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Obama Names ‘Pragmatic’ Gen. Dempsey to Head Joint Chiefs of Staff

May 30, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
President Obama chose Memorial Day to announce that Gen. Martin Dempsey will succeed Adm. Mike Mullen as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Jeffrey Brown discusses the president's announcement with former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Celeste Ward Gventer and Washington Post military correspondent Greg Jaffe.

TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: President Obama today tapped the man he wants to head the nation’s military establishment. He acted as the country paused to remember its war dead and as combat continued in Afghanistan.

The president chose Memorial Day to name a new leader of the nation’s military, along with other top officers.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The men and women of our armed forces are the best our nation has to offer, and they deserve nothing but the absolute best in return. And that includes leaders who will guide them.

JEFFREY BROWN: The pick to replace retiring Adm. Mike Mullen as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was Army Gen. Martin Dempsey. He’s been Army chief of staff for less than two months.

Dempsey is a veteran of nearly 40 years in the Army. He’s commanded troops in Iraq and served as both deputy and acting commander at U.S. Central Command.

The president also announced a new vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs to replace Marine Gen. James Cartwright, who is also retiring. The nominee is Navy Adm. James Winnefeld. He’s been head of the U.S. Northern Command and served as a NATO commander and on the Joint Staff.

BARACK OBAMA: Between them, they bring deep experience in virtually every domain, land, air, space, sea, cyber. Both of them have the respect and the trust of our troops on the front lines, our friends in Congress, and allies and partners abroad. And both of them have my full confidence.

They both have something else. For the first time, the chairman and vice chairman will have the experience of leading combat operations in the years since 9/11.

JEFFREY BROWN: And with Gen. Dempsey moving up, the president chose Gen. Ray Odierno to be the next Army chief of staff. Odierno is currently head of the U.S. Joint Forces Command. He previously served three tours of duty in Iraq, including as top U.S. commander.

All three men, Dempsey, Winnefeld and Odierno, face a series of daunting challenges, as the president made clear.

BARACK OBAMA: We have much to do, from bringing our troops home from Iraq to beginning to reduce our forces in Afghanistan this summer and in transitioning to Afghan lead, from defeating al-Qaida to protecting the Libyan people, all this even as we make difficult budget decisions while keeping our military the finest fighting force in the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: From the challenges of the present, the president moved on to Arlington National Cemetery to honor the sacrifices of the past. He placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns…

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ROBERT GATES: The president of the United States.

JEFFREY BROWN: … before addressing the Memorial Day audience.

BARACK OBAMA: That’s what we memorialize today, that spirit that says, “Send me, no matter the mission. Send me, no matter the risk. Send me, no matter how great the sacrifice I am called to make.”

The patriots we memorialize today sacrificed not only all they had, but all they would ever know. They gave of themselves until they had nothing more to give.

(MUSIC)

JEFFREY BROWN: U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan joined in honoring fallen comrades with a candlelight vigil Sunday evening in Kabul.

MAJ. ERICA IVERSON, U.S. Army: We’re doing what we can here that they aren’t forgotten here and that the legacy of all those service members who have given the ultimate sacrifice, that that’s what we’re doing here tonight. We’re here to recognize them, so that they know that their – their legacy is not – is remembered, and not forgotten.

JEFFREY BROWN: And today, at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province, U.S. Marines held a flag-raising ceremony and read the names of some of those killed in Afghanistan.

More than 1,400 Americans have died in the fighting there since 2001. U.S. withdrawals are due to begin in July, but the pace of violence has quickened of late. Four more NATO soldiers died today. And, in Herat, a suicide bomber blew up his car outside an Italian military base, killing at least four Afghans and wounding several dozen people.

In addition, a NATO airstrike on Saturday accidentally killed at least 14 women and children.

MOHAMMED BAZ, victims’ relative (through translator): About 300 meters away from our houses, American forces were fighting the Taliban, and then an American plane appeared in the sky. And I was sitting in my house when the plane started bombing. Three houses in our neighborhood, including my house, were bombed.

