Defense Reform Was Major, but Analysis Has a Blinkered view.(BOOKS)

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Byline: Mackubin Thomas Owens, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 has been described as "perhaps the most important defense legislation since World War II" and "the watershed event for the military" since the end of that conflict. Former Sen. Sam Nunn, one of the most influential supporters of the Goldwater-Nichols Act (GNA), claimed that it made "the most significant changes in the . . . organizational structure of the Department of Defense since 1949 . . ." The late Les Aspin, formerly chairman of the House Armed Services Committee went farther. Goldwater-Nichols, he claimed, was ". . . one of the landmark laws of American history. It is probably the greatest sea change in the history of the American military since the Continental Congress created the Continental Army in 1775."

James Locher's "Victory on the Potomac" is a comprehensive account of the battle to make the GNA a reality. Skillfully bringing to life not only the players but also the issues, Mr. Locher, who was a prime mover in framing the legislation that resulted in Goldwater-Nichols, has written the definitive history of the Act. But while "Victory on the Potomac" is an informative account of the quintessentially Washingtonian food fight that resulted in GNA, it suffers from a major short-coming: Its Manichean view of the debate over defense reorganization. In Mr. Locher's account, advocates of the legislation constituted the "forces of light;" opponents, the "forces of darkness." The former included Sen. Barry Goldwater, Sen. Nunn, and staffers such as Mr. Locher who were instrumental in pushing the legislation forward despite massive resistance from the Pentagon. The latter included the late Sen. John Tower, then chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, his staff director Jim McGovern, Ronald Reagan's Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, and most importantly, a Navy cabal led by the Prince of Darkness himself, Secretary of the Navy John Lehman. In Mr. Locher's book, there is no place for principled opposition to GNA, merely bureaucratic politics and the desire to retain the power and influence afforded by the old system.

This is an unfair characterization. There were many (including this reviewer) who opposed the legislation on principle. We were concerned about potential threats to U.S. civil-military relations, including the question of civilian control of the military. We worried that a more powerful chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a unified Joint Staff would tend to impose a single strategic view ("strategic monism") on the U.S. military establishment when the geographical position of the nation requires competing but complementary approaches to national security ("strategic pluralism").

The performance of the U.S. military since the passage of the law illustrates that Goldwater-Nichols has neither been as good as its defenders would have had us believe, nor as bad as its critics warned. While there has been undeniable improvement in U.S. military performance since passage of GNA, there remain concerns about balanced civil-military relations and the danger of strategic monism. In addition, a number of unintended consequences have emerged.

Goldwater-Nichols can claim its greatest success in the area of increasing the authority of the combatant commanders to bring it into balance with their responsibilities. But while supporters of Goldwater-Nichols contrast the failures and inefficiencies of operations before passage of the act (for example Vietnam, Lebanon and Grenada), with the jewel in the Goldwater-Nichols crown, the Gulf War of 1991, recent analyses indicate that success in Desert Storm was not unalloyed.

In their definitive account of Desert Shield/Desert Storm, "The Generals' War," Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor for instance argue that the combatant commander in the theater, Gen. …