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

President Obama announced his pick for a new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Monday: Army Chief of Staff General Martin E. Dempsey. For more on the chairman's role and what Dempsey's selection means, Michele Norris speaks to Peter Feaver. He is a political science professor at Duke University and the author of several books on civil-military relations.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

On Memorial Day, President Obama announced his pick for a new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - Army Chief of Staff General Martin E. Dempsey. Assuming he's confirmed by the Senate, Dempsey will become the highest-ranking officer in the Armed Forces and the top military advisor to the president.

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: Well, prior to that time, the joint chiefs were the four service chiefs and then the chairman was the first among equals of that group. And they were collectively, as a body, supposed to advise the president on matters of national security. What often happened, though, is that they would compromise among themselves before they met with the president, to provide some kind of unified position, where all of the hard choices were decided by them away from the president.

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: And in terms of giving the president advice, I want to look ahead to General Dempsey's docket. He'll be the chairman of the Joint Chiefs who might oversee the closure of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are big spending cuts on the horizon for the military, the downsizing of the military.

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.

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