President Obama is expected to unveil a new strategy for the war in Afghanistan later this week. One man who will play an integral role as the U.S. and its allies prepare to ramp up operations there is Navy Adm. James Stavridis, who has been tapped to be NATO's top military commander.
If confirmed, Stavridis would be the first Navy officer to fill a post that's traditionally been held by Army generals. Dwight Eisenhower was supreme allied commander before he went on to the presidency. He was followed by, among others, Alexander Haig, Wesley Clark and President Obama's current national security adviser, Jim Jones. Jones also broke the mold, as a Marine Corps general.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced Stavridis' new post last week. He noted that Stavridis speaks French, Spanish and a little Portuguese, and that he would bring the right mix of military and diplomatic know-how to NATO.
"I would say that Jim Stavridis, both in terms of knowledge of how things work here in Washington, but also in terms of his diplomatic skills, is probably one of the best senior military officers we have," Gates said.
Straight From One To Three Stars
Larry Di Rita, a spokesman for Bank of America, met Stavridis at the Naval Academy in the '70s. Years later, they both found themselves at the Pentagon working as aides to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. They spent many an hour deep in the bowels of the Pentagon. That's where the squash courts are, and DiRita says he's been trying to beat Stavridis even since their academy days.
"Jim was — is pretty darn good," Di Rita says. "He'll outlast ya. He's in extremely good physical condition, and he'll just outlast ya."
Di Rita also says that Stavridis was one of Rumsfeld's favorite partners.
"The secretary took his share of games off him, but Jim is a pretty darn good player," Di Rita says. "He beats me most of the time, that's for sure."
Stavridis must have made a shrewd decision early on not to beat his bosses too often, because his career has flourished. He first commanded a ship at sea in 1993, when he took the helm of a Navy destroyer, the USS Barry.
From there, Stavridis kept working his way up, both inside the Pentagon and at sea. He wrote speeches for the secretary of the Navy and commanded a carrier strike group in the Persian Gulf. By the time he made admiral, it was clear that Stavridis' career was on an unusual fast track.
"He went straight from one to three stars," skipping the rank of two-star admiral altogether, says his friend and Naval Academy classmate John Allen.
By 2006, Stavridis had ascended to four stars and the position he holds today as top U.S. military commander for Latin America and the Caribbean.
A High Point: The Colombia Hostage Rescue
Perhaps the high point in Stavridis' tenure was the rescue last summer of three Americans who had been held hostage by rebel forces in Colombia for five years.
The actual operation was carried out by Colombian Special Forces. But the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, Bill Brownfield, says Stavridis was so closely involved that in the weeks leading up to the raid, the two of them were talking three or four times a day.
"Since he was the senior military guy on the ground offering the senior military judgment on this, he was well out on a plank along with me in this regard," Brownfield says. "So I say it's not only a question of brains, it's also — quite frankly — a question of guts."
Stavridis talked about the hostage rescue, among other things, at a Senate hearing last week. He opened his testimony with a joke about being the only Navy guy among the four senior officers testifying.
"I'm very fortunate to be joined by three generals," he said. "As a Navy admiral, I always feel good to have generals around me. I feel` a little safer."
Stavridis' friends say a move to Europe would, in a way, bring his career full circle. Retired Vice Adm. Kevin Green notes that Stavridis' doctorate focused on NATO security issues. Today, those issues include Russia's relations with the alliance and France rejoining the command structure.
Green says Stavridis is already reading up, especially on the challenges ahead in Afghanistan.
"This is a fellow who does his homework," Green says. "And that process is in high gear."