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 You are in: Bureaus/Offices Reporting Directly to the Secretary > Policy Planning Staff > Secretary's Open Forum > Proceedings > 2001 - 2002

The Changing Roles of the Regional Commanders In Chief - Dana Priest

Dana Priest, Military Affairs Correspondent, The Washington Post; and Guest Scholar, U.S. Institutefor Peace
Washington, DC
March 23, 2001

Opening Remarks and Introduction by Alan Lang, Chairman of the Open Forum

Photo of Dana PriestThank you, I am pleased to be here. Iíve asked Ambassador Oakley to speak after me so I can say everything obvious and he can swoop in with his much broader wisdom and experience and open the aperture up a little bit.

Iím here to talk about the regional commanders in chief (CINCs) who Iíve renamed the proconsuls using the poetic license that I hang up on my wall at The Washington Post. The day that my series on the CINCs ran, I was driving to work, and my cell phone rang. It was an Assistant Secretary of Defense, and he was a little bit agitated. He was actually yelling. I thought, "Oh, what have I done?" He started out on a rift that went something like this: "I went to graduate school and earned a doctorate in international relations. I worked in government for 10 years, and no one mentioned these guys to me. I get over here and they are the elephant in the living room! You have to deal with them." And it was a complete surprise. The next call came from one of the CINCs now in retirement. By the time the series ran, three of the four had already retired. And he said to me, "I canít believe I said that. Did I do that? Itís a wonder they didnít fire me long ago for insubordination."

I started looking at the regional CINCs during the annual CINC conference of 2000. The entire program, including the agenda for the conference, was classified. Nevertheless, I learned that peacetime engagement, the mission that the CINCs spend most of their time on these days, was the subject of one of the 2 days of their meetings. The meetings had immediately become contentious mainly because the two Marines, General Zinni from CENCOM and General Wilhelm from SOUTHCOM had planned an attack beforehand. They brought charts and graphs to bolster their complaint that they were being asked to do so much with so little. Both generals with no assigned troops were tired of wrestling with the military services -- the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines -- for personnel to send on exercises and exchanges. The Service Chiefs, they complained, didnít understand what life was like for them "OUT THERE."

And they were right. Not only didnít the Service Chiefs realize how much the job of the CINCs had evolved since the passage of the Goldwater-Nichols Act in 1986, but also the Joint Staff was just beginning to see the larger picture. The White House had snapshots from the crisis du jour. And Congress, I think, really still doesnít understand. The Goldwaters-Nichols Act was meant to push the notion of joint military operations, to empower one person to order the services to work together. Each and every service chief opposed its passage. It grew directly out of the aborted attempt to rescue American hostages in Tehran, which failed, in part, because the Air Force and the Navy didnít cooperate. Someone had to be given the power to make the services work together. They were not going to do it on their own. The position of CINC was the logical choice. It made so much sense militarily, and the CINCsí staffs began to grow to accommodate the shift in authority. But since war is rare -- knock on wood -- the CINCs also got tasked in the post-Cold War with this shaping mission. In fact, that takes up a vast amount of their resources and the majority of a CINCís time. But [this role] has evolved without a grand strategy or a centralized look and without much of a systematic lash up between other obvious parts of the U.S. Government namely State, Commerce, and Justice. To get a better grip on what was happening with the four CINCdoms, the National Security Council (NSC) and General Shelton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a few years ago asked the CINCs for an accounting of what they were doing in the world. The documents they produced were called the Theater Engagement Plans or TEPs. They were four inches thick and most of them looked like accounting ledgers. These documents are also classified. To varying degrees, their programs are linked to national strategic goals, but much of it is a smorgasbord of training exercises, exchanges, port visits, and conferences. Deeply embedded, too, is a form of chronic military tourism--a staff term I learned during my travels with the four CINCs. It involves trips abroad by dozens of general officers each year, many of them from the service components in a given theater.

At the CINC conference of 2000, Zinni and Wilhelm insisted that congressional committees vet the TEPs. "Get their buy in," Wilhelm told them, "and they might realize how important it is for the U.S. military to be engaged in Latin America at a time when democratic governments across the continent are in trouble."

