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PERSPECTIVE ON ARMED FORCES : Shalikashvili Brings Back Balance : Less political than his predecessors, he will help restore equilibrium between civilian and military authority.

August 16, 1993|EDWARD N. LUTTWAK | Edward N. Luttwak is director of geo-economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

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 Shalikashvili rose through every unit command from battalion to division rather than by way of high-visibility Washington jobs, as Powell did, does not make him politically naive. Had he been that, we would have known it in spades because his last position, supreme allied commander in Europe, provides opportunities for clamorous political missteps several times a day. 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 a further loss of control was not at all voluntary, but rather an unintended consequence of the 1987 Defense Reorganization Act (which I vehemently supported, ignoring wiser opinions). In the attempt to increase inter-service cooperation, too much power was given to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff--a mere committee spokesman and too weak before the law was changed and much too strong afterward. Yet another cause of the erosion of civilian authority was Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger's deliberate downgrading of the civilian role in military planning, in the interests of his constant maneuvering against the Haig/Shultz State Department. Finally, Colin Powell's exceptional political skills completed the process.

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 to place the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff above the President and his secretary of defense. 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 press leaks and off-the-record congressional 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.

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