Joint Staff Director Describes Military Advice Process

March 18, 2015 | BY Jim Garamone , DOD News
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In a speech to the Brookings Institution’s defense fellows here yesterday, the director of the Joint Staff shed light on the process military officials use to provide their best advice to the nation’s civilian leaders.

Air Force Lt. Gen. David L. Goldfein said the concept of advising civilian leaders is never far from the minds of the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a group composed of the chairman, the vice chairman, the Army chief of staff, the chief of naval operations, the Air Force chief of staff, the commandant of the Marine Corps and the chief of the National Guard Bureau.

These four-star officers meet in a secure room in the Pentagon called “the tank,” Goldfein said. “The chairman is the convening authority,” he added, “and he calls the group together to talk about the issues relative to using the military instrument of power.”

Painting Provides Reminder of Challenges

The general showed the defense fellows a picture of the only painting that hangs in the tank. Called “The Peacemakers,” the 1868 painting by George P.A. Healy shows President Abraham Lincoln meeting with Army Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Army Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman and Navy Rear Adm. David Dixon Porter aboard the steamer River Queen in the waning days of the Civil War.

“They were talking about what we now call Phase 4 operations -- post-conflict operations,” Goldfein said. “Where I sit in the tank, I stare at this painting, and it’s a constant reminder of the gravity and enormity of the challenges we face and the importance of the military advice.”

While it is no longer Grant, Sherman and Porter speaking to Lincoln, the process is the same today, the Joint Staff director said, as Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gives advice to President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Ash Carter and the other members of the National Security Council.

Goldfein talked about the difference between real and perceived influence and what that means to military advice. Real influence, he said, is established quietly, often behind the scenes, and one relationship at a time. Establishing trust and confidence is essential to being able to have real influence, he explained.

“Perceived influence … is something that often happens on talk shows. It tends to be very loud,” he said. “As a military officer, you have to think about what you are trying to achieve: Is it real influence or is it perceived influence, and where do you want to align yourself?”

Bay of Pigs Proved That Words Matter

Goldfein used the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961 to illustrate the point “that words matter.” Although it was a CIA operation to depose Cuba’s Fidel Castro, he said, the plan had a military aspect, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff examined it and concluded that it had a 30 percent chance of success. Somehow, the general said, that got communicated to the newly inaugurated President John F. Kennedy that there was “a fair chance of success.”

The operation failed, and Kennedy believed the Joint Chiefs did not give him the candid military advice a president expects and deserves. Goldfein showed a picture of the Joint Chiefs meeting with Kennedy in the White House Cabinet Room a month after the operation.

In giving best military advice, leaders must be aware there are two ways of looking at the world today, Goldfein said. “I call it the ‘fear’ and ‘fear not’ perspectives,” he told the defense fellows.

On one side is the fear perspective, he said, fueled by issues that crop up around the world that have a military aspect, such as the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and Russia taking Crimea and threatening Eastern Ukraine. He also cited problems with Boko Haram in Africa and terror groups in Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. In addition, the general noted the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.

Last year was the most complex year since 1968, the general said.

Another way of looking at it, he said, is to say that there is no existential threat to the United States. Last year continued an overall drop in violence around the world, he noted, and more people in more places are prosperous. This is the “fear not” version of the world, he said, and a case can be made that both perspectives are right.

Different Perspectives Affect the Process

The different perspectives that military leaders and civilian leaders have also play a role in the process of military leaders providing advice, Goldfein said. As a military leader, he added, he wants civilian leaders to tell him the strategic objective of what they are trying to accomplish.

But civilian leaders want options, he said. “So we want objectives, they want options,” he told the defense fellows. “They ask us for options, and we ask them ‘What’s your objective?’”

Having those two ways of coming at the same problem works, he said, but both sides need to understand the differences.

(Follow Jim Garamone on Twitter: @garamoneDoDNews)