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Joint Chiefs chairman Dempsey on Ukraine, military sex abuse and budget cuts

March 7, 2014 at 6:10 PM EDT
Judy Woodruff interviews Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey at the Pentagon about the escalating risks of the Ukraine crisis, finding a balance between budget reduction and military readiness, the uncertain future of the United States in Afghanistan and the increase of sexual assaults and misconduct within the armed forces.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The crisis in Ukraine, budget battles, the wind-down and uncertainty of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and the increase of sexual assaults in the armed forces and what to do about it, these are all front-burner issues for the highest-ranking uniformed member of the military, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Army General Martin Dempsey.

In a rare television interview, he sat down with me earlier today at the Pentagon.

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, thank you very much for talking with us.

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff: Well, I’m excited to be here today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The United States is sending more military material, forces into Eastern Europe, F-15s into the Baltics, F-16s to Poland, another warship into the Black Sea. What message is the U.S. trying to send to Russia right now?

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY: We’re clearly trying to send a message to Russia, almost exclusively through diplomatic channels, so that I do have an open line with my Russian counterpart that I have used twice the last two days.

But we’re trying to tell them not to escalate this thing further into Eastern Ukraine and allow the conditions to be set for some kind of resolution in the Crimea. But the message we are sending militarily is to our NATO allies.

So, one of our responsibilities at times like this is to reassure our allies. And so the deployments you mentioned into the Baltic air policing mission, into the aviation detachment in Poland, the deployment of the ship, are really intended to reassure our allies.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, the U.S. is saying to the allies, if this were to come to some sort of military conflict, the U.S. would back up NATO?

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY: Well, don’t forget, we have — actually, we have NATO treaty obligations under Article 5 for collective defense.

And, so, when they ask us for reassurance or they ask us to — for contingency planning, we respond, and we do have obligations with NATO.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, if there were to be a misunderstanding of some sort, if there were to be an accident that were to lead to something bigger, has the administration thought through the consequences of what that means, the two countries that are the greatest armed powers on the planet involved?

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY: Well, that’s why we’re seeking aggressively to resolve this diplomatically, before we would reach the point where there could be a miscalculation.

It’s probably worth mentioning why this is so unsettling to the Eastern Europeans. You know, we live here in America and sometimes don’t understand the realities of geography and demographics in Eastern Europe.

There are — if Russia is allowed to do this, which is to say move into a sovereign country under the guise of protecting ethnic Russians in Ukraine, it exposes Eastern Europe to some significant risk, because there are ethnic enclaves all over Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

I will give you one example. There are 400,000 ethnic Romanians living in Ukraine. So this is enormously unsettling.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you know what the Russians are saying is that they have an historic relationship with — with Crimea, and they’re saying the Crimean legislature has voted now to have a referendum, and they’re saying what the government in Kiev did was illegal.

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY: Of course they are. And they’re trying to roll back to the February 21 agreement, and we’re trying to suggest that, really, the clock started on February 24.

Those are matters of diplomacy. Our role, as the military, is to seek ways to influence this without it being escalatory. And, by the way, I do have this open line with my Russian counterpart. So, everything that we have done, I tell him, here’s what we’re doing. Here’s why we’re doing it. We disagree fundamentally about your claim of legitimacy, but, as militaries, let’s try to avoid escalating this thing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But there is a chance it could escalate?

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY: Of course there is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There is a chance of military conflict?


JUDY WOODRUFF: And is the U.S. prepared if that happened?

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY: Well, that’s a question that I think deserves to be assessed and reassessed and refreshed as this thing evolves.

But, remember, we do have treaty obligations with our NATO allies. And I have assured them that, if that treaty obligation is triggered, we would respond.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much of your time right now, General Dempsey, is spent on this issue?

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY: Well, quite a bit, although there’s other things going on in the world. And we just have this little matter of the budget.

