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THE NATION

Joint Chiefs' role growing with Gates

Critics within the military say a muffling of the generals under Rumsfeld led to mistakes in Iraq.

February 18, 2007|Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — When President Bush went to the Pentagon in December to discuss his new war strategy with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, outgoing Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld scheduled the meeting for his own conference room.

The chiefs rejected Rumsfeld's plan for the conference. Instead, according to a military source briefed on the meeting, they sent word that they would be in "the Tank," the Joint Chiefs' own secret briefing room. If the president and Rumsfeld wanted to hear their views, they could find them there.

It was a declaration that went unnoticed outside the Pentagon at the time, and Bush met with the generals on their terms. But it signaled a determination by the nation's top uniformed military officers to take on a greater role in shaping U.S. war policy after years in which some military critics said their voices had been muffled.

By law, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the president's principal military advisor. But for much of the Rumsfeld tenure, the Joint Chiefs -- which include the top officers from the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force -- were kept out of war planning, according to some senior officers critical of that arrangement. Some top military voices have argued that had the Joint Chiefs been consulted more regularly, some key mistakes -- such as the troop shortage early on -- could have been avoided.

"When you are about to send young men and women to fight a war, you need the collective wisdom of many people. The service chiefs are part of the solution," said retired Gen. James L. Jones, a former Marine commandant who served as a member of the Joint Chiefs until 2003. "Some of the difficulty we are in now I think an honest man could say was due to that particular system ... where the Joint Chiefs were left out."

Under the new secretary of Defense, Robert M. Gates, military officers say the influence of the Joint Chiefs is starting to rebound. Unlike his predecessor, Gates is publicly and privately paying close attention to his uniformed advisors.

Rumsfeld preferred to meet with service chiefs in larger groups that also included civilian officials, a practice that effectively diluted the influence of the military voices. Gates, on the other hand, has begun meeting with the chiefs once a week -- in the Tank, a room Rumsfeld often avoided.

"That is a damn good thing," said a military officer, who, like several others, spoke about internal Pentagon differences on condition of anonymity. "There were huge periods -- months -- between meetings of the old SecDef and the chiefs. That's almost incomprehensible."

Rumsfeld and retired Gen. Tommy Franks, who was the top Mideast commander during the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions and who disdained the top generals, formed a "perfect storm" that cut the Joint Chiefs of Staff out of the loop, said Jones, the retired Marine general who also served as top military commander in Europe.

"You can circumvent the legitimate opinions that should be developed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff," Jones said. "And I think there is evidence that has happened on a number of occasions."

In his autobiography, Franks wrote dismissively about the Joint Chiefs and said that briefing them was a "bureaucratic exercise."

Unlike Rumsfeld, who was very sure of his own military opinion, Gates has said he wants to hear a variety of voices. And as Gates' own views on military policy become clearer through his appearances before Congress and at news conferences, his positions seem to be close to those of the Joint Chiefs and Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the group's chairman.

The plan for the troop increase in Iraq was developed by the White House and other military leaders, like Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the new top U.S. commander in Iraq. Although the Joint Chiefs helped shape the plan, they have been less enthusiastic about the open-ended commitment advocated by the White House, a skepticism Gates seems to share.

Pentagon insiders say that if the new Bush strategy falters, "Plan C" -- whatever that may turn out to be -- likely will emerge from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They and the Joint Staff, the top military planners who report to Pace, are at work on alternatives if Bush's "surge" plan should fail, according to defense officials.

The role of the Joint Chiefs began growing in the months before Bush replaced Rumsfeld, when Pace decided to take a closer look at Iraq policy.

Last summer, Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., then the top U.S. commander in Iraq, announced that rather than drawing down U.S. forces, he would need reinforcements to stabilize Baghdad. At that point, according to a senior Pentagon official, Pace decided the Joint Chiefs of Staff should take a closer look at why the U.S. policy was not succeeding.

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