Commentary Magazine

The Joint Staff

To the Editor:

Edward N. Luttwak’s article, “Washington’s Biggest Scandal” [May], is confusing. He sets up his thesis by claiming that the biggest scandal in town is “nothing less than the collapse of civilian control over the military policies and military strategies of the United States.” The culprit in his piece is the multiservice Joint Staff, accountable to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) for developing policy positions on military matters. Throughout his article, Mr. Luttwak blames the Joint Staff for everything from the Clinton administration’s confused Balkan policy to its flawed and increasingly irrelevant “Bottom-Up Review” of America’s defense needs. After thus laying the blame for America’s post-cold-war strategic drift at the doorstep of the Joint Staff, he rather surprisingly concludes that “the only true remedy” to the problem is “to keep a very strong Joint Staff” balanced with competent civilian leadership.

As I have been able to piece it together, then, the logic of Mr. Luttwak’s argument is: we need a strong Joint Staff. We have a strong Joint Staff. That strong Joint Staff cannot come up with satisfactory answers to America’s strategic imperatives without equally strong civilian leadership. We do not have strong civilian leadership. Therefore, the Joint Staff is responsible for the collapse of civilian leadership over the military. And it is a scandal, to boot.

Mr. Luttwak’s confusion seems to spring from his frustration with the man whom he terms “that most manipulative of generals,” former JCS chairman, General Colin Powell. To Mr. Luttwak, General Powell personified the strength that the Joint Staff obtained in the wake of the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act which, inter alia, made the chairman of the JCS the principal military adviser to the President and made the Joint Staff accountable to the chairman, rather than to the corporate body of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Mr. Luttwak raises General Powell’s objections to lifting the ban on homosexuals in the military and to deeper involvement in Bosnia as proof of the general’s “contemptuous” manipulation.

But what appears to Mr. Luttwak as manipulation was strangely unobservable when there was competent civilian leadership in the Pentagon and, indeed, the White House. I served on the Joint Staff (Strategy and Policy Directorate) for two years during General Powell’s tenure, from 1991 to 1993. I can say without qualification that there was no doubt on the Joint Staff to whom we were (collectively) subordinate. Our clear guidance was to find consensus with the civilian staff of the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) on policy issues. That sometimes meant overruling parochial concerns of the individual armed-service staffs in order to find a position that would be compatible with OSD objectives. And there was never any doubt whence our guidance came: from the chairman via the three-star director of the Joint Staff. Moreover, it seemed obvious that the OSD staff had similar guidance from then-Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney. Thus, in the interagency process by which national-security policy is made in Washington, we simply never entered a meeting with our State Department and National Security Council staff counterparts without a consolidated (and thereby stronger) OSD/Joint Staff position. This mutually reinforcing attitude permeated every level of the Pentagon and was reflected in the close and respectful relationship between Secretary Cheney and General Powell.

Washington’s real scandal, which Mr. Luttwak seems unwilling to confront, is that this close cooperation was dashed when it became clear that the new civilian leadership ushered in with the Clinton administration was as often as not uninterested in the Joint Staff position on important policies. Consider the military “gay ban,” which was symbolic of the new “spirit” of civil-military relations after January 1993. If President Clinton could announce such a bold policy change without having asked for or received military advice from his principal military adviser, what could be expected from President Clinton’s civilian subordinates in the Pentagon on issues that were not nearly as visible or sensitive? The situation has devolved to the point that now Joint Staff officers are often not informed of or invited to interagency meetings by their OSD counterparts. At other times, OSD staffers will issue positions on a given issue to their opposite numbers in uniform on a “take-it-or-leave-it” basis. To some extent, of course, this new approach does reflect a certain civilian control over the military, but not in any healthy or productive sense.

Mr. Luttwak is at least intellectually honest enough to acknowledge the leading role he played in the defense-reform debate that led to the Goldwater-Nichols legislation. The upshot of that debate was that a collection of armchair strategists and retired officers foisted upon a very reluctant military a reorganization designed to do the very thing that Mr. Luttwak and others now decry; to wit: dampen interservice parochialism by creating a powerful chairman and Joint Staff. In his own book on the subject, Mr. Luttwak went so far as to suggest that the nation’s chief military officer—the director of the National Defense Staff, in his formula—be of five-star rank; he felt at the time that even the term “‘chairman’ has weak, commercial connotations.”

Thank you, Mr. Luttwak, for your memorable contributions to defense reorganization. At least have the modesty to back out of the problem now and let the nation figure out how to deal with the very real, if unintended, consequences of a streamlined and exceptionally professional military staff under incompetent civilian leadership.

Larry Di Rita
The Heritage Foundation
Washington, D.C.



To the Editor:

Edward N. Luttwak simply will not let up on involving American armed forces, or more specifically, the U.S. Air Force (USAF), in other people’s business. It is not at all clear just how that force would solve the “ethnic-cleansing” problem in Bosnia, and Mr. Luttwak sheds little light on the problem except to assert that the Air Force can do the job. Presumably his assertion is based on the stellar performance of the USAF in the air war over Iraq in the winter of 1991. However, if the air war was so effective, why is Saddam Hussein still in power? The truth is, and this is a lesson that many refuse to learn, that the ground forces were essential to the grinding up of the Iraqi Republican Guard. When General Schwarzkopf ceased the attack, the remainder of the Guard escaped. In short, air power is necessary but not sufficient (unless, of course, we are prepared to bomb our adversaries “back to the Stone Age” with nuclear weapons).

As for the Army’s relatively recent decision to make its forces dependent on reserves, that also is not true. That decision goes back to General Creighton Abrams immediately after Vietnam. Abrams wanted to structure the Army so that it could not go into combat without the wholehearted support of the American people, in order to avoid another Vietnam. How to do that? Require the call-up of reserves. In truth, the Army did not make very effective use of reserves in the Gulf war because, counter to Mr. Luttwak’s thesis about the Joint Staff, the Army’s heart was not in the reserve and National Guard. The use of reserves by the Navy was even poorer. The USAF was easily the outstanding service in making use of the “total-force” concept, with the Marines falling somewhat behind.

Yes, there is a danger of the loss of civilian control of the armed forces, and Mr. Luttwak acknowledges the problem at the very end of his article. The danger stems, of course, from the flower child who is now the nation’s commander-in-chief. The services are operating in a near-vacuum and they are only trying to protect themselves as best they can from an array of harebrained schemes. The only reason we do not have a complete vacuum is the presence of William Perry as Secretary of Defense. But one man cannot mind the store alone.

Robert C. Whitten
Navy League of the United States
Cupertino, California



To the Editor:

Edward N. Luttwak’s attack on the Joint Staff reflects either woeful ignorance about the workings of the U. S. defense establishment or intellectual dishonesty. Since, presumably, Mr. Luttwak learned something about the American military during his years of writing about it, I must conclude that it is the latter. Although such touching solicitude about civilian control of the military from an avowed admirer of the Prussian General Staff system is welcome, alas, it is merely a smoke screen designed to conceal his real complaint: the military advice emanating from the Pentagon does not match the advice he is giving to whoever is paying his way these days, apparently the U.S. Air Force. . . .

Mr. Luttwak makes a number of outrageous claims. I can address only the most egregious of them: (1) that the former chairman of the JCS, General Colin Powell, . . . “overruled the newly inaugurated Clinton with contemptuous ease” on a number of issues; (2) that “the power of the Joint Staff persists undiminished, at the expense of the civilians of the OSD”; (3) indeed, that “presidential appointees . . . are not even allowed to examine . . . contingency war plans . . .”; and (4) that “charged to define an all-new military structure for the post-cold-war era, the Joint Staff . . . [came] up in the end with much the same old mix of ground, air, and naval forces as before.”

  1. General Powell does not need me to defend him against Mr. Luttwak’s gratuitous, mean-spirited personal attack. But beyond what most readers will recognize to be preposterous claims, the attack misses the point: President Clinton’s principal military adviser gave his advice, and the President took it. That does not constitute overruling the President. If we are to believe Bob Woodward’s book, The Commanders, General Powell favored economic sanctions against Iraq over the early use of military force to dislodge Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. His commander-in-chief at the time chose not to accept his advice.
  2. The only “power” the Joint Staff has vis-à-vis the civilians of the OSD is the power of the JCS chairman’s advice. If the advice is sound, it will prevail. But this is only to say that good ideas have more “power” than bad ones.
  3. Access to war plans is restricted. But this is true within the Joint Staff as well as OSD. Not every member of the Joint Staff has routine access to war plans. “Need to know” is a sound principle for keeping secrets. That said, civilian access to the plans is greater now than before Gold-water-Nichols. . . . Mr. Luttwak apparently has been listening to the whining of some presidential appointee, a “defense intellectual” no doubt, whose lack of military experience matches his own.
  4. Mr. Luttwak’s critique of the Bottom-Up Review force structure is wrong because it fails to account for the role of other Department of Defense players (not to mention Congress) in force-planning. But to understand what he is up to in criticizing a balanced force structure, one must realize that Mr. Luttwak is a recent convert to the idea that “air power . . . is the most usable military instrument we have.” . . .

It is clear that Mr. Luttwak thinks the U.S. should intervene in Bosnia and that air power could effect a decision there. He seems to believe that the only reason we have not done so is that backward-looking, ground-oriented JCS chairmen, such as General Powell and his successor, General John Shalikashvili, abetted by an all-powerful Joint Staff still dominated by service parochialism, continue to “overrule their commander-in-chief.”

But if air power by itself could not force Saddam Hussein to quit Kuwait—if, in other words, it was not independently decisive, either militarily or politically, even in a theater tailor-made for its application—how would Mr. Luttwak realistically apply air power in Bosnia to achieve military, much less political, goals? In the Balkans, the only real center of gravity vulnerable to air power, as Mr. Luttwak envisions it, is Belgrade.

The Joint Staff, unlike Mr. Luttwak, understands that balanced forces are a strategic necessity for a country like the United States. Overreliance on one military instrument is a recipe for disaster. But the Joint Staff is not alone. The OSD recognizes this point as well.

The best response to Mr. Luttwak’s diatribe comes from a colleague of mine on the Joint Staff: “After a year of battling over arms-control issues, first within the Department of Defense and then within the interagency arena, I came away convinced that the good the Joint Staff does the nation is not so much the good policies it invents as the bad policies it prevents.”

Mackubin Thomas Owens
Naval War College
Editor-in-Chief, Strategic Review
Newport, Rhode Island



To the Editor:

Edward N. Luttwak again brilliantly and self-critically writes about how the Joint Chiefs of Staff sandbagged Presidents Bush and Clinton, Congressmen, and Senators, as well as our countrymen.

In 1993, John Kenneth Galbraith noted that the military had become a sacred cow whose judgment could not be questioned. Thanks to Mr. Luttwak, we now know how this was achieved. He concludes, correctly, that the loss of civilian control over the military is both a threat to constitutional government and prevents the development of clear policies for the post-cold-war world.

Sheldon C. Seller
Riverton, Connecticut



Edward N. Luttwak writes:

I am grateful for Larry Di Rita’s highly informative letter: there is not a word he wrote that I can disagree with, except for his charge that my argument was ultimately self-contradictory. I see no contradiction. Do we want to ensure civilian control by contriving to weaken the Joint Staff? Thoroughly demoralized military leaders, who no longer even try seriously to prepare their forces for combat, are almost a norm among our NATO allies. That is not a model that we should emulate. Do we therefore want to surrender civilian control? Surely not. The only answer therefore is to keep a very strong military leadership, but to balance it with effective civilian control. Out of that creative tension, new military policies could emerge to confront today’s challenges, instead of merely preserving the structure of forces brought into existence to cope with yesterday’s requirements.

Had I been writing a treatise on the current state of our defense establishment as a whole, and not an article devoted to one aspect of it, I would have examined the civilian side of the issue, too. Mr. Di Rita has now done so, and I cannot disagree with what he wrote. As a matter of fact, before an abbreviation for brevity’s sake, the conclusion of my article read as follows:

The only true remedy is to keep a very strong Joint Staff, but to balance it with the counterweight of equally assertive civilian leadership. And that of course is now the problem, because of all his different roles, Clinton is least persuasive as our commander-in-chief. Elected in spite of having artfully evaded military service in a time of war, after a campaign in which he said as little as possible about national defense other than that he was for it, Clinton scarcely has a mandate to reform the Pentagon. That he cannot help. Less forgivable was Clinton’s failure to support his first and perfectly competent Secretary of Defense, Les Aspin, whom the usual White House policy persons of no known expertise felt free to deride as “weak” and “indecisive” in talking with the press. In the circumstances, all we can hope for is that Clinton has learned his lesson, and that he will now loyally back Aspin’s successor, William Perry. Even so, Perry will have a mighty struggle to cope with the consequences of two decades of drift in asserting civilian control.

Robert C. Whitten detects error in my timing of the transfer of support forces to the reserves (to prevent any large war deployment without their mobilization, and the consequent moral and political engagement of the nation in the enterprise). Yet I made it clear that this was a response to the abandonment of our forces sent to fight in Indochina, not a Gulf-war contrivance. As Mr. Whitten writes, it was General Creighton Abrams, an outstanding and hugely underestimated military leader, who made the decision upon becoming the first post-Vietnam Army Chief of Staff, a decision largely implemented a full decade before Desert Shield.

I will not reply to Mackubin Thomas Owens, given the tone of his letter; having once had the good fortune of a close association with the Naval War College, at the very time when it underwent its own brilliantly successful and enduring reform, I trust that he is an exception among its faculty. The letter does, however, illustrate the ill-tempered response of some less thoughtful Navy people to the always paradoxical and habitually cruel logic of strategy: victory undoes the victors by rendering them superfluous. The build-up of the (almost) 600-ship Navy played its own significant role in precipitating the Soviet Union’s debacle, by thwarting its striving for supremacy (had this goal been achieved, the eventual ruination of the Soviet economy would have been irrelevant to our plight). Precisely because the U.S. Navy was so successful (to win without battle is the highest achievement), the need for its surface warships and submarines has now abruptly and drastically diminished. The Army and Marines still have potential enemies to fight; U.S. air-offensive power—including that of the U. S. Navy and Marine Corps based on carriers—still has an abundance of potential targets. But both the attack submarines and surface warships that account for a very large part of the U. S. Navy now coexist with a Russian navy that is virtually immobilized and literally rusting away, a still minuscule Chinese blue-water navy, a modest Indian navy, as well as the navies of Britain, France, Japan, Italy, and other allies against which any combat is utterly implausible. The panoply of surface escorts that was once indispensable to shield aircraft carriers, the defensive aircraft that we once needed to protect them, and most of the attack submarines have lost much of their raison d’être. That is cruel for the human beings who dedicated themselves to tasks once essential as well as exceedingly arduous. However, it is not anti-Navy analysts who have arranged matters so, but rather our conjoint success in forcing history to take its present turn.

I wish to thank Sheldon C. Seller for his kind letter.

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