So, as much as I need to spend on it, I’m spending on it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, speaking of the budget, the administration announced just — and the Pentagon announced just a few days ago that there’s going to be a — or that you would like to have a downsizing of materiel and troops back to a size that we haven’t seen since before World War II.

Because of what’s going on right now in Eastern Europe, any second thoughts about that?

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY: Well, I’m not sure that if we had a million-man Army, that it would make — would have made any difference in the Russian calculation to enter the — to enter Ukraine.

But, that said, we do have an obligation to deter conflict and to prepare for it should it occur. And we are reaching a point, because not only the depth of the budget reductions, but also the mechanism, the draconian way it’s applied, where we really can’t move money around or balance the budget in any responsible way, that is affecting our readiness.

So, if you’re asking me, you know, does this increase the urgency with which I articulate the risks that we are beginning to accrue, sure, it does.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I ask because I’m sure you know there has been a crescendo of criticism. The chairman of the House Armed Services — Armed Services Committee, Congressman Buck McKeon, among other things, said this.

He has called the downsizing immoral. He says U.S. adversaries are growing bolder as a result of it. He talks about China and Russia arming up while the U.S. is preparing to arm down.

How do you answer this?

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY: Well, I think the we can still be — look, even at the budget level that has been submitted by the department, which is about $115 billion over the Budget Control Act, most commonly known as sequestration, at that level, we can still be the most powerful military in the world in 2020, which is about where we project out to.

There will be more than a million men and women in uniform in the active component and almost two million when you add up the Guard and Reserve. We have forward operating bases. We have close, strong alliances. This is not a military in decline, nor will it be at the level of the budget we submitted.

But if we’re driven to the full level — or the full reductions of the Budget Control Act, this thing called sequestration, yes, then we will have what I think would be too much risk.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me ask the question on the other side, which, as you know very well, a number of Republican and even — and Democratic deficit hawks are saying this budget doesn’t abide by the lower budget numbers of the past, that it ignores the deficit, blows a hole through it.


JUDY WOODRUFF: You have got critics coming from that side. What do you say to them?

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY: Well, you know, the — I’m trying to actually manage the criticisms on both sides and do what I think is right for the country.

And I think we have done that in the way we have articulated this budget submission and what we would do, both to be more fiscally responsible — you know, I’m a citizen, as well as a soldier, and I understand the fiscal constraints that the nation faces. And we can actually do this. That’s my message.

We can’t do it at sequestration levels. I have said that very clearly, but we can do it at the level of the submission. We have to have the flexibility, though, to make the hard decisions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Afghanistan, the president said that the U.S. is prepared to pull out all American troops from Afghanistan if you can’t get that security agreement you need from Afghanistan’s leaders.

Current President Karzai is saying he’s not going to do it. And, right now, the Afghan government has announced they’re dissolving a critical guard force that protects supply convoys, international aid groups.


JUDY WOODRUFF: What does all this mean for the future of the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan?


We do need a bilateral security agreement. And we need it because we need a demonstrated statement of commitment from the Afghans that they’re going to treat us like partners, and not, on occasion, accuse us of being occupiers.

If you’re asking me how I think this will resolve itself, I think we’re probably in a position where it’s unlikely we will get it from the current president, and probably more likely that we will get it after the elections, which will begin to constrain our options post-’14.

But I will also tell you, when I was over there, we had a very candid conversation with each other about the fact that, although there’s uncertainty in ’15 and beyond, we have got a lot of work to do in ’14. So, if you’re asking me where we’re focused right now, we’re focused on ’14.

Some of these things that President Karzai has done, with releasing prisoners and dissolving this convoy protection force, those are disturbing, because they’re — they violate agreements we have already made with them. And they’re risky because of the increased danger that they pose, but they’re also risky in the message it sends about, you know, their ability and willingness to live up to agreements as they’re made.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There have been — I’m going to turn back — there’s so much to ask you about, but I do want to ask you about a couple of other things that have gotten attention here in the United States, a number of embarrassing incidents in the last few years involving U.S. military personnel, suspicions of cheating on exams by sailors at a nuclear training program, Air Force officers accused of cheating on different qualification exams, separate scandal involving senior Navy commanders and other incidents.

