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Is Civilian Control Old Hat?

CIVILIAN CONTROL VERSUS MILITARY RULE by Robert Previdi, New York: Hippocrene Books, 188 pp. $14.95

ONE of the cornerstones of democracy in the United States, though it receives scant attention, is the complete subordination of the American military to civilian control. A glance at the sad history of Latin America, racked for decades by Army takeovers, reminds one how important this principle is. Surely few Americans would want it any other way.

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But author Robert Previdi is concerned that civilian control of the services was unintentionally endangered by Congress's well-meaning passage of the Goldwater-Nichols Act in 1986. This is a serious charge: The legislation, widely acknowledged as one of the most important reforms of the military command structure in US history, was supported by then-Sen. Barry Goldwater (R) of Arizona, Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin, and Rep. Bill Nichols (D) of Alabama, all respected for their expertise in the Pentagon's Byzantine ways.

The Goldwater-Nichols Act changed the role of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) from that of a first among equals to an independent actor to whom the other chiefs are subordinate. The idea was to increase interservice coordination and diminish interservice rivalry.

Congress, as well as many outside experts, became convinced that too little of the former and too much of the latter were primary factors behind difficulties in Vietnam, the debacles of the Iranian hostage rescue mission and the Beirut barracks bombing, and foul-ups during the invasion of Grenada. Congress also hoped to make equipment procurement more efficient and give the Defense Department more strategic direction.

Under the arrangement existing since World War II, Previdi explains, the president has, in theory, received military advice from the secretary of defense, on the one hand, and the entire JCS on the other. Previdi charges that the new system means that, in the future, the president will get advice from the secretary and one military chief alone. The JCS chairman, he says, will dominate the other chiefs as well as the individual service secretaries. Previdi is concerned that the chairman might be able to suppress information he doesn't like or points of views contrary to his own.

The legislation also provides for the JCS chairman's unlimited tenure during war, while the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution prohibits the president from serving more than two terms. Previdi points out that this could lead to a situation in which a powerful JCS chairman would hold important trump cards over an incoming president during a time of national emergency.

Previdi's repeated complaint is that the legislation concentrates far too much power in the hands of one officer, while denigrating the position of the other chiefs. But while repetition can be useful in hammering a point home, Previdi's tedious restatement of his thesis gets in the way of his presentation.

This book is written in everyday language the average reader can understand. But it needs a good editor - too often Previdi rehashes the same argument in the same section of the text.

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A weak or incompetent president and defense secretary, he worries, might not be able to stand up to such a towering military figure. He argues that in passing these reforms, Congress ignored US experience in World War II and has drawn the wrong conclusions from US military history since then. Pointing to the Korean war, in which President Harry Truman had to fire the popular Gen. Douglas MacArthur for insubordination, Previdi frets that Goldwater-Nichols also gives field commanders too much latitude in an era in which - with the atomic sword of Damocles hanging constantly over his head - the president must be able to maintain tight control over the troops.

But while Previdi is certainly right in pointing out potential problems with the new role of the JCS chairman, he doesn't really prove that civilian control is endangered by Goldwater-Nichols. Civics classes to the contrary, government rarely works the way it is supposed to on paper. Power in Washington, whether military or civilian, depends more on personal relations, strengths, and weaknesses than on organization charts. And in any case, the Goldwater-Nichols Act does not diminish the authority of the defense secretary, who, as Robert McNamara and Caspar Weinberger both showed, can still have his way regardless of what the uniformed military recommends.

Robert Previdi is neither a governmental nor academic analyst of defense matters. He is a vice-president of Citicorp and was the unsuccessful Republican candidate for Congress from New York's Third District in November. Would that more citizens, and indeed more congressional candidates, took such an interest in the republic's affairs. Here's hoping Previdi continues to watch military matters closely, and to speak out when he believes it necessary. Ultimately, that is what civilian control of the armed forces is all about. Just ask the Argentines.

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