Zinni thought that if [one] could get Congress to buy into a strategic rationale for becoming a diplomatic power in Central Asia, maybe he could get more started there. But their notions were considered near blasphemous, and the debate illustrated the Pentagonís reluctance, I think, to show Congress just how involved its generals and admirals had become in the world as soldier-diplomats. Does the U.S. military impact foreign policy? You bet. Did they want Congress mucking around in their programs? Not many of them did. When you look at the parochialism that informs congressional decisionmaking on foreign policy these days, its partisanship and earmarking of foreign aid, you canít entirely blame them. And yet, U.S. foreign policy carried out by whomever should be the product of open debate and must stand up to public scrutiny.

The conventional wisdom is that President Clinton and the military never got along. The reality is, under Clintonís watch, the military came to outrank its civilian chain of command in influence, authority, and resources in many parts of the world. How did this come about? The Clinton administrationís poor relations with congressional Republicans, especially in the area of foreign policy, led the White House to drop contentious fights over State Department funding and international diplomatic initiatives. They knew that they would get little resistance, however, from Defense committees. Secondly, I think, the management of the State Department under Secretary Albright fed this imbalance. Whatever her legacy abroad, she was unable to make the case for Americaís diplomatic corps at home. Its resources, esprit, and innovation continued to plummet. As a footnote, Iíd like to say that if Ambassador Larry Pope, the political adviser to General Zinni, had been a three-star general in line for a fourth star, his derailment for his next ambassadorship by one Senator, would have brought the wrath of the Defense establishment and the administration. Instead, he was left to fight nearly on his own. And he chose to leave government in the prime of his career.

As an institution, the military remains conflicted about such quasi-diplomatic missions as peacekeeping and nation-building. But it has tried to adapt despite itself. Some examples: the CINCs created regional study institutes, joint assignments became prerequisite for promotion, and the Joint Staff grew in skill and numbers, as did the number of military assignments on Capitol Hill, the State Department, and the NSC. The military, as I see it, has been the one to step into a growing gulf between Americaís unprecedented new leadership role in the world and what Americaís diplomatic and economic institutions are able to do to fill it. I realized this after traveling the world with all four of the CINCs and after listening to Ambassadors in every one of the 24 countries that I visited with them.

"Do you know how hard it is to get someone of a CINC's stature out here from the State Department?" one ambassador lamented. "Thank God he comes here as much as he does. At least they know that the United States cares," another ambassador told me. And another one said, "Weíre firefighters, we donít have time to think about big issues."

Letís face it: a crucial factor at work here is money. A CINC can think strategically because heís got a cadre of special assistants, an entire J-5 staff, and the most up-to-date information from his J-2 staff, the round-the-clock intelligence centers under his command, and a growing number of CIA employees secunded to him.

For a CINC itís routine to order up an entourage of 35 and visit nearly every country in his theater twice a year. His closest counterparts at the State Department fly commercial and they carry their own bags, and foreign hosts may or may not be aware of the honors they should accord. When a four-star shows up, there is no doubt.

I was not always impressed by what I saw the CINCs' resources spent on. While there may be a value in having every U.S. and Persian Gulf state flag officer together at the same conference, the quality of the conference I sat through in Bahrain was pretty poor. It was so elemental, and it cost CENCOM $450,000.

Thatís how I see their world. How did the regional CINCs see it?

The most surprising thing to me was that the questions that bothered the four of them were pretty much the same. They were not military questions. As General Zinni told me once, "War is the easy part." One of the things that worried them the most -- what is the U.S. strategy for the post-Cold War era? Admiral Blair of the Pacific Command was obsessed with finding a phrase for the post-Cold War era that would capture the present and look forward instead of backward. "If you could name it," he thought, "somehow the concept would become more concrete." All the CINCs wanted Washington to take a more regional approach to solving problems and for Washington to offer greater support to regional coalitions. I wanted to talk about their lives and travels. They wanted to talk about fixing the interagency process so that they would be smarter about what they were doing and more effective. They each told me stories [about] having to creep around the Pentagon to meet with State Department [officials] and getting their hands slapped when they were discovered. They all felt like they were at the end of a tether line, out on the edges of an empire, and that too often no one at the Pentagon cared about what they were discovering. They each felt disappointed with their chain of command, especially Secretary Cohen, who seemed to them to want to talk only to coordinate the next upcoming news conference. They believed that the Pentagon had become far too reactive to the dayís news reports. They were each also highly critical of persistent service parochialism and urgent about the need for genuine jointness [among] the services. And each was curious about how the other CINCs operated. "Well, how big is his plane?" they asked.

