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William J. Crowe Jr., at 82; led Joint Chiefs of Staff during '80s crises

WILLIAM J. CROWE JR. WILLIAM J. CROWE JR. (Associated Press)

WASHINGTON - William J. Crowe Jr., the Navy admiral who held the nation's top military job as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as the Cold War neared its end and who in retirement publicly criticized military and presidential decisions, died of cardiac arrest yesterday at Bethesda Naval Medical Center in Maryland. He was 82.

Admiral Crowe, a nonconformist whose background combined political skills with military experience, led American troops through crises ranging from the 1986 air raid on Libya to the showdown with Iran over control of the Persian Gulf. He also shortened the military chain of command, broke down interservice rivalries, and developed an unprecedented relationship with the head of the Soviet military that helped prevent military confrontations between the two superpowers.

Admiral Crowe also quickly defused a brink-of-war situation with an immediate apology in 1988 after a US warship in the Persian Gulf mistook a civilian jetliner for an Iranian F14 attack fighter and blew it out of the sky, killing 290 civilians.

Those and other actions led The New York Times to call him "the most powerful peacetime military officer in American history."

One of the few joint chiefs who had never led his own branch of service, Admiral Crowe was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1985. He declined a request from President George H.W. Bush to serve a second four-year term. But unlike the MacArthurian generals who quietly fade away, Admiral Crowe made his retirement years strikingly public.

He condemned the military's antigay bias and the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, the first officer of his stature to do so. He criticized the buildup to the first Gulf War, endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton when others questioned his lack of military credentials, served as chairman of two boards charged with investigating the bombings of the embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, then warned about insecure US embassies a year after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Three years ago, Admiral Crowe was among 27 retired diplomats and military commanders who publicly said the administration of President George W. Bush did not understand the world and was unable to handle "in either style or substance" the responsibilities of global leadership.

Admiral Crowe said the most crucial event of his chairmanship was when he told Reagan that military leaders strongly opposed a proposal Reagan had made to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to eliminate all ballistic missiles in 10 years. Those missiles were the backbone of the US submarine- and land-based missile deterrent.

"If he had heard my remarks, it was not obvious to me," Admiral Crowe wrote in "The Line of Fire" (1993). But Reagan's proposal disappeared without a trace. From that point on, he was fully accepted by others on the National Security Council.

As a leader, he was an independent thinker, noted for his shrewd geopolitical analysis as well as military strategy.

In a 47-year military career, Admiral Crowe commanded US forces in the Middle East, was the commander-in-chief of NATO forces in southern Europe, and led the nation's largest military operation in terms of geography, the US Pacific Command. He was also chairman of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board under Clinton.

His first military assignment was on a destroyer-minesweeper; he then joined the submarine service. After a master's degree in personnel management from Stanford in 1956, Admiral Crowe got his first command in 1960, on a diesel sub, the Trout.

Later, in Vietnam, he was refused command of a surface ship, so the not-yet-admiral became an adviser to the Vietnamese river force, known as the "brown-water Navy" that plied the Mekong Delta. He did well, exercising his diplomatic and political skills, but his next post was lobbying Congress on the status of Micronesia.

Finally, in 1974, Admiral Crowe's work in Vietnam paid off, and he was promoted to rear admiral. He became deputy director of Navy planning and went on to the Pentagon's "Little State Department," the International Security Affairs Office, specializing in East Asia and the Pacific.

Back at the Pentagon in 1977, he was put in charge of plans, policy, and operations. Through that office, the Navy jousted for missions with the other branches of service.

In 1983, due to his shortage of sea commands, he lost a chance to be commander in chief of the Atlantic fleet. But he was sent to the equivalent post in the Pacific. That's where he had the opportunity to impress Reagan and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger in 1984, with a brilliant, unscripted presentation. The next year, he was made chairman of the joint chiefs.

Clinton appointed him ambassador to the United Kingdom in 1994, a job he held for three years.

After returning to the United States, Admiral . Crowe divided his time between teaching at the University of Oklahoma and studying military issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

He was a four-time recipient of the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, and his military awards also include the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star, and an Air Medal. In 2000, Clinton gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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