possible relationship he had with a female aide (he was later cleared of any wrongdoing), scuttled his chances to take the chairman's seat.
"Yeah, they did make it personal," Cartwright said, though careful not to name Gates or Mullen in particular as being behind the effort to smear him. "But at the end of the day, that's their choice. I can live with this skin very easily."
"At the end of the day, the measure of merit was not necessarily whether the relationships were strong," he said. "The measure of merit was: All the things that I needed to do as vice chairman, all the things that Chairman Mullen and Secretary Gates needed to do, none of that stuff ever suffered as a result of this.… The department never suffered. The war fighter never suffered."
Regardless, the Biden-Cartwright plan, known as "counterterrorism plus," eventually lost out to a plan much closer to the counterinsurgency heavy approach that Gates and Mullen were advocating. Cartwright said he never thought he was breaking the chain of command or committing insubordination by dealing directly with Biden or Obama.
"Well, you know, in someone's eyes, maybe I broke the chain of command. But from the standpoint of the law, no. And so I'm very comfortable with where I was," he said. "My job is not to come up with a strategy and say, 'This is the answer.' My job is to give the president and the administration a broad enough range of choices that are credible choices and let them find in it the broader strategy as they look across all the other elements of power that they have."
Within those choices for how to proceed in Afghanistan, Cartwright was in favor of a "counterterrorism plus" approach that would have required fewer surge troops.
"Actually, I was arguing more about balance," he said. "In other words, I believe that if you weren't going to put enough force in to control the entire country, then the tied-down force had to have its flanks protected. And therefore you had to have a mobile force that was more counterterror-type force than you did."
Many in the war-fighting community believe that Cartwright just didn't get it because he never led troops in battle. He rose through the ranks as a Marine aviator and then spent most of the last decade as the head of U.S. Strategic Command or as a top Pentagon official. For the soldier on the field in Afghanistan, Cartwright's idea for fewer troops just placed the troops in battle in greater danger. For many in the military, the choice was to go big or go home.
But Cartwright says he just didn't see it that way -- and when the president asked him for his own opinion, he was bound to give it to him. And he still stands by the advice he gave. Cartwright's view is the emphasis should be on finding ways to wind down the war more quickly and leave Afghanistan in the hands of the Afghans.
"At the end of the day, from a grand strategy standpoint, this is a very cost-imposing strategy on us and, not having a clear idea of how long we're going to stay other than until the cash runs out, is important to understand," he said. "You can't kill your way or buy your way to success in those activities. It's got to be diplomatic. And Afghans have to be convinced that it's time for them to do their own thing."
At his retirement ceremony on Aug. 3, which Mullen and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta attended, Cartwright quoted Teddy Roosevelt's famous speech, "In the Arena," which begins, "It's not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds might have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena."
This week, he said the pushback he received was the unavoidable consequence of doing his duty.
"If getting criticized was my worry, if that was the merit of the job, then I wouldn't be there anyway. You do what you think is right," he said. "At the end of the day, you do your own self-reflection. You look in the mirror and you say: Is the integrity where it belongs? Is anything you provided in the way of advice so far off the base as to be reprehensible? I never came to the conclusion in either case that either the integrity had suffered or that the advice was bad advice."
As he sits in his uniform at his empty office, Cartwright thinks about what he wants to do next. He said he might enter a think tank or academia while he decides how to contribute to military policy from the civilian side of the discussion. He leaves the Pentagon with a sense of accomplishment and without remorse.
"My advice wasn't always taken, but it always at least informed the debate, which was my measure of merit," said Cartwright. "That people were so strongly against it at times, well shoot … these are big decisions."