How do others view the CINCs? I got my editors initially interested and willing to spend thousands of dollars to send me around the world with the simplest of pitches: There are these four men, youíve probably never heard of them, the regional CINCs, they:

-- Have their own planes with big entourages;

-- Travel the world;

-- Are treated like royalty; and

-- Wield increasing power and influence out there; many people in the Pentagon donít even know what they do.

As for the State Department, well, the ambassadors and country teams understand what [CINCs] do. But there is great frustration that their mother bureaucracy in Washington has no easy and logical way to plug into the CINCdoms.

Like the civilian side of the Department of Defense, none of the regional bureaus at State even line up with the CINCís theaters. The State Department POLADS (political advisers to the CINCs) give mixed reports on their access and influence in Foggy Bottom. But generally, I believe, they are underutilized and undervalued.

I was very lucky that I caught the CINC class of 2000 when I did. Three of the four were on the verge of retirement, and I think their frustrations drove them to let me follow them around. They answered hours of questions, and they figured out ways to get me into most of their meetings with foreign dignitaries. But I donít assume that the openness will continue. As one of their replacements recently told me, "Well, Iím not like so and so. What I do is secret." This is not a good thing. Itís hard enough these days for national security reporters to get their stories on the front page -- todayís Washington Post might be an aberration -- but making access more difficult only decreases the chance that a reporter will go beyond the surface of daily events. In this regard, though, the State Department could take a page from the Pentagon, believe it or not. The Pentagon learned years ago that to earn public support you have to sell yourself to the public, and to do that you have to deal with reporters, like it or not. This is a lesson, I think, that the State Department is still learning. After the series ran, I was speaking to a senior diplomat who was complimenting me on my access. I said, "The next thing Iíd like to do is to spend some time with ambassadors in the field -- see what really goes on in an embassy, and try to describe what makes a diplomat." "No can do," he told me without even rolling his eyes. All information needs to be cleared through Washington." Please note that Robert Gelbard is the only ambassador quoted by name in the entire three-part series. Thatís because Washington said "No," even when ambassadors said "Yes." Is it any wonder that the public doesnít know what diplomats do, that the image they carry around about foreign aid is the last scandal they read about? Is it any wonder that the public is willing to fund a new generation of precision guided missiles -- things that can fly through clouds, enter a building through a chimney, speed down three floors and not explode until it reaches the basement -- but that no one is clamoring for a new generation of precision guided diplomacy, something to replace antiquated economic sanctions which have done little to effect regime changes in Yugoslavia, Haiti, Iraq, Cuba, Afghanistan, and North Korea, but are just as certain to cause civilian casualties as the use of cluster bombs in a market square, which no one would approve of?

The public view of the CINCs, I think, falls into three camps:

In some liberal quarters, where there is great distrust of the military; there is a call to rein them in.

Within a chunk of the military and conservative circles, there is also a call to rein them in, because these folks believe these fuzzy non-war missions divert resources from [fighting war].

A middle-ground approach might be this: since there is little hope that the national security apparatus will be overhauled to meet the demands of the new world, which is my working assumption, we should be prepared to make do with whatís there, insist on greater coordination between DoD, the CINCs, and the State Department, and allow some degree of consultation on these issues with Congress and the public.

Profound questions remain unanswered about the military. We are still waiting to get a sense as to how the new Administration will respond. The questions include:

What is the proper role of the U.S. Armed Forces, short of war?

Does the U.S. have a moral obligation to intervene in humanitarian crises? If so, which ones?

Does the military have a duty to scout the globe like the armies of 19th-century Britain once did, patrolling for new friends and watching old enemies?

Finally, if the U.S. military is used to bring security to areas of instability like Kosovo, can it and should it go beyond that to bring democracy and justice where it may not exist.

Those are among the questions that Ambassador Oakley will answer for you (Laughter and applause.)

Mr. Lang: Ms. Priest, thank you so much for that superb presentation.

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