Gen. John Shalikashvili: An Appreciation

Rudy deLeon looks back on the outstanding achievements of this young East European immigrant refugee who became President Clinton’s chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Shalikashvili, right, shown here with CAP Senior Vice President of National Security and International Policy Rudy deLeon, second from left, would help guide policy decisions that would greatly shape American policy and national security interests after the Cold War. (Center for American Progress)
Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Shalikashvili, right, shown here with CAP Senior Vice President of National Security and International Policy Rudy deLeon, second from left, would help guide policy decisions that would greatly shape American policy and national security interests after the Cold War. (Center for American Progress)

Gen. John Shalikashvili, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1993 to 1997, passed away last week at Madigan Army Hospital near Tacoma, Washington. I am proud to count “Shali,” as he was known to most, as a friend and a colleague, but most of all I am proud of how our nation embraced and then came to rely upon this young East European immigrant refugee as one of our most important leaders during the turmoil of the post-Cold War world we live in today.

On his last day as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, President Clinton awarded Shali the Medal of Freedom, saying Shali’s “sound judgment and strategic vision have been instrumental in preparing our Armed Forces for the challenges of today and the 21st century.” And upon hearing the news of Shali’s passing, the former president noted that the general “never shied away from doing what he believed was the right thing.”

Anyone who served with Shali would readily agree with President Clinton’s comments.

As the staff director of the House Armed Services Committee, I first met U.S. Army Lt. Gen. John Shalikasvili in the moments before a winter 1992 hearing on the Kurdish refugees. In the days following the end of the Gulf War, the Kurds of Northern Iraq had been forced into the mountainous areas along the Turkish-Iraqi border. With few supplies and little cover from the mountain weather, a humanitarian crisis existed for several hundred thousand refugees.

Shali was given the mission to protect and assist the Kurdish refugees, and it became known as Operation Provide Comfort. The U.S.-led response created temporary tent cities, sanctuaries from the hostile Iraqi forces of Saddam Hussein, and allowed the refugees to return home to more sustainable positions. At the time, the U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, Mort Abramowitz, said it was an “extraordinary achievement to save that many refugees, and it required exceptional skills and talents.” Shali, Abramowitz continued, had a genuinely profound humanitarian streak and was “a superb diplomat and excellent soldier.”

Two years later, working as a senior civilian official for the secretary of defense, I once again came face to face with Gen. Shali in the immediate days of his selection to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs, following the retirement of Gen. Colin Powell in the fall of 1993. On a quiet Friday afternoon at the Pentagon, the press wires reported that within the archives of the Stanford University’s Hoover Institute were the personal records of Shali’s father, Dmitri Shalikashvili, a refugee to the United States, and formerly of the Soviet republic of Georgia.

In the days of the Russian Revolution, Dmitri had fought with the White Russian army against the communists. After World War I, Dmitri would migrate to Poland, join the Polish cavalry, and raise a family, including his son John Shalikashvili, who was born in 1936. In the early days of World War II, Dmitri and the Polish forces would oppose the German army but were no match for the blitzkrieg. After World War II, relatives and the Episcopalian Church would help Dmitri and his family move to America, finding a home in Peoria, Illinois.

Buried, however, within the archives of the Hoover Institute was an additional chapter for Dmitri. After the defeat of the Polish forces, the elder Shali had joined the Georgian Legion, an anticommunist unit that eventually would serve in Italy under the command of the German Waffen SS. There was no suggestion of any personal misconduct but the information that had been buried for almost 50 years came as a surprise.

That evening, in the back office of Defense Secretary Les Aspin, the Pentagon’s Deputy Secretary Bill Perry and I laid out for General Shali and other senior Pentagon leaders the information contained in the Hoover archives. Following the briefing, there were two immediate reactions within the room.

First, it was clear that Shali was hearing these details on Dmitri, the Georgian Legion, and their connection to the Germans for the first time. At the time of these events, Shali was a young boy living in Warsaw. Second, there was never a doubt that the information on the father would impact the nomination of his son, already a four-star U.S. Army general, to be the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

Shali’s journey from Poland to the Pentagon was unique. There is no single path to responsibility and leadership within the U.S. military. Promotion is open to those who earn it with hard work, muddy boots, and personalities that can be both humble and decisive. The young Shali would learn English, become a U.S. citizen, and go to college. Later, he was drafted into the U.S. Army where he would be sent to officer candidate school, serve in Vietnam, and eventually to be America’s top soldier in Europe.

The author David Halberstam would write of Shali on the eve of his selection to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs that the general had “an immigrant’s special appreciation for America and a belief that this country, not just in the eyes of its own citizens, but in the eyes of much of the world, was the place the least fortunate turned to as the court of last resort.”

As the Senate prepared to confirm the general for the top U.S. military post, and in testimony to Shali’s unique history and exceptional skills, they were not concerned about the Hoover Institute revelations but rather about how such a valuable U.S. military leader could be replaced in Europe, where he was serving at the time.

During his tenure with the Clinton administration and his service with Secretary of Defense William Perry, Shali would help guide policy decisions that would greatly shape American policy and national security interests after the Cold War. When the Berlin Wall came down and the Cold War had ended, the Partnership for Peace—to build trust within a unifying continent—quickly made common cause with the newly independent states of central Europe. Nations that had just a few years before been members of the Warsaw Pact, were by 1994 engaged in a framework that promoted democratic control of defense forces, transparency in military planning, and cooperative military relations with NATO.

The precedents for such an undertaking were few, but many of the original concepts had come from the thinking and experience of Shali in Europe. He had experienced first hand the terrible devastation of a continent driven by decades of war and division. At its core, the Partnership for Peace understood that stability and security in Europe could only be built through cooperation and common action with countries that a decade earlier had been lined up on the other side.

NATO expanded its membership to include the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland. President Clinton would declare “one of the proudest moments” of his presidency as those countries celebrated their freedom and the enlargement of democracy. The entire venture was a bold and immediate action to embrace old friends with a new opportunity, launched by Shali’s early vision.

If the Partnership for Peace reflected cooperation and common action, the ethnic tensions that were unleashed in the Balkans with the end of the Cold War reflected the exact opposites. This was a new period of civil war, ethnic conflict, and humanitarian need—a time when Shali’s military leadership provided the Clinton national security team with innovative tools that could stop the human suffering.

Shali helped lead the United States forward in this changing world in innovative and unique ways—bringing parts of Europe together peacefully and forcing other parts to accept peace, or at least step away from ethnic genocide. And at the same time, the Pentagon improved its management and discipline as the United States reduced its fiscal deficits and stepped closer to a balanced federal budget by decade’s end.

America entered the 21st century stronger in so many ways because of Gen. Shalikashvili. I was honored to work with Shali, both in the Pentagon and later in the private sector. His wife Joan and son Brant will miss a husband and father. The U.S. Army will miss a great soldier. I will miss a good friend.

Rudy deLeon is Senior Vice President for National Security at the Center for American Progress.

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Rudy deLeon

Senior Fellow