President Barack Obama is looking for a new candidate to lead American and allied forces in Europe after his first choice, Marine Gen. John Allen, bowed out Tuesday and announced his intention to retire for what he called personal reasons.
The move further clouds the picture for Obama as he repositions key figures on his national security team and in key military leadership roles. The White House is fighting for Senate confirmation of Chuck Hagel as defense secretary; a confirmation vote was stalled last week by Republicans but is expected to happen next week.
Obama also is switching commanders at Central Command, which is responsible for U.S. military operations throughout the greater Middle East, and Africa Command.
After meeting with Allen at the White House, the president issued a brief statement praising Allen's service. He called the 57-year-old Allen "one of America's finest military leaders, a true patriot, and a man I have come to respect greatly."
Allen appeared to be a shoo-in as the next top commander of allied forces in Europe. Obama nominated him last Oct. 10, but in November, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta stunned many by announcing that Allen was being investigated for potentially inappropriate email exchanges with a Florida socialite, Jill Kelley. Panetta put Allen's nomination on hold.
Last month, shortly before Allen completed a 19-month tour as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, the Pentagon announced that Allen had been cleared of any wrongdoing and the White House said it was prepared to re-nominate him for the Europe job.
Even so, it was not clear that Allen would choose to go ahead with a Senate confirmation hearing, given the nature of the email probe.
Allen is held in high regard by Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee, which would have voted on his appointment, and he was expected to win full Senate confirmation. It came as no surprise to many on Capitol Hill when Allen was cleared of wrongdoing in the email probe, which several lawmakers had indicated was not as troublesome as some had initially suggested. The actual emails between Allen and Kelley were never made public.
One of Hagel's biggest detractors, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., showered Allen with praise Tuesday, saying the nation owes him a great debt and "his leadership in the future will be missed."
An Iraq war veteran with a reputation as an astute strategist, Allen took over in Kabul in July 2011, succeeding Gen. David Petraeus, who quit to become CIA director. Allen relinquished command Feb. 10 to a fellow Marine general, Joseph Dunford.
Allen said retiring from the military was "the only choice I could make." Although he did not explain his reasons in detail, he said "my primary concern is for the health of my wife, who had sacrificed so much for so long." He served 38 years in the Marine Corps.