WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Tuesday nominated a respected, combat hardened commander as his next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to lead the military during a key period of transition.
Obama chose Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr. to succeed Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, who has served four years as chairman.
“I know Joe, I trust him,” Obama said. “He has already proven his ability to give me his unvarnished military advice based on his experience on the ground.”
Obama made the announcement at the White House Tuesday. Dunford is expected to be easily confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
His selection signals that even as the U.S. puts more focus on Asia and looks ahead to high-tech cyber and space threats, the administration still believes a strong ground force commander is needed to work through the ongoing conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and across the Middle East and Africa.
Obama emphasized Dunford’s role in moving the U.S. to the end of combat operations in Afghanistan.
“Under his steady hand we’ve achieved key milestones, including the transition to Afghan responsibility for security, historic Afghan elections and the drawdown of U.S. forces,” Obama said.
Obama praised Dunford as “one of our military’s most highly regarded strategic thinkers” and described his work ethic as tireless, noting that some aides have been known to carry a voice recorder to keep track of his commands and ideas.
Dunford’s service as the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps will be cut short — he began that job last October. But the rapid promotion is one of several that have marked Dunford’s fast-tracked military career, which saw him leap from a one-star general to four stars in about three years.
Officials also said Obama is tapping Gen. Paul J. Selva, a top Air Force officer and pilot, to serve as vice chairman. Selva, who has clocked more than 3,100 hours piloting transport and refueling aircraft, is currently the head of U.S. Transportation Command at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois.
Dunford began his career as an infantry officer and has commanded at all levels. He served nearly two years in Iraq, including as head of the Marines’ 5th Regimental Combat Team during the 2003 invasion, where he earned the nickname “Fighting Joe.”
He is well-connected internationally, often meeting with NATO and other coalition leaders, particularly during his Afghanistan command.
While several top military officers were discussed during the process, including the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Mark Welsh, and U.S. Pacific Commander Adm. Samuel Locklear, Defense Secretary Ash Carter recommended that Dunford be the nominee, according to several officials with knowledge of the discussions.
If confirmed, Dunford would be only the second Marine to serve as chairman. Marine Gen. Peter Pace served one two-year term from 2005 to 2007, but was not renominated by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates because the Pentagon chief feared a long, difficult Senate hearing focusing on the sharp divisions over the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, wouldn’t confirm the selection Monday, but he gave the choice a thumbs-up — a critical factor for an administration that doesn’t want to go through a drawn-out Senate confirmation process.
Dunford’s most visible role came in 2013 when he was chosen to take over the job as top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan. During his 18 months there, Dunford oversaw the ongoing drawdown of U.S. troops, the transition to Afghan military lead in combat operations, and the tumultuous Afghan elections that dragged on and stalled efforts to reach an agreement on the U.S. military’s future presence in the country.
He left Afghanistan last August, preparing to take on his new role as commandant.
Dunford, 59, is a Boston native. He holds master’s degrees in government from Georgetown University and international relations from Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.