In a surprise move, President Obama has nominated Army Chief of Staff Martin Dempsey to be the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The president also named Navy Admiral James A. “Sandy” Winnefeld, Jr. as vice chairman, and Army Gen. Ray Odierno as Dempsey’s replacement as Army Chief of Staff.
Dempsey will be replacing Admiral Mike Mullen whose term expires in September. First nominated by President Bush, Mullen’s tenure was marked by the successful surge in Iraq and the buildup in Afghanistan, as well as the controversial elimination of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gay service people.
What the president gets in tagging Dempsey as JCS chief is a tough minded, combat tested soldier who has had some of the top commands in the army, and who has proven himself to be a genuine leader on the battlefield and a consensus builder in the slippery political world of the Pentagon. He will need these qualities as he oversees what is certain to be a trying time for the Department of Defense. A probable draw down of forces in Afghanistan beginning in July, as well as almost certain painful military budget cuts, will test General Dempsey’s ability to work with both the politicians at the White House and the military command structure in the Pentagon.
In choosing Dempsey, Obama bypassed a candidate known for his close relationship with the president, as well as an independent streak that got him in trouble with his superiors at the Pentagon. Pentagon insiders fully expected Admiral Mike Mullen’s vice chairman, Marine General James Cartwright, to move up to the top spot. In fact, the Washington Post reports that President Obama “informally” offered the job to Cartwright three times, with the general even putting off his retirement so that he could take the chairmanship when Admiral Mullen’s term was up in September.
But several factors worked against Cartwright to deny him the job. He angered his superiors at the Pentagon when, during the formal review of the situation in Afghanistan in 2009, he sided with Vice President Joe Biden in recommending only 20,000 additional troops be sent. There was also the embarrassing matter of charges of inappropriate behavior with a female subordinate. The inspector general cleared him of the worst of those accusations, but some at the White House believed it would complicate his confirmation hearing.
Over the last few months, Cartwright’s stock had declined while Dempsey’s skyrocketed. He was just confirmed in March as Army chief of staff after serving two tours in Iraq – one as commander of the famous 1st Armored Division (“Old Ironsides”), where he impressed his superiors with his handling of the Iraqi insurgency. He moved on to take over training the Iraqi army and police, and then served as Deputy Commander of CENTCOM. The president nominated him for the top Army job in January of this year.
There were some in the Pentagon who believed that current Afghanistan commander General David Petreus would ascend to the chairmanship of the joint chiefs. But there was apparently some opposition in the White House due to speculation that Petreus may run for the presidency. He was also seen as a “Bush man” by some of the president’s advisors. Obama nominated Petreaus for the position of CIA director in May.
When General Dempsey assumes the chairmanship in September, the decision about how many troops to bring home from Afghanistan will already have been made. If history is any guide, he will likely side with the consensus view in the Pentagon that we should withdraw as few troops as possible in order to keep up the momentum we’ve gained in fighting the Taliban, especially in Kandahar province. His leadership skills are likely to be sorely tested on this matter, as most military observers believe a bruising battle is ahead with the White House as the president’s political advisors will no doubt want to draw down the number of soldiers more quickly than the commanders in Afghanistan. The cost of the war will also be a factor in determining at what pace the draw down will proceed.
The president wants to take the successful winding down of the war in Afghanistan to the voters in 2012. It will be a tough sell for Dempsey to try and curtail future large cuts in combat forces with the White House switching to full re-election mode.
Perhaps his greatest challenge will be to protect vital defense priorities from the budget cutters on both sides of the aisle in congress. Defense Secretary Gates has already targeted $500 billion in Pentagon cuts over the next 10 years. But President Obama said in his speech at George Washington University that he was seeking an additional $400 billion in cuts to fight the federal deficit. Guiding the White House and Congress in their efforts to trim the deficit without gutting necessary programs will be a thankless task, and will affect the readiness and capabilities of our military for many years to come.
The president has made it clear with his plan to cut defense so drastically that he sees a reduced role in world affairs for the United States and that we don’t need a military with our current capabilities. As Baker Spring at the Heritage Foundation points out, the coming review of defense spending “will emphasize not how the U.S. will more effectively strengthen its role in world affairs but how to diminish the U.S. role.” Dempsey will be fighting a rear guard action for the most part, but he has impressed observers in the past with his common sense approach to problems, which should hold him in good stead as he faces these challenges.
Unlike General Cartwright, Dempsey is considered a “low tech” soldier, who believes in applying timeless principles of leadership to the battlefield. A graduate of both the Army War College and General Staff College, Dempsey replaced the sophisticated war gaming that was being used by the Army with a series of seminars devoted to “producing more flexible and free-thinking officers at all levels.”
Dempsey is “deeply skeptical” of technology being able to alter the basic nature of combat. He wrote recently in the introduction to the Army’s main operating concept, “We operate where our enemies, indigenous populations, culture, politics, and religion intersect and where the fog and friction of war persists.” In the end, it comes down to boots on the ground performing their jobs under competent command leadership.
His critics claim he doesn’t think as much as he should about future warfare and that he is too narrowly focused on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is significant that Dempsey was named to command the 7th Army in Europe, but never took the job because of an opening caused by the retirement of Central Command chief Admiral Fallon in March of 2008. He became acting commander of CENTCOM before sliding into the deputy slot in October. Clearly, the Pentagon believes his knowledge of other theaters is not deficient.
President Obama said upon introducing Dempsey in the Rose Garden on Monday, “Marty, your tenure as chief may go down as one of the shortest in army history. But it is your lifetime of accomplishment that brings us here today.”
General Dempsey will need every bit of his experience and wisdom gleaned from a “lifetime of accomplishment” if he is to guide the president and the military through some contentious and dangerous times.