What’s going on in the armed forces? Is this something, the kind of thing that’s always been happening, and it’s just now coming out, or is this a different period? How do you see it?

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY: I think what happened is, we have gotten a little careless maybe and sloppy over the last 10 years with the mechanisms that used to provide oversight, checks and balances, a safety net, if you will, for professionalism.

We became consumed with preparing to go on a deployment, going on the deployment, coming back, and getting ready to go again. We stopped sending young men and women to our professional military education when they should have gone. We stopped doing things like command climate surveys. We got sloppy with contracting oversight.

And we have got to go back — I will tell you what we have got to do. We have got to go back to the small disciplines that really make a difference in defining ourselves as a profession. And we will.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There are some analysts who have been out there saying you have been surprisingly low-key, though, on this issue, that they — that, in essence, they have said they have looked to you to speak up more about it, to admonish the forces more about it, and they have been surprised no one’s been publicly fired over these incidents.

How do you — what do you say about that?

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY: Well, what I say is don’t — don’t characterize my public persona with my level of interest and the urgency with which I deal with this internal to the profession.

And, by the way, we have to separate out these different issues. Some of them are actually criminal. Some of them are ethical and behavioral issues. Some of them are sophomoric cultural issues. And some of them are just plain stupidity.

And each of those has to be dealt with in a different way. You can’t lump all of that together and decide, you know, one size fits all.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Another issue, there’s been a lot of public attention recently around the problem of sexual assault and abuse in the military. Just yesterday, 55 United States senators…


JUDY WOODRUFF: … voted to take the prosecution for this kind of thing out of the chain of command.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Not enough to pass, but a majority of the Senate…


JUDY WOODRUFF: … said this.

What does this say about the confidence of our senior political leaders in the military’s ability to handle this?

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY: No, your point is a great one.

Even though Senator Gillibrand’s bill was defeated, a majority of the Senate of the United States expressed a lack of confidence in our ability to solve this ourselves. By the way, I respect greatly what both Senator Gillibrand and Senator McClaskey have done — McCaskill have done to help us with — to put a constellation of reforms around our Uniform Code of Military Justice to help us.

We are currently on the clock, if you will. The president of the United States said to us in December, you know what? You have got about a year to review this thing and show me you can make a difference.

And we understand that, you know, this — just because Senator Gillibrand’s bill was defeated yesterday doesn’t mean that, a year from now, it may not be reintroduced. And if we haven’t been able to demonstrate we’re making a difference, then we deserve to be held to the scrutiny and standard.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One other thing, General, news reports that a far larger number of troops are being kicked out of the armed forces with less-than-honorable discharges just in the last couple of years, many more so than in the past.

That means, of course, they are not eligible for veterans benefits. People who follow this issue say many of these are folks who are getting kicked out because they have acted up, but they’re acting up because of psychological trauma during Afghanistan and Iraq, and they’re not getting the treatment they need in the services.

How do you see this?

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY: Well, first of all, I see it.

Second of all, there are mechanisms in place, to — to the greatest extent possible, to make sure that we are both administering justice, if you will, for indiscipline and misbehavior, which we have to do, but, at the same time, understand the pressures that we have had the force under for the past 10 years.

There’s an appeals process that actually extends well into retirement. What we can’t do is begin to excuse indiscipline, misconduct and criminal behavior because of the possibility that it was created by the conditions of post-traumatic stress and other things.

The point here is, we have got to watch both of those. And I think we have got in place — I’m confident, in fact, we have got in place mechanisms to allow us to try to really unpack what has gone on. But that’s not to say that there won’t be the occasion where we maybe miss something. But we do see it, just as you described it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: General Martin Dempsey, thank you very much.

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY: Thank you for your interest.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Our conversation continues online, where General Dempsey tells us what books he’s reading right now, and about his love of literature and poetry.