Keep America’s Top Military Officer Out of the Chain of Command

Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in the House Appropriations Committee, Feb. 25, 2016.

DoD photo by Army Staff Sgt. Sean K. Harp

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Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in the House Appropriations Committee, Feb. 25, 2016.

I lived through Goldwater-Nichols. Congress should know why it's still a bad idea to give the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who advises the president, that kind of power.

One of the great debates we had within the Senate Armed Services Committee during the deliberations over what became the Goldwater-Nichols Act was a key question: How strong do we want to make the Joint Staff? Today, as Congress and the Pentagon are poised to revisit that historic bill, the same question is creeping back into conversation: how much power should the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff wield – and should that person, the president’s chief military advisor, step into the chain of command?

There was not much question that the authority of the chairman of the Joint Staff needed to be improved. Gen. David Jones, chairman from 1978-1982, got the ball rolling by claiming his authority was insufficient for his responsibilities. Failures in the field led everyone to conclude that reform was needed.

The committee was sharply divided and so was the Defense Department. The Army and Air Force leaned forward on reform. The Navy and Marine Corps leaned back. Not much happened when Sen. John Tower, R-Tex., was chairman of the SASC. Tower was a Navy man and served as a Navy enlisted reservist while he was a senator. But Tower departed in the fall of 1984 and his successor from Arizona was famous for championing the Air Force: Barry Goldwater. (Goldwater actually installed an altimeter in his car in Washington to make a point. I saw it.)

While the job of chairman of the Joint Chiefs would become stronger, we questioned how strong, and that debate revolved around the Joint Staff. Those who resisted a strong chairman argued that there was a great danger if we turned the Joint Staff into a “German general staff”. I was a professional staffer on the Senate committee but I was pretty naïve at the time and didn’t fully appreciate the significance of the debate. I thought of it as a negotiating tactic, referring to an emotionally-charged concept in order to blunt the reform agenda. I was wrong to discount the significance of the debate. Back in 1947 when the National Security Act was adopted, the same question came up. The United States was fresh off the horror of World War II, and no one wanted a powerful military organization that could dictate to civilians. In the 1950s the debate emerged again about the need to strengthen the Joint Chiefs and the Joint Staff. President Eisenhower personally vetoed the idea of a “general staff”.

In the compromises that led to Goldwater-Nichols, the Congress directed that the chain of command go from the president through the secretary of defense and directly to regional combatant commanders. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs was explicitly excluded from being in the chain of command. But the other half of the compromise was the chairman was made the principal adviser to the president and had an independent capacity to report to the president. This compromise led to a dramatically stronger chairman and Joint Staff. Goldwater-Nichols established the practical result that the best officers go to the Joint Staff and other joint assignments. It now has grown dramatically in size and has considerable autonomous power.

Today people again are debating whether we should put the chairman into the chain of command. This will again raise the question are we shifting the Joint Staff into the model of a German general staff? Unlike my immature assessment back in 1985-86, I now reflect on this question having spent time at senior levels in the Defense Department as well as on the outside, evaluating from a detached and somewhat dispassionate perch. 

Groups of people collectively make better decisions than individuals. The compromise embodied in Goldwater-Nichols had genuine genius at its core. The senators understood both organizational and political power, and the complex embrace of those two dimensions in Washington. The proponents of Goldwater-Nichols placed civilian control as the highest design objective for the reform. Performance of the military in the field is ultimately the responsibility of the president. Presidents must be held accountable for the consequences of going to war. If the military failed to perform the mission, it still is the president’s responsibility. No chairman could be in the chain of command and render genuinely objective military advice to the president.   

The senators also knew the dynamics of military bureaucracies as political actors. They knew how powerful the services chiefs are because their institutions bridge over the transition of one presidential administration to another. They establish deep connections with members of Congress and have at their disposal resources that can be attractively used for political influence (for example, expanding the missions at a military base in a member’s district). The senators knew that a strong chairman could become too strong politically if he were in the chain of command. The Joint Staff would become an autonomous political force, threatening the fundamental condition of civilian control that was the heart of Goldwater-Nichols. 

We are back in the middle of that debate again now, and you can read more in my first essay in a series for the Center for Strategic & International Studies’ Defense 360 micro website. The only difference today is Congress is a weaker institution and more susceptible to partisan fault lines. Putting the chairman in the chain of command and creating an American version of a general staff would have astounding political implications, and none of them are good. 

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