June 1, 2011  

First among equals

Choosing the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

In deciding on his nomination for his first chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS), President Obama will inevitably have been confronted with contending goals, such as whether he wanted a warrior type, a diplomat, a savvy bureaucratic fighter or some combination of all of these choices. Additionally, he likely sought a candidate who embraces his agenda, but who will also provide him with unvarnished and perhaps contradictory advice. He will have taken into account the personality dynamics of his national security team, his management philosophy and priorities for the Defense Department, as well as the general officer’s reputation among his peers.

Given those criteria, Gen. Martin Dempsey, who emerged as the front-runner and whose nomination was announced after the Memorial Day weekend, is a smart pick. The only surprise is that Dempsey was promoted to Army chief of staff in April and is thus barely two months into that post. The speed-of-light second promotion hints that the CJCS succession plan came unhinged. The original leading contenders for the next chairman were Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; NATO Commander Adm. James G. Stavridis; and Joint Forces Command Commander Gen. Raymond T. Odierno.

As this article was being written, Odierno seemed set to be nominated to succeed Dempsey as Army chief of staff, while speculation remained as to who would replace Cartwright when his vice chairman tenure ends in August.

The president’s final decision will have been made in consultation with a number of groups. This will have included not only the defense secretary but also White House staff, other senior military leaders, as well as members of Congress. While all four-star generals and admirals who are typically considered for chairman have the same rank, not all of them are created equal in the process to become CJCS. Some are better known to the president and his national security team, others have played prominent roles on important international issues, and a number are highly regarded for their expertise and combat experience.

Only 17 men have served as CJCS since the position was created by the 1949 amendments to the 1947 National Security Act. Eight have come from the Army, four each from the Navy and Air Force, and one from the Marine Corps. Eight generals and admirals were elevated to chairman from serving as head of their respective service, and nine have either served as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, commander of a unified combatant command, vice chief of their service, or as a special representative to the president. Since the passage of the Goldwater-Nichols Act in 1986, 17 percent of chairmen have come directly from leading their military service, whereas before the act, it was 64 percent. Every chairman has served two, two-year terms except for five: Gen. Earle Wheeler, who served three during the Vietnam War; Gen. Nathan Twining and Gen. John Vessey, who both curtailed their second terms; and Gens. Lyman Lemnitzer and Peter Pace, who each served one term. While many commentators believe the chairman is selected by rotating the position among the services, on five occasions the same service has followed itself. Additionally, at least eight of the 17 outgoing chairmen have recommended a successor and 16 of the 17 selections have had short-lists for the position of between two and five candidates.


Presidents typically want to send a number of messages when they make their choice of CJCS. The audiences are not only foreign governments but also include the defense community, the executive branch and Congress, as well as other general officers. When President Reagan selected Vessey in 1982, for example, he very consciously chose him for his experience in Asia to balance Secretary of State Alexander Haig’s experience in Europe. President Truman chose Gen. Omar Bradley in 1949 to send a clear signal that he wanted the unification of the services to succeed and for the Navy and the Air Force to stop their squabbling. Additionally, President Kennedy wanted a trusted ally for chairman in 1962 after the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco in which he felt he had not been well served by the Joint Chiefs. He chose retired Gen. Maxwell Taylor for chairman because he had helped Kennedy recover from the foreign policy debacle and they both agreed with a policy of flexible response, a mixture of conventional and nuclear responses, to confront global communism. The president may take a leading role in the selection process by managing it from the White House, as Reagan did in 1982. He may delegate the process to his defense secretary, as President Nixon did in 1974 or Carter in 1978, or use some combination of both approaches, such as President Eisenhower in 1953 and President George W. Bush in 2001.


The controversy over the Obama administration’s Afghanistan strategy review in 2009 has played a crucial role in shaping its view of the generals and admirals it inherited from the Bush administration. The ongoing conflict in Libya, as well as the Arab Spring, has also shaped the administration’s attitudes. If the stories are correct that in 2009 many members of the White House felt “boxed” into strategies in Afghanistan that required more troops, then general officers who advocated fewer troops will likely have been looked upon favorably. However, since Joint Chiefs chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and Gens. David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal all wanted more troops, any officers who pushed for fewer troops have likely seen their professional reputation among their peers suffer, a crucial factor when choosing a chairman. Dempsey largely avoided all of these battles as commander of Army Training and Doctrine Command.

The views of these officers on the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” also will have loomed large in their deliberations. Dempsey has indicated his support of the repeal but has not played a prominent role in the debate.

The administration may also want to highlight its achievements in Iraq and its commitment to Afghanistan while also signaling a time of budget austerity.

Since the military has been at war since 2001, a chairman with combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan may be seen as useful. Dempsey has served two tours in Iraq and, as the former deputy commanding officer of Central Command, which oversees all of the countries experiencing the Arab Spring, as well as the Afghanistan campaign, he is familiar with the region and its issues.

Cartwright seemed to have endeared himself to the Obama administration through his forceful advocacy of a smaller troop increase to Afghanistan in 2009, as well as by his leading the repeal of the Pentagon’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. However, some general officers bristled at his open opposition to Mullen’s advocacy of more troops. Additionally, he has not played a combat role in either Iraq or Afghanistan, and while he was recently cleared of any impropriety regarding how he ran his personal office, some ethics concerns may have remained and hurt his promotion prospects.

Though he did not make the final cut, as head of NATO, Stavridis is intimately aware of the challenges of Afghanistan, and through his leadership of the airstrikes in Libya, he has recent experience with a high-profile foreign policy issue.

Odierno successfully led U.S. troops in Iraq over a number of years and is overseeing the shutting down of Joint Forces Command as part of a Pentagon austerity campaign. His son was injured while serving in Iraq, so he could also play a prominent role on veterans’ issues.

What’s most important for the CJCS is that he provides the president with the best professional military advice available, is respected by his military colleagues, is generally supportive of the administration’s policies, and has the support of Congress and the American people. Dempsey is a safe bet on all counts. DAN GREEN is a Soref Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is writing his dissertation for a Ph.D. in political science at George Washington University explaining how the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is selected. He is a veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq.