All Rise for Chairman Powell

March 1, 1991 Topic: Security Regions: Americas Tags: PostmodernismSociology

All Rise for Chairman Powell

Mini Teaser: Operation Desert Storm presents us with the opportunity to observe America's military establishment in serious action.

by Author(s): Kurt M. Campbell

Two Dynamic Men

The first thing done differently in the Tank after Goldwater-Nichols was that all the other chiefs rose from their seats when the chairman entered the room; previously the chairman and chiefs had either entered a room together or the other chiefs had remained seated when the chairman arrived.  The innovation was symbolic of the fundamental changes taking place behind the tight security of the "Joint" corridors of the Pentagon.  Before Goldwater-Nichols, the chairman commanded nothing, not even his junior aide-de-camp.  Since the reform, the military chain of command has run from the secretary of defense through the chairman and then out to the commanders in the field, completely eliminating the other chiefs in the chain.  Moreover, if the chairman feels the chain of command to the field is not working to his liking, he has the authority to change it.  As one experienced Pentagon observer noted, "Having the authority to advise and act on things like the chain of command, well now that is real power."

Since 1986, there have been two pioneering and dynamic men in the position of chairman of the JCS: Admiral William J. Crowe, Jr., and now General Colin L. Powell.  The enhanced role of the chairman in the post-Goldwater-Nichols era has been explained by some primarily in terms of the powerful personalities of these two men.  But their greater influence in Washington and the world owes more to institutional changes than to character, though those changes certainly give greater scope to decisive men.  The changes prescribed by the 1986 reform act have led to the chairman's central role in drafting a range of military plans, policies, and operations.  That higher profile has been apparent in numerous military matters that predate the Gulf War: for example, in the 1987 tanker escort operation in the troubled waters of the Persian Gulf; in the decision to invade Panama; in key conventional arms control initiatives in Europe; in developing new avenues of "military diplomacy" with the Soviet high command; in shaping operational military plans and procurement decisions.  Now with the overseeing of Operation Desert Shield/Storm--the largest military campaign since the invasion of Normandy--the chairman is a national presence.

General Powell is emerging as the most important operational military strategist since the Vietnam War.  He has made his mark in the Bush administration as an articulate advocate of the use of U.S. forces in a range of contingencies.  As the Economist has noted, "Less than a year into his job, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs' Colin Powell has deployed American troops six times--twice in Panama, once each in the Philippines, Liberia, El Salvador and now Saudi Arabia."(5)  On the subject of the scale of force, the Washington Post observes, "The doctrine of invincible military force has been the main military principle underlying Operation Desert Shield.  Powell is the new doctrine's intellectual godfather and Cheney its political champion, but President Bush has become their most ardent convert."  Powell has been known to remark that he wants the signpost "Superpower Lives Here" to hang in front of the proverbial American house.  By no coincidence, President Bush singled out only General Powell among his inner circle of advisers for praise in his initial briefing about the Gulf Crisis to a joint session of Congress.

Crowe and Powell have each helped define and shape the new powers of the chairman.  Crowe is perhaps most clearly identified with opening new avenues of communication between the American and Soviet military establishments.  He fought many bureaucratic battles with civilian administration officials who unsuccessfully resisted such moves.  He is also remembered for building the institution and personnel of the JCS.  Admiral Crowe's tenure as chairman straddled the Goldwater-Nichols Act, and his last term was something of a laboratory for military reform.  Although Crowe helped revolutionize the JCS, he was in some ways still linked to an earlier period; General Powell arrived as chairman unencumbered by the past and with a mandate to take the office to a new and higher level.

Beyond the obvious differences between the two men--one is an Army officer from the Bronx and the other a naval officer from the prairies of Oklahoma--there are suggestive similarities.  Both have had extensive Washington experience in key Pentagon assignments--a fact that figures prominently in accounts of their performance by both supporters and detractors.  Before serving with distinction as President Reagan's last national security adviser, General Powell spent almost half his time in uniform in numerous Washington posts.  Similarly, combat assignments in Vietnam significantly shaped the political and military perspectives of both men.  What they judge to be the lessons of Vietnam are a critical feature in their respective thinking and public utterances.

Perhaps surprisingly, Crowe and Powell took very different positions on how to proceed in the Persian Gulf.  Indeed, the national debate about war versus continued sanctions was largely defined by the testimony and statements of the two chairmen, one serving on active duty and the other retired.  Admiral Crowe testified before Congress in November and urged the Bush administration to postpone military action against Iraq and give economic sanctions a chance to succeed.  Crowe opined that "if in fact the sanctions will work in 12 to 18 months instead of six months, the trade-off of avoiding war with its attendant sacrifices and uncertainties would, in my view, be worth it."  He counseled caution and patience in the Gulf, stating that it would be a tragedy if a "tin-pot tyrant and dictator" were able to out-wait the world's most powerful democracy.  If force ultimately were to be necessary, Crowe also strongly favored a powerful air campaign before ground troops were committed to combat on Iraqi or Kuwaiti territory.  The admiral has also voiced concern over the American disenchantment with prolonged conflicts arising from public fears about the possibility of "another Vietnam."

On the other side of the issue, General Powell has struck many as considerably more hawkish.  His support for a policy of overwhelming force is a direct consequence of his experience of the indecisive and incremental military operations of Vietnam.  In December, Powell gave congressional testimony in favor of having the capability in theater for a massive combined military campaign to liberate Kuwait and defeat Iraq.  This would provide commanders with options, such as waging a concerted air attack, an armored tank and infantry strike up through the desert outposts in Kuwait and southern Iraq, naval bombardment from ship to shore, and a possible amphibious landing.  He thus articulated a major role for each of the services in case of war with Iraq.  Before the onset of hostilities, Powell weighed in heavily for a massive and devastating use of force, and subsequently for no "pause" in operations which might provide Saddam Hussein with an opening to regroup his forces.

Nearly all the senior military elite in the armed services today were initiated during tours of duty in Vietnam, and Crowe and Powell are no exception.  What they believe to be the enduring "lessons" for the military in the Vietnam War remain in their collective consciousness.  Many share the idea that there should be no commitment of U.S. forces without strong public support and that we should bring to bear overwhelming force in the event of war.  Most also share a deep dislike of the press, and most important, a profound distrust of politicians who make the decisions about when, where, and how to wield force.  As the senior representative of the military and a close adviser to the president, the chairman is now placed in the delicate position of straddling two bureaucratic worlds: the uniformed and the civilian.

General Powell, like Admiral Crowe before him, has been criticized (and in some quarters, commended) for being a politician in uniform.  Some critics are concerned that without extensive combat experience or sea duty, a chairman will have difficulty gaining the confidence of his fellow senior officers and providing valuable military advice during a crisis.  General Marshall's record as a shrewd and successful strategist in World War II who during a long and distinguished career never heard a shot fired in anger would tend to belie this point.  Another, more troubling concern of some military officers is the possibility that the chairman will allow undue political considerations to color his military advice to senior civilian leaders.  To date, Crowe and Powell have both worked to promote a distinct chairman's perspective of the national interest that is neither a hostage to the president nor a slave to service parochialism.

Apart from their pointed differences over the Gulf, both men have been alike in striking into uncharted political-military waters.  As already noted, Admiral Crowe pioneered military-to-military contacts with the Soviet Union, often over the objections of other administration officials.  General Powell has played a crucial role in reshaping U.S. military commitments to NATO and in developing fledgling contacts with the reformed national militaries of Eastern Europe.  Most important, each has had a direct hand in planning military operations.  Admiral Crowe is credited with devising and designing the naval escort mission in the Persian Gulf in 1987.  General Powell has been intimately involved in the shaping of campaign plans in both Panama and the Persian Gulf.

Essay Types: Essay