The White House is considering nominating a retired general with little recent combat field experience to be the new commander of NATO and U.S. military operations in Europe, a senior administration official has told CNN. The official has direct knowledge of internal administration deliberations on the nomination.
Several officials emphasized that no final decision has been made by President Barack Obama but also confirmed that retired Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, currently a top White House aide, is a leading candidate.
Lute, who retired from the military in 2010, coordinates Afghanistan and Pakistan affairs at the White House, a job he also performed while on active duty for both Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In his White House role, Lute has often clashed with Pentagon and military officials over war policy, including the troop surge in Afghanistan.
If nominated and confirmed by the Senate, he would serve as the head of the U.S. European Command, and as the military head of NATO as supreme allied commander in Europe, at a sensitive time. The United States is trying to keep NATO allies committed to the war in Afghanistan. NATO also could wind up supporting any United Nations tasks in Syria.
While the move to bring back a retired general is very unusual, it is not unprecedented. During his tenure as defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld orchestrated the return to duty of retired Army Gen. Peter Schoomaker to become chief of staff when he felt there were no suitable candidates.
The current commander in Europe, Adm. James Stavridis, was previously commander of U.S. Southern Command in Miami. He is scheduled to retire this summer.
"This is a head scratcher," the senior administration official said of a potential Lute nomination. Several civilian and military officials made similar remarks to CNN but none would allow their names to be used because they were speaking ahead of the actual confirmation. "There is a sense inside the Pentagon that there are highly qualified, currently serving four-star officers with combat experience who would be very strong candidates."
A senior U.S. military officer with extensive combat experience in commanding troops also told CNN, "No matter how you color it, this means the president believes there is no currently serving military officer who can do the job. "The officer expressed further concern saying he believes many in the military will view this as a political decision by the White House to put a now-civilian political operative into a military job overseeing NATO involvement in Afghanistan, offering NATO "best political advice rather than best military advice."
He said, "This is politics a bridge too far."