Nearly all of the obituaries for Gen. John Shalikashvili, who died July 23 at age 75, have stressed his humanity, sterling character and fascinating life story. And what a story it was. Only in America could a teenager with Georgian and Russian roots arrive as a displaced person, start military service as a draftee, and then rise to the rank of general and our nation’s most senior military officer. His life was a testament to a strong family, the desire to excel and a rare combination of humanity and intelligence.
John Shali — as he often introduced himself — loved soldiers. He enjoyed soldiering and often spoke of his noncommissioned officers and the lessons he learned in Europe, in Vietnam and at Fort Lewis, Wash. One day at Fort Polk, La., we were hours late taking off from a Partnership for Peace (P4P) exercise because Shali wanted to have his picture taken with dozens of small units from all around NATO and Central Europe. Beyond all of the important policy issues surrounding P4P, Shali knew that the soldiers would appreciate having their pictures taken with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. As usual, his wisdom was magnified by his empathy for others, whether they were young NATO soldiers or displaced Kurds.
Often overlooked by the media, Shali was also a sophisticated student of international affairs and a consummate strategist, a talent he honed by deep study and decades of overseas service. Shali became chairman of the Joint Chiefs at a time of significant change. After Desert Storm, U.S. forces were reduced by a third, creating the smallest military in many decades. At that time, senior officers were fixated on preparing for conventional wars. Shali played a key role in shifting their strategic appreciation from the Powell Doctrine of overwhelming force to one that accommodated using force short of war, peacekeeping and low-intensity conflict. He often said that the U.S. armed forces could not post a sign outside the Pentagon that said: “We only do the big ones.”
Shali knew the armed forces had to contribute to America’s role as the indispensable nation, a force for good in a world of failed states and internal conflicts. He also knew that these new missions meant that the armed forces would engage in both combat and stability operations — breaking things and then helping to pick up the pieces. He understood that forward presence and international cooperation were keys to success. As he told the Council on Foreign Relations: “In international affairs, as in battle, you can only lead from the front.”
His actions in the Balkans in particular were important in ending a brutal war in that region. He structured our air operations and the peace enforcement units, the 17,000 men and women of the Implementation Force (IFOR), to be the opposite of its hapless predecessor, the U.N. Protection Force, which had been unable to stop even blatant acts of genocide. From its kinetic origins to its life as a peace enforcement effort, IFOR, in Shali’s words, was characterized by “close coordination between the diplomat and the soldier,” a clear and concise mission and a “straightforward chain of command.” He praised our troops there and lauded the dedicated leadership of the IFOR and NATO commanders. Shali also celebrated the fact that IFOR’s troop list included a Russian brigade, a landmark exercise in great power cooperation. In the end, the alliance did not restore harmony to the fractious Balkans, but it did allow for an end to bloodshed and the emergence of an uneasy peace.
Shali also furthered jointness and interagency cooperation. His chairmanship coincided with the 10th anniversary of the Goldwater-Nichols legislation, which elevated the chairman to be the principal military adviser to the defense secretary and the president, enhanced the role of overseas combatant commanders and improved military advice to our nation’s leaders. Shali enhanced the collegiality of the chiefs and worked smoothly and effectively with two defense secretaries, one from each of the major political parties. When the situation demanded it, however, he did not hesitate to speak out. In one case, he reminded a New York audience that procurement spending had dropped to a dangerously low level. Shali told them that safety required an increase of $20 billion. He continued to sound this alarm up to the end of his term.
The chairman pushed the services to further joint education and experience in the officer corps. He also pushed the system to improve long-range planning. Under his guidance, the Joint Staff, with significant input from the chiefs, developed Joint Vision 2010, looking out 15 years. The notion was that these vision documents would inform long-range developments and future doctrine for all of the services. This effort, however, was not entirely successful. While it did capture the dynamism of technology, the vision document and the one developed by the next chairman, Army Gen. Hugh Shelton, failed to emphasize the salience of international terrorism in general, and the growth of al-Qaida in particular. The vision documents, however, did encourage later (and better) efforts to look into the future, both at Joint Forces Command and at the National Defense University.
Shali was an early advocate of whole-of-government solutions to the problem of complex contingencies. He reached out to the State Department to improve cooperation between the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom. Not only did he closely coordinate with then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and her staff, he also assigned his best officers, led by then-Lt. Gen. Wesley Clark, to work alongside Richard Holbrooke in the negotiations that led to the Dayton Accords.
To regularize cooperation, Shali sought a more inclusive interagency process and better national security policy. In December 1996, he said: “Problems in the interagency today remind me very much of the relationship among the services in 1986. We need an agreed-on, written-down, exercised organization and set of procedures to bring the full capabilities of the Department of Defense and all of the other relevant government departments and agencies to bear on the complex crises to which future presidents might commit us.”
After fits and starts, the Clinton administration developed (but never fully used) a planning mechanism for complex contingencies. Nearly a decade later, the Bush administration also recognized the validity of these notions and set up new processes and organizations, notably the State Department’s Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization, to help deal with whole-of-government operations in complex contingencies.
As Shali bridged the period between the Desert Storm military and that of his time, he also played a key role in preparing the armed forces for the next era, the one dominated by the war on terrorism. After attacks on our security assistance facility in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and the Khobar Towers barracks near Dharan, Shali and Defense Secretary Bill Perry launched an important series of anti-terrorism and force-protection measures for the entire armed forces. Strategic, operational and tactical intelligence priorities were also shifted in the direction of terrorism. Sadly, these measures did not prevent the 9/11 attacks five years later, but the journey toward better intelligence gathering, fusion and sharing on terrorism began on Shali’s watch.
Shali frequently ended his speeches and presentations with a set of strategic recommendations. Fifteen years later, they remain rock solid. First, he reminded his audiences that we have to maintain our core alliances. Today, he would be the first to chide NATO on burden-sharing issues, but he would also speak out on their contributions as well. He was keenly aware of the legitimacy inherent in multilateral solutions to international problems. Like all the great strategists, Shali knew that it was difficult to fight alongside allies, but a disaster to fight without them.
His second recommendation was to keep a sharp eye on the other great powers, most notably Russia and China. He was an early advocate for engagement and military-to-military contacts with rivals to help break down the barriers between us.
Finally, Shali argued for the importance of strength and the maintenance of multicontingency military capabilities. He would remind the skeptics that — five years before 9/11 and the war on terrorism — the soldiers and Marines of his day were deployed “for around 140 days [per year] on average,” half our ships were underway at any one time and our Air Force had quadrupled its personnel deployments compared with Cold War norms. Were he to speak to our current Congress, he would remind the members that his experience as chairman taught him that, as he said in a 1996 speech, “We must also resist the tempting notions that somehow, somewhere, there is some undiscovered answer that will allow us to do more with less.”
In all, Shali is a great role model for today’s senior leaders. He was highly experienced and closely networked with his international peers. His opinions were informed by years of study and careful strategic thinking. He never sought the limelight. Shali’s view was always the broad view. He also was not afraid to change his mind when facts and circumstances warranted it. On the issue of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” for example, he went from being a proponent to being an opponent. When he saw changing attitudes and new data on the policy from allied experiences, he reversed his position and spoke out on the subject, long before it became fashionable to do so.
While Shali was intellectually ahead of many of his peers, he was also a great listener and invariably polite, whether his interlocutor was a senator or a sergeant. He epitomized Clausewitz’s notion of the senior general who simultaneously was both a military man and a statesman. He was also a considerate and humble man, one who loved his family, the Army and the country that adopted him. His humanity and his strategic wisdom will be sorely missed. AFJ