New job description for Joint Chiefs leader

Bush will soon pick top military adviser - a pivotal role for reshaping armed forces.

Today's times put new requirements on whomever President Bush selects as America's top military leader.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff always faces difficulties as point man in civilian-military relations, key Pentagon lobbyist with Congress, and bridge builder between the four armed services.

Now, the job will also include the ability to act as an agent of major change.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is expected soon to recommend someone to his commander in chief from among several top US officers. The term of the current chairman, Gen. Henry Shelton, expires in September.

President Bush and Mr. Rumsfeld have insisted that they will transform the military from a largely cold-war force to one better organized to deal with likely military and peace-keeping involvements.

If the administration is to succeed, the new chairman will have to turn their theory into practice. "The vision is the thing," says Andrew Krepinevich, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "But being able to bring it into effect is very difficult."

The four candidates most often discussed are Air Force Generals Ralph Eberhart and Richard Myers, Navy Admiral Dennis Blair, and Marine General James Jones.

Gen. Eberhart, head of the US Space Command, runs the Pentagon's section on computer warfare - an expertise that plays into Rumsfeld's plans to promote a high-tech military. But Gen. Myers, another top candidate from the Air Force and current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is known to have a good relationship with Rumsfeld.

As head of the Navy in the Pacific, Admiral Blair's knowledge of that area dovetails with what's expected to be a strategic swing in military planning away from Europe and toward Asia. Gen. Jones, a decorated Vietnam veteran, would be the first Marine to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

Bush's pick may depend in good measure on which candidate meshes most closely with White House priorities on defense. A national missile-defense shield is already a clear objective, but Rumsfeld is weighing other major changes such as troop reductions (controversial within the military), base closures (controversial in Congress), and decisions on major weapons systems (controversial in both places).

For a smooth military operation in any era, the chairman needs to agree with the key strategic views of his bosses, the president and the secretary of Defense. At the same time, he has to be able to represent the concerns of younger low- and mid-level military officers, many of whom feel that senior officers are out of touch with the new demands on the military. And they believe that - despite recent pay raises - the military isn't dealing with important quality-of-life issues. A major current irritant: unanticipated deployments to faraway lands.

Given all these tasks, today "we can't afford the luxury of just having a technologist" as chairman, says Brookings Institution defense analyst Michael O'Hanlon in Washington.

As if this were not enough, there's one more concern: "You have to be very careful that you don't politicize the job," says Lawrence Korb, former assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan presidency. To be sure, it is essential that the person selected support the Bush-Rumsfeld concept of military transformation. At the same time, Mr. Korb warns, no "litmus test" should be set up, requiring a successful candidate to agree to specific proposals - such as reducing the number of aircraft carriers to a certain level - as a condition of being selected.

Otherwise, Korb says, Rumsfeld could wind up with a man who gives all the right diplomatic answers, but who has relatively little else to give. And "what you really want," Korb notes, "is expert military advice."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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