Gen. Allen retires; Who gets NATO, now?

Gen. John Allen has pulled his name from consideration for the top military job in Europe, citing the health of his wife Kathy and his desire to support her and his two daughters.

The decision creates an opening the White House must now scramble to fill, since Adm. James Stavridis, the current Supreme Allied Commander and head of U.S. European Command, has been in the job since June 2009. That is nearly a year longer than most combatant commanders serve, and Stavridis is thought to be eager to retire.

Foreign Policy’s Situation Report first reported last week that Allen was considering declining the job in Europe. The formal announcement today now sets off jockeying by other services and flag and general officers to position themselves for what remains a coveted combatant command.

Last month, Allen was exonerated by an investigation that looked into potential improper e-mails between him and Tampa socialite Jill Kelley. Although he was cleared, some media reports about his resignation indicate that Allen was forced out by the White House or that he was trying to avoid a contentious confirmation hearing that could force the Pentagon to release the e-mails.

But Allen’s citing his family may well be true. Kathy Allen has for years suffered from a combination of chronic health issues that include an autoimmune disorder, according to a report posted Tuesday by the Washington Post. Compared to the job of war commander, the job in Europe is seen as an easy one. But it has a brutal schedule that keeps that commander on the road as much as 20 to 25 days each month, according to sources. That would make it difficult for Allen, who just ended a 19-month tour in Kabul, to be there for his wife. “Right now, I’ve just got to get her well,” Allen told the Post. “It’s time to take care of my family.”

Marc Chretien, Allen’s longtime civilian adviser, said that unlike most cases in Washington where public officials cite family as a convenient excuse to mask other reasons for professional decisions, it’s true in Allen’s case. “Where 100 different people can cite family reasons as the reason for their retirement, General Allen is one out of 100 who is doing it exactly for those reasons,” he said in a brief phone interview.

President Barack Obama issued a statement Tuesday saying: “John Allen is one of America’s finest military leaders, a true patriot, and a man I have come to respect greatly. I wish him and his family the very best as they begin this new chapter, and we will carry forward the extraordinary work that General Allen led in Afghanistan.” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that Allen had proven himself to be one of the country’s “most outstanding battlefield leaders, a brilliant strategist and an exemplary Marine, and I am deeply grateful for his many years of dedicated service to our country.”

In 2006, Allen was a respected Marine one-star cutting his teeth in Iraq as he and others nurtured the Awakening Movement that brought Sunni sheiks back from self-imposed exile in Jordan and other countries to drive al Qaeda out of Anbar province. Known as a southern gentleman with shrewd political skills, Allen rose quickly, all but skipping the two-star rank.

As he neared the end of a long tour in Kabul last fall, he was nominated to in the dual-hatted role as commander of European Command and Supreme Allied Commander, Europe. The nomination was seen as a capstone job that could nevertheless put him in position to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But soon after Allen was pulled into the scandal that felled David Petraeus.

FBI agents on the Petraeus case discovered e-mails between Kelley and Allen, and Panetta asked the Pentagon’s inspector general to investigate. Initially, some 30,000 pages of correspondence were at issue, but investigators ultimately focused on several dozen e-mails -- some of which Allen’s own wife Kathy had been included on. Investigators concluded last month, however, that nothing improper had taken place between Kelley and Allen.

Names already being floated for the job in Europe include Gen. Jim Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps; Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, now commander of American Mobility Command; Gen. Phil Breedlove, the current top Air Force commander in Europe; Adm. Bruce Clingan, the current top Navy commander in Europe; Army Gen. Chuck Jacoby, who commands Northern Command; Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Sandy Winnifeld; Gen. Robert Cone, the commander of U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command; and Adm. Bill Gortney, the commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command.

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call