JEFFREY BROWN: Today, NATO issued a formal apology for the incident.

Still, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Adm. Mullen, voiced hope today about the status of the Afghan war.

ADM. MICHAEL MULLEN, Joints Chiefs chairman: We have made progress in Afghanistan, significant security progress in particular. I think we will continue to do so this year. I think we will have a much better sight picture on where to go in Afghanistan and in the region towards the end of this year.

BARACK OBAMA: Thank you very much, everybody.

JEFFREY BROWN: Gen. Dempsey and the others nominated today will now be part of the group trying to get that picture in focus, once, as expected the U.S. Senate confirms them to their new posts over the summer.

And for more on today’s announcement on the new military leaders, we turn to Celeste Ward Gventer. She served as deputy assistant secretary of defense in 2006 and 2007, and also had two tours in Iraq as a civilian adviser. She’s now at the University of Texas in Austin. And Greg Jaffe is military correspondent for The Washington Post.

Greg, I will start with you.

You spent time with Gen. Dempsey, interviewed him a number of times. What should we know about him and his experience?

GREG JAFFE, The Washington Post: Well, he spent a tremendous amount of time in Iraq, both as the commander of the First Armored Division in Baghdad, where he was leading troops in kind of 2003 and 2004, as the insurgency was really gathering steam. And he did a good job.

He had an Army that really wasn’t prepared for the kind of fight that it was taking on. I don’t think he had personally prepared to fight an insurgency. And…

JEFFREY BROWN: That was a particularly difficult time.

GREG JAFFE: It was a particularly difficult time. And I think he proved the – he had the ability to kind of learn and adjust on the fly, which is an important skill in a military officer.

JEFFREY BROWN: Celeste Gventer, what would you add to that? And is he a man whose views on policy are known?

CELESTE WARD GVENTER, University of Texas at Austin: Well, Jeff, thank you for having me. It’s a delight to be with you today.

I think there’s no shortage of encomiums out there of senior military officers of late. And sometimes it’s hard to get a sense of what these guys are like on a day-to-day basis. But I worked with Gen. Dempsey in 2006 in Iraq, when he was the commander overseeing the training of Iraqi police and army.

And what stands out to me about Gen. Dempsey is that he’s a very genuine person. He’s a smart person, but not an ideologue, not strongly associated with some of the main theologies currently circulating in the Pentagon and in defense circles. He’s got what people in Texas perhaps call a lot of horse sense, very – very commonsense, very pragmatic.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, I want you to both take a step back.

Greg, you start, just to help us understand, what does it – why does it matter? How much does it matter who is in charge of the Joint Chiefs? What – what is their role nowadays?

GREG JAFFE: Well, you know, I think it matters a lot.

A guy like Dempsey, he’s going to be the public face of the military on an issue like don’t ask, don’t tell and gays in the military and that repeal. Adm. Mullen was really important in setting the tone for the military.

The other thing is he’s the principal adviser to the president on issues like Afghanistan, on Pakistan. And, finally, and perhaps most importantly, you know, in a time when we’re cutting defense budgets, it’s his job to sort of mediate and lead discussions among the chiefs, the chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and the commandant of the Marine Corps, and help bring them to a consensus and bring that to the president.

And I think that’s really important, when the president is asking the military to do something that is relatively unpopular among them, which is to make significant cuts.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, and Celeste Gventer, he’s joining a team now – and it’s a largely new team of incoming people at Defense, Leon Panetta and CIA and Gen. Petraeus.

Is the chair of the Joint Chiefs expected to just be a team player, to express his own views? What does history tell us, and what do you – what do we know of this general?

CELESTE WARD GVENTER: Well, I think, in fact, part of the rationale behind the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act that refined the role of the chairman was precisely to give him a larger voice in such debates.

And he is the principal military adviser to the president, the National Security Council and the secretary of defense. And I think if one reads any of the most recent accounts of significant internal debates on Iraq and Afghanistan, you see that the chairman’s voice is indeed quite influential.

