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Obama Ignorance Watch: What Do the Joint Chiefs Really Do?

9:55 AM, Jul 7, 2008 • By DEAN BARNETT
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Before the long weekend began, Barack Obama made a semi-flip-flop regarding the situation in Iraq, even allowing that the surge had achieved some stability and that the next president would be foolish to fritter away those gains. Predictably, this acknowledgement of the obvious triggered howls of outrage on the left. Obama firmly stuck to his new position for almost two full hours before assembling the press once more to reaffirm his long-expressed intention to abandon Iraq. "I am absolutely committed to ending the war," the longtime community organizer declared. "I will call my Joint Chiefs of Staff in and give them a new assignment and that is to end the war."

While everyone has focused on the first part of the statement - Obama's "absolute commitment" to defeat - I want to devote a little attention to the second part, the mechanism whereby Obama will make that defeat a reality. In Obama's telling, he will call in his Joint Chiefs of Staff and reset their priorities.

I know Obama is a student of military matters and intellectually voracious, so it is thus rather stunning that he would betray such ignorance regarding the way the military actually functions. In truth, the Joint Chiefs are not part of the chain of command. Indeed, they are specifically by statute not part of the chain of command but instead serve solely in an advisory capacity to the president.

Surely Obama knows this. Obviously he wouldn't be seeking the role of Commander-in-Chief without knowing how the job is done. So what follows will be familiar to him, but may be enlightening to the media types who to date have overlooked yet another Obama misstatement.

In 1986, the Goldwater-Nichols act passed congress, and it reorganized the way the military functions. Its prime goal regarding the Joint Chiefs was to cut down on inter-service rivalries. To give you the hyper-condensed Reader's Digest version of things (which will still obviously put you several leagues ahead of presumptive-nominee Obama), the intent was that a guy like Norman Schwarzkopf could have command of a theatre without having to repeatedly go hat in hand to the different services. The Joint Chiefs would have a representative from each of the services that could advise the president of their individual service's insights, but they were specifically cut out of the command loop so that the Schwarzkopf-type could run things efficiently.

So what is to become of our poor President Obama, barking out orders to his Joint Chiefs only to learn that they don't carry out orders but just give advice? Will he claim he is powerless to end the war? Or will he eventually figure out that he has to get Odierno or Gates or Petraeus on the phone to make his wishes known?

And what are we to think of our Candidate Obama? I'll admit the Goldwater-Nichols act isn't exactly a household name like Miley Cyrus or Amy Winehouse, but the guy is running for president for the specific purpose of making war time changes. As he's been running for office for 18 months now, shouldn't he have found some time to explore the way the president interacts with the military rather than repeat canned (not to mention erroneous) assumptions he's probably held since his community organizing days?