- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 19, 2006

When the history is finally written of operations in Iraq, one of the chapters should certainly include the role of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) on key strategic issues concerning that war. I predict history will find a murky trail. That said, it is also imperative to say the Joint Chiefs’ performance during the Iraq war is not entirely of their making.

In 1986, Congress passed the Goldwater-Nichols Act, which in effect reorganized the military. It made the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff the primary military adviser to the president, the National Security Council and the defense secretary. It also created a number of combatant commands: the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and the like, whose panjandrumlike commanders reported not to the Joint Chiefs, but to the National Command Authority, the president and the defense secretary. Because of the elevation of the chairman and the regional combatant commanders, the role of the Joint Chiefs as an independent voice on key security matters has been diminished.

As one who has been there, I believe this should never have happened. The JCS as a corporate body represents a vast array of talent and varied military experience that should be sought on all major military matters. This has clearly not happened with relation to Iraq.

For example, did the Joint Chiefs voice any objections to the force size for the invasion of Iraq? We don’t know. Were they involved in any postwar planning after the fall of Baghdad, and if they were, what was their position? We don’t know that either. As the U.S. Central Command first discovered in Afghanistan in 2001, taking the enemy capital is not the same as winning the war. And yet the identical strategic failure was repeated in Iraq. Where were the Joint Chiefs? We simply do not know.

Some would argue that questions such as these should be left to the responsible unified area commanders — the generals and admirals who run CENTCOM and the other unified area commands. While in theory that premise may sound sensible, it is the fatal weakness of Goldwater-Nichols. Indeed, back in the 1980s, two often-cited examples of the need for a stem to stern Goldwater-Nichols reorganization were the flawed operations in Lebanon and Grenada. In both those cases, however, history has shown the operational mistakes resulted from conditions imposed by the unified commander, not the Joint Chiefs.

It has been reported that when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld met with the Joint Chiefs in one of the prewar planning meetings, Gen. Eric Shinseki voiced his concerns on force size and the need to secure the borders as well as other tasks, such as maintaining order in the streets. We can hope the other chiefs voiced similar concerns, but it is unclear whether or not they did.

When the president met with the Joint Chiefs it was reported that Gen. Shinseki’s comments were focused more on the long lines of communications and sustainability issues rather than force size. Again it is unclear if concerns from any of the other chiefs about the war plan, force size or postwar planning were ever raised with the president. And yet, raising those concerns should be a responsibility of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The JCS was never intended as a rubber stamp. It was intended as a body charged with finding the best way to win, and then pass that advice on to their commander in chief.

The unhappy conclusion one must draw from an examination of the Joint Chiefs and the war in Iraq is that their historic function as the principal body providing military advice is defunct. The Joint Chiefs as a corporate body have become irrelevant. The chairman’s role as it has now evolved seems more distant from the operating forces than ever. There is a real danger that the Joint Chiefs is careening toward the dreaded “general staff” syndrome, in which uniformity of view and ideological lock-step are more important than the no-holds-barred robust debate over tactical and strategic goals that lead to decisive victory.

It has been 20 years since Goldwater-Nichols was enacted. Now it’s time to make a significant course correction. It is time for the Congress to step in and create an independent, free-thinking, committee that will bring the Joint Chiefs back into the mainstream. The 21st century demands a military that is nimble, proactive and aggressive and they are entitled to a Joint Chiefs of Staff whose individual members will stand up and be counted.

James A. Lyons, a retired U.S. Navy admiral, is a former commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations, and deputy chief of naval operations, where he was principal adviser on all Joint Chiefs of Staff matters.

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