And so, he can really have a big effect on planning and on policy formulation, even though he’s not in the operational chain of command.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Greg, it was widely reported that the president wanted someone else first. That’s the outgoing vice chairman, Marine Gen. James Cartwright. He fell out of favor. What – what happened? What do we know?

GREG JAFFE: You know, I think part of the issue with Gen. Cartwright is he had the trust of President Obama. I think President Obama particularly valued his advice on the issue of Afghanistan, where he had brought the president some options in terms of a smaller footprint in Afghanistan than what the president ultimately decided upon.

I think the problem with Gen. Cartwright is that he had a somewhat strained relationship with Adm. Mullen, the chairman. He had a somewhat strained relationship with some of the senior four-stars in the Pentagon.

And at a time when you were going to be asking the military to make some tough and unpopular decisions, you know, you were going to be managing the drawdown in Afghanistan, you were going to be managing cuts to the defense budget, I think you wanted somebody – or the Obama administration wanted somebody who was going to be listened to, who was well-liked among his sort of peers in the Pentagon.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you have anything to add to that, Celeste Gventer? It sort of goes to the question of the political role or management role of this position.

CELESTE WARD GVENTER: Well, I think Greg is right that they needed somebody who is known for a very collegial approach, and who is well-liked throughout military circles, and who can work to build consensus.

You know, this chairman, and in fact the new chief of staff of the Army, if confirmed, all have their work cut out for them. There are major problems on the horizon that the Pentagon will have to confront, budgetary constraints, drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

You know, we’re celebrating our ninth Memorial Day today since the U.S. has been at war since Sept. 11, and you have got less than 1 percent of the American population essentially serving in these conflicts. And they’re tired and they’re worn-out. And these will be serious problems that the Pentagon will have to confront in an era of dwindling resources.

JEFFREY BROWN: And tell us a little bit more, starting with you, Celeste, about – one of them, of course, is key decisions coming in Afghanistan.

CELESTE WARD GVENTER: Well, of course, in July, the administration is set to reduce U.S. – overall U.S. forces in Afghanistan, although the number is not yet firm of exactly how many U.S. forces will be – will be reduced.

I think it’s interesting that we’re about to have a discussion about the debt ceiling, and to reflect on the fact that, of the $28 billion per week that the United States borrows, approximately, about $3 billion of that is to support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And it’s hard to see how expenditures at this level can continue while we’re trying to cut deficits. And I think this is going to be a real challenge. And the Pentagon is going to have to figure out how it fits into that debate.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Greg, I mean, you both have mentioned the defense cut debate here. And that’s gotten under way with Secretary Gates and others. Where does Gen. Dempsey fit in to – to that?

GREG JAFFE: You know, as Army chief, which he was only Army chief for about two months, but one of his first things as Army chief was, he talked very frankly about the fact that there were cuts were coming and that the Army was going to have to live within its means.

You know, the days of the Army sort of asking for what it wanted and getting everything were gone. So, I think he’s cognizant that cuts are coming. I’m not sure he has got a plan – I’m not sure anyone has a plan – as to what should be cut. And that’s, I think, a cause of sort of great consternation in the Pentagon right now.

There’s not a ton of fat to cut, which sounds ridiculous, given the size of the Pentagon’s budget, but I think is largely true.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Celeste, a final word on – are his record – are his views on that or on, say, Afghanistan on the record at all? Or is this, now we wait to see what role he plays in these debates?

CELESTE WARD GVENTER: Well, again, I think that Gen. Dempsey will play a very pragmatic role. And he will bring a real – a very down-to-earth perspective. He’s – he’s not going to bring a theological perspective to this. He’s going to do what makes sense.

I think his views are not entirely clear, at least publicly, at this point, although he has emphasized the need to deal with the wars that we’re in. But I think he’s going to go at this with a very practical approach.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

Celeste Ward Gventer, Greg Jaffe, thank you both very much.