Let us now praise Adm. Mike Mullen, who earlier this week helped deliver congressional approval of both the New START nuclear-arms deal with Russia and the end of the military's Don't Ask Don't Tell policy toward gay soldiers. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the grayest of gray eminences, a ponderously respectable figure for the Sunday talk shows with none of the electric crackle of a Wesley Clark or a David Petraeus. And yet it's a fair guess that neither of these signal achievements would have been possible without Mullen's very public support.
President Barack Obama acknowledged as much when he thanked Mullen at the Wednesday ceremony marking the repeal of DADT. Obama quoted Mullen as having said, "Our people sacrifice a lot for their country, including their lives. None of them should have to sacrifice their integrity as well," and the shout-out won the loudest ovation at what was a very emotional event. Mullen played an even more crucial, and certainly more delicate, role in the debate than did Defense Secretary Robert Gates, since leading Republicans like Sen. John McCain had said they would look to the service chiefs for guidance, and since senior figures in the Army and the Marines had expressed doubts about repeal. And Mullen -- an appointee, crucially, of George W. Bush -- remained unequivocal throughout, both in testimony and in public comments. "America has moved on," the chairman said. "America's military is ready, by and large, to move on as well." The fact that McCain disregarded Mullen's appeal to vote against repeal says far more about him than it does about doubts within the military.
Mullen played a slightly less visible, but no less important, role on New START, a treaty he had helped negotiate with Moscow earlier in the year. I was on the Hill for the final push on START earlier this week, and its passage was by no means a foregone conclusion. As of Sunday, only two or three Republicans had pledged to vote for the treaty, and, with rising anger among Republicans over the repeal of DADT the day before, there was real fear in the White House that Obama would suffer the public humiliation of failure on an arms-control measure.
That same day, John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, asked Mullen to send him a letter covering the most critical issues surrounding the treaty. The Mullen letter stated that ratifying New START was "vital to U.S. national security"; that the treaty would improve relations with Russia and strengthen the U.S.'s role on nonproliferation; that START "does not in any way constrain our ability to pursue robust missile defenses"; and that absent START's verification provisions, "our understanding of Russia's nuclear posture will continue to erode." On Monday afternoon, Kerry held a classified session of the Senate to allow senators to discuss these issues, and to be briefed by senior Obama administration officials. Kerry read the letter to members at the closed session.
And then, as soon as the session ended, Kerry released the letter to the press. The Washington Post ran an article on it above the fold on its front page the following day. The letter offered jittery Republicans more of the cover they needed to vote yes. "We viewed it as a very helpful letter," a senior Republican staff member told me. After voting for the treaty, Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican and one of the fence-sitters as of Sunday, said, "I am pleased to support a treaty that continues the legacy of President Reagan who signed the first nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia in 1987" -- a point Obama officials had been driving home for months. Corker added, "Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen says the treaty is vital to U.S. national security; I agree."