Joint Chiefs of Staff Sweepstakes

The selection process for the Joint Chiefs has been most odd.

Raymond Pritchett has a good backgrounder on the machinations around choosing the next chairman or the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other senior Pentagon leaders. His first major analytical point is one that I fully endorse:

I have serious questions regarding the purpose of Goldwater-Nichols when the two most impressive military officers of this generation, General Petraeus and Admiral Stavridis, both PhDs, both experienced COCOMs, and both with experience leading large coalitions in wars we are fighting; have somehow been passed up and aren’t even being considered in the massive rotations at the top of the military.

Petraeus seemed like a no-brainer for Chairman, frankly, although I could see where a president would be reluctant to appoint a man of his prominence to the position. Stavridis is on the same level in reputation within the security community but doesn’t have anywhere near the public recognition, so he makes an obvious fallback. Both epitomize the scholar-warrior-diplomat that the military has been touting for a generation as the ideal type.

As a former Army guy, though, I’m bemused by Raymond’s next point:

I also do not understand how at a time when the nation is trying to wind down two land wars in Asia, at a time when the DoD has been developing the AirSea Battle doctrine, and at a time when the Department of Defense is facing very large budget cuts, that one would seriously believe two Army Generals would rise to be the first, best choices for Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I have to say, that would be the most impeccable timing possible should the Army, from out of nowhere and with the assistance of a random 3 month early appointment to Chief of Staff of the Army for General Dempsey, suddenly take over CJCS just as the DoD was about to transition away from the large land war in Asia approach to foreign diplomacy.

The United States has been at war for most of the last two decades. That we launched an operation in Libya whilst still bogged down in two major wars and are ratcheting up rhetoric elsewhere in the region gives me little confidence that we’re about to change.

Further, while it’s certainly possible to be an outstanding strategic leader without having been in harm’s way, the fact of the matter is that the Army and Marine Corps have done the lion’s share of the fighting in these wars. It would be odd, indeed, to disqualify our ground force leaders for the chairmanship because they’ve been off fighting the country’s wars rather than thinking about the wars we might one day fight.

Raymond implies that this is some sort of rotational politics, whereby each Service is getting a turn. But those days are gone–demonstrated best by the fact that Stavridis was the first Navy man ever to serve as head of the European and Southern Commands.  Yes, a Navy man, Mike Mullen, is currently the Chairman. But he was preceded by Peter Pace, the first Marine to hold the post. The last Army guy was Hugh Shelton, who served from 1997 to 2001. But he succeeded another Army guy, John Shalikashvili, who succeeded another Army guy, Colin Powell. There’ve been on 17 Chairmen and we’ve had back-to-backs from within the same service multiple times.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. The United States has been at war for most of the last two decades.

    Off topic slightly, but that sentence may be the most depressing thing I’ve read all day.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    The qualifications for CJCS have been “dull, conscientious, dependable, and loyal” since Omar Bradley, the first to hold the job. As I understand things it’s a political job and not surprisingly having the post that immediately precedes being appointed chairman be in Washington is pretty much par for the course.

  3. Richard Gardner says:

    Galrahn at Information Dissemination had some discussion on the RUMINT on the CJCS and Service Chiefs changes – and the comments are equally interesting. You can’t look at the CJCS alone.

    The concept of taking turns for the 4-star positiojns seems to be gone – Current VCJCS Cartwright, USMC, was STRATCOM (which today is a morph between the old STRATCOM and SPACECOM, with some new IW tossed in). Cartwright of course is no longer the Golden Child after the questionable activities of his female aide.

  4. Galrahn says:


    15 of the last 22 years, we have been at war.

    Dr. Joyner,

    The bench on the Army is very thin at the top right now, but remarkably thick at the 1-2 star level. The expectation is the Army will have super stars at the 4 star level in 4 years, so why would we go Army for CJCS now when we know Army is loaded with superstars following 9+ years straight of war in the very near future?

  5. James Joyner says:

    @Galrahn: Petraeus, and Army officer, was the obvious choice, with Stavridis, a Navy man, the close alternative. I’d also have been happy with Jim Mattis, a Marine.

    But the two Army officers apparently left in the running would be fine. Dempsey has a solid track record, but I don’t know much of his reputation. Odierno has the Surge under his belt, has strategic experience at STRATCOM, and won the Naval War College Distinguished Graduate Leadership Award a couple years back. They’re not PhDs but I’m not sure it much matters at that point in their careers.