GEN. COLIN POWELL is being tapped for a military position, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which has increased greatly in power and prestige in recent years. The JCS chief has long been the top-ranking United States uniformed officer. But he used to be, basically, the first among equals, the man who ran the meetings with service Chiefs of Staff and conveyed their consensus on military issues to the President.
The 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act changed all that. It made the chairman of the JCS the President's principal military advisor, charging him with passing along his personal views as well as those of the service chiefs.
The bill gave the JCS head complete control over the large Joint Staff in the Pentagon, power he did not have before. It reorganized the military chain of command so that the generals and admirals in charge of US field combatant organizations, such as Central Command, gave their advice directly to the JCS chairman.
Analysts following the Pentagon's implementation of the Goldwater-Nichols Act say that provisions affecting the Joint Chiefs have been largely carried out. But they add that the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Adm. William Crowe, has not utilized the full extent of his new powers. By all accounts Adm. Crowe has continued to strive for consensus on contentious issues. If he wants to, Gen. Powell can operate as a more independent voice.
``Gen. Powell will have the authority, should the opportunity arise, to stake out new ground for the chairman,'' says Dr. James Blackwell, a fellow at the Center for Srategic and International Studies and director of a study of defense organization reform.
Despite all the grumbling from the Pentagon about the many high-ranking officers President Bush passed over, Powell was an obvious choice for JCS chairman. It is a post that requires honed political skills, and few in the US military have had as much exposure to the workings of high government levels as Powell.
He was first deputy, then top national security advisor to President Reagan, and helped run the NSC staff in the aftermath of Iran-contra scandal revelations. He has commanded an Army Corps in Western Europe - an important career move not just for command experience, but for the exposure to NATO leaders.