A Sense of Balance Returns

EDWARD N. LUTTWAK

August 19, 1993|By EDWARD N. LUTTWAK

What is immediately striking about the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Army's Gen. John M. Shalikashvili -- his foreign birth, parentage, upbringing (until age 16) and accent -- is much less important than the hidden agenda behind his selection from a crowded field of candidates. This successor of that politically most astute of generals, Colin Powell, was clearly chosen in the hope that he might turn out to be less political, and thus less likely to resist an increase in civilian authority over the armed forces.

It is not as if Secretary of Defense Les Aspin and President Clinton wanted an easily manipulated political innocent to upset the proper balance of power between civilian and military authority. That General Shalikashvili rose through every unit command from battalion to division rather than by way of high-visibility Washington jobs, as Mr. Powell did, does not make him politically naive. Nor is it a question of upsetting a proper balance, but rather of restoring the badly eroded authority of civilian Pentagon officials over their (now nominal) military subordinates.

In theory, all key decisions -- from intervention in Bosnia to which specific forces must be cut to fit into the budget -- are supposed to be made by the president's civilian officials, from the defense secretary down, although with military advice. In recent years, however, they have in fact been made by Chairman Powell and his Joint Staff, often effectively out-maneuvering or simply ignoring civilian preferences.

Civilian authority was at first willingly given up by the Reagan administration because of a belated recognition that professional military advice had too often been disregarded by arrogant civilian staffers during the Vietnam War. But in the attempt to increase inter-service cooperation, too much power was given to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The most blatant sign that the constitutional balance between ,, civilian and military leaders has been seriously distorted is the effective veto power illegitimately acquired by the military over intervention decisions. It is the civilians alone who should decide whether, when, where and how to intervene against today's aggressors in Bosnia or elsewhere, albeit with such military advice as they care to accept. There has been no coup d'etat and the Constitution has not been rewritten. But a situation was created in which the civilians have felt compelled to defer to military preferences because of the very real risk that they would otherwise be undermined politically by Joint Staff leaks and off-the-record briefings.

Within the Pentagon's day-to-day administration, the erosion of civilian authority has been evident at all levels. Most notably, the under-secretariat for policy, once the key instrument of civilian supervision over military planning and operations, and once occupied by the likes of Robert (Blowtorch) Komer, who ate admirals and generals for breakfast, has been sadly reduced as compared to an imperious Joint Staff. Thus, in smaller decisions as in the largest ones, military preferences prevail over civilian ones, contrary to both constitutional theory and the past practice of the U.S. government.

The U.S. paralysis over Bosnia is one result. It is not as if there is any eagerness to send in U.S. troops. But by air power alone, the United States could have done much with little risk of casualties, yet nothing was done during more than a year of mounting horrors. Perhaps some hopelessly outdated peaceniks still imagine that the Pentagon is full of bellicose generals and admirals who must be restrained from starting wars all over the map. Actually, our most senior military officers -- long before Colin Powell -- were always most cautious about any use of force. But now they have embraced the so-called Weinberger doctrine, which presumes to rule out any U.S. military intervention unless victory is fully guaranteed in advance by overwhelming force, irrevocable public support and a precisely defined objective that must not change with changing circumstances. These guarantees -- now routinely demanded -- are completely unrealistic.

Thus, the actual result of the doctrine is to rule out military operations almost everywhere. (The Somalia intervention ''Restore Hope'' was actually suggested by the Joint Chiefs, but only because they wrongly believed that there would be no shooting.) When civilian officials want to consider the use of force, instead of offering the usable military options, the Joint Staff replies with academic-type memos explaining all the political reasons why nothing can be done. If the civilians persist, they are branded as warmongers in well-placed news leaks. Instead of a creative balance between diplomats who favor diplomatic solutions and military leaders who offer military options, we suffer from a paralyzing reversal of roles.

General Shalikashvili is unlikely to be anyone's patsy. But he is much more likely than his predecessor to accept a proper degree of civilian authority -- over intervention decisions as well as over less weighty matters. Once the civil-military equilibrium is restored, our civilian leaders, from the president down, will once again have to exercise extreme care before exposing our fellow citizens in uniform to the perils of combat. In the meantime, it is his task to overcome the excessively self-protective habits of our military leadership.

Edward N. Luttwak is director of geo-economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

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