What Does The Head Of The Joint Chiefs Of Staff Do?

Originally published on May 31, 2011 6:21 pm
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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

For more on the chairman's role and what Dempsey's selection means, we're joined by Peter Feaver. He's a political science professor at Duke University. He's also the author of several books on civil-military relations. Professor Feaver, welcome to the program.

PETER FEAVER: Thanks for inviting me.

NORRIS: Help us understand what exactly the chairman of the Joint Chiefs does.

FEAVER: The chairman is the principal adviser to the president and to the other national security policy makers. He's not directly in the chain of command, but all of the reporting up the chain of command travels through him, through the secretary of Defense, to the president of the United States.

NORRIS: So when we say that he's the highest-ranking officer in the armed forces, it's not exactly as that statement might seem.

FEAVER: Well, it means that every other four-star general or admiral stands when he enters the room. He outranks them. But when we're actually waging a war in, say, Iraq and President Bush is talking to General Petraeus, President Bush can speak directly to General Petraeus and manage the relationship that way. However, he would always make sure that the communication would go through Admiral Mullen so that the chairman would know what was being decided.

NORRIS: And how does the chairman of the Joint Chiefs' role - how has it changed, particularly in the reorganization following the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986?

FEAVER: And it was decided in the Goldwater-Nichols Act that they wanted to provide an independent military voice that the president could hear and then make the tough decisions. And so, they elevated the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to provide independent military advice. Any one of the other chiefs can still speak to the president, but is clearly subordinate to the chairman.

NORRIS: What does his selection say about the future of the military and the kind of advice the president is likely to hear?

FEAVER: Well, it's a good choice. It's a choice of a battle-hardened commander. He's had extensive combat experience in Iraq. But he's going to be serving at a time when the wars, presumably, will be gradually winding down. They're not over but the focus of the fight will likely shift to Washington, D.C., where the budget battles will be even more intense than they have been in recent years.

NORRIS: Peter Feaver is a political science professor at Duke University. He's also the author of several books on civil-military relations. Professor Feaver, thank you very much for being with us.

FEAVER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.