General Dempsey: Silence on Military Strategy Not Bad for Now


Martin Dempsey 2.jpg

photo source: C-Span

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey said yesterday at a meeting hosted by the Atlantic Council that the absence of a public discussion about shifts and changes in US military strategy amidst certain significant budget goods is a ‘good thing’ for now.

Dempsey acknowledged that behind the scenes and in “the tank” — a place where military commanders can meet “without note-takers” and discuss complex strategic problems — a serious review of security objectives and resources is underway and that he’s “encouraged” by the military’s process and progress.

C-Span’s video of the entire meeting is available here — and the question I posed on budgets and a responding military strategy shift kicks in at 53:50. 

Washington Post national security columnist David Ignatius conducted the exchange with General Dempsey who in what was one of his first debut chats in a public forum was very relaxed, clearly informed about macro and micro military policy issues.  He even wrapped up his policy talk with a surprising, full-throated performance singing “Christmas in Kilarney.”  He was terrific — much better than John Ashcroft, with all due respect to the former Attorney General.

That said, General Dempsey and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta do a disservice to the national debate by promulgating the notion that America’s strategic course should be a function of closed debates by generals and admirals behind closed doors — that are then negotiated in mostly secret sessions with legislators and appropriators on Capitol Hill.  General Dempsey referred to a copy of the US Constitution that he carries with him which he said reminds him of who is responsible for what, noting that Congress is responsible for providing for the provisioning and training of an army and navy.

American citizens and their appetite for strategic obligations are
wrongly excluded from these discussions.  The General is right that
Members of Congress should represent those public interests and its
through the Defense Department’s exchange with Congress that this gets
sorted out.  But this is a time of significant discontinuity, a time
when America’s global social contract with other nations is under
stress.  Americans rightly feel that the quid pro quo of what America
got from the rest of the world in exchange for the economic,
geostrategic, and global institutional public goods the US provided has
been downsized significantly. 

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta
very frequently offers a roster of the strategic threats facing the
United States in his efforts to preempt further defense cuts.  At one such presentation in Nebraska at Offutt Air Base,
Panetta led his roster of threats with al Qaeda, which earlier in the
week the intelligence community which he used to help direct had stated
was hanging on by threads.  I don’t want to take a cheap shot at Panetta
who I think has the potential to be a consequential and thoughtful
defense secretary. 

But the fact is that the military establishment is offering a range of “threats
ranging from Iran’s nuclear ambitions to cyber threats to North Korean
adventurism, the rise of Chinese swagger, al Qaeda and more.  General
Dempsey said bluntly that America’s strategic risks were shifting to the
Asia Pacific, meaning China.  He also said in response to David
Ignatius’ question on whether the age of large-scale US
counter-insurgency deployments was over that he would not sign up to the
notion that we wouldn’t do any more Iraqs in the future — meaning that
he was not willing to go where Defense Secretary Robert Gates went in saying those kind of deployments hurt more than help America’s strategic position today.

Dempsey’s knowledge and facility discussing the nuts and bolts of
military strategy across a lot of disparate terrains was clear, he
didn’t show any ankle at all beyond what Obama has said in the past —
mainly that the Pacific matters to America more than the Middle East.

is most likely going to be in the global policing business for a long
time — but it’s clear that the US has to make some choices about what
its highest security priorities are and aren’t and how to leverage
constrained budgets to achieve more with less — something that Leon
Panetta said at the recent Halifax International Security Forum he expects from America’s partners in NATO.

discussion needs to have more inputs from American civil society and
those who are asked to pay the bills.  There is too much presumption by
America’s strategic class that strategic commitments can be sorted out
and made in the absence of public discussion and debate — and this is
not healthy.

Thumbnail image for Steve Clemons asking question of JCS Chairman General Martin Dempsey.jpgFrequently,
generals have gone on political talk shows and made assertions, for
instance, on how long US troops should stay in Afghanistan, often
pointing to dates or implying troop levels that are larger or that
extend beyond official policy as communicated by President Obama and his
national security team.  These involve commitments of hundreds of
billions of dollars without a discussion of the larger strategