- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 15, 2002

By James Locher III
With a Foreword by Sen. Sam Nunn.
Texas A&M; University Press, $34.95, 524 pages

The Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 has been described as "perhaps the most important defense legislation since World War II" and "the watershed event for the military" since the end of that conflict. Former Sen. Sam Nunn, one of the most influential supporters of the Goldwater-Nichols Act (GNA), claimed that it made "the most significant changes in the … organizational structure of the Department of Defense since 1949 …" The late Les Aspin, formerly chairman of the House Armed Services Committee went farther. Goldwater-Nichols, he claimed, was "… one of the landmark laws of American history. It is probably the greatest sea change in the history of the American military since the Continental Congress created the Continental Army in 1775."
James Locher's "Victory on the Potomac" is a comprehensive account of the battle to make the GNA a reality. Skillfully bringing to life not only the players but also the issues, Mr. Locher, who was a prime mover in framing the legislation that resulted in Goldwater-Nichols, has written the definitive history of the Act.
But while "Victory on the Potomac" is an informative account of the quintessentially Washingtonian food fight that resulted in GNA, it suffers from a major short-coming: Its Manichean view of the debate over defense reorganization. In Mr. Locher's account, advocates of the legislation constituted the "forces of light;" opponents, the "forces of darkness." The former included Sen. Barry Goldwater, Sen. Nunn, and staffers such as Mr. Locher who were instrumental in pushing the legislation forward despite massive resistance from the Pentagon. The latter included the late Sen. John Tower, then chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, his staff director Jim McGovern, Ronald Reagan's Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, and most importantly, a Navy cabal led by the Prince of Darkness himself, Secretary of the Navy John Lehman. In Mr. Locher's book, there is no place for principled opposition to GNA, merely bureaucratic politics and the desire to retain the power and influence afforded by the old system.
This is an unfair characterization. There were many (including this reviewer) who opposed the legislation on principle. We were concerned about potential threats to U.S. civil-military relations, including the question of civilian control of the military. We worried that a more powerful chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a unified Joint Staff would tend to impose a single strategic view ("strategic monism") on the U.S. military establishment when the geographical position of the nation requires competing but complementary approaches to national security ("strategic pluralism").
The performance of the U.S. military since the passage of the law illustrates that Goldwater-Nichols has neither been as good as its defenders would have had us believe, nor as bad as its critics warned. While there has been undeniable improvement in U.S. military performance since passage of GNA, there remain concerns about balanced civil-military relations and the danger of strategic monism. In addition, a number of unintended consequences have emerged.
Goldwater-Nichols can claim its greatest success in the area of increasing the authority of the combatant commanders to bring it into balance with their responsibilities. But while supporters of Goldwater-Nichols contrast the failures and inefficiencies of operations before passage of the act (for example Vietnam, Lebanon and Grenada), with the jewel in the Goldwater-Nichols crown, the Gulf War of 1991, recent analyses indicate that success in Desert Storm was not unalloyed.
In their definitive account of Desert Shield/Desert Storm, "The Generals' War," Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor for instance argue that the combatant commander in the theater, Gen. H. Norman Schwartzkopf, did not adequately coordinate the plans of his Marine and Army component commanders. As a result, the overarching theater objective of the coalition, the entrapment and destruction of the Iraqi Republican Guard, was not achieved. Mr. Gordon and Gen. Trainor, as well as others, also revealed the extent to which the Air Staff in Washington infringed on Central Command operational planning authority after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. The Air Staff unilaterally developed a plan in response to the invasion without direction from Gen. Schwartzkopf, CJCS, or the president.
The expanded power of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff continues to be the most intensely debated aspect of Goldwater-Nichols. This debate centers on two main issues: First, whether the quality of today's military advice is superior to that of the pre-GNA era; and second, whether a more powerful JCS chairman has thrown American civil-military relations out of balance by substantially increasing the influence of the military in national affairs.
Not surprisingly, advocates of GNA respond to the first query in the affirmative. Vice President Dick Cheney praised the quality of advice he received as Secretary of Defense, considering it an advance over the "lowest common denominator of whatever the chiefs collectively could agree upon." But others have disagreed, claiming that the current advice is narrowly based on the chairman's own views rather than reflecting the broad range of opinions available from the JCS as a whole.
The impact of a more powerful Joint Chiefs chairman on the civil-military balance was the subject of a number of critical studies since 1994. Richard Kohn, one of the foremost experts on American civil-military relations, has expressed concerns that the chairman and Joint Staff now exert undue influence on national decision makers. He provides persuasive evidence that civilian control of the military has atrophied since the passage of GNA.
One of the consequences of GNA has been to shift power from the armed services to the Joint Staff. This raises the very real possibility that a single strategic concept can come to dominate defense policy. "Strategic monism," a term coined by Samuel Huntington, refers to primary reliance on a single concept, weapon, branch of service or region. In the words of Gordon W. Keiser, strategic monism "presupposes an ability to predict and control the actions of possible enemies." The clearest manifestation of strategic monism since the end of World War II is the Eisenhower era's "New Look" with its emphasis on long-range strategic bombing at the expense of other capabilities. Critics of GNA worry that a powerful chairman and a centralized Joint Staff would be in a position to impose a single view on the defense establishment, to the detriment of U.S. security requirements
Some of the "unintended consequences" of GNA are relatively minor but others are not. An example of the former is the re-emergence of the problem of "careerism," the jockeying for assignments in order to enhance individual prospects for promotion. At the end of the 1980s, all the services had made careerism a term of opprobrium. But as a result of GNA's stress on joint service, such jockeying, e.g. for assignments to the Joint Staff and staffs of the Unified Commands, far surpasses anything that went before.
In addition to shifting power from the military services to the Joint Staff, GNA has also transferred power from the services to the Unified Commands. A consequence of this change has been to emphasize the near term at the expense of the future, since the Unified Commanders tend to be more concerned about the former and less about the latter, traditionally the perspective of the services. This is not to suggest that funding for readiness or operations and maintenance should be reduced, but to observe that these categories have been funded largely at the expense of modernization. GNA has contributed to this reallocation of resources.
Goldwater-Nichols is an important piece of legislation. It has contributed to improvements in the ability of the U.S. military to conduct truly joint operations, thereby improving certain aspects of the nation's military effectiveness. But the unintended consequences of the act may well create problems in the future that outweigh the benefits. While "Victory on the Potomac" is a first-rate history of the battle that created GNA, Mr. Locher's failure to address the concerns of the critics renders the book deficient as an objective analysis of what the act did and did not accomplish.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of Strategy and Force Planning at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., and a contributing editor of National Review Online. His essay, "The Hollow Promise of JCS Reform" appeared in the winter 1985-86 issue of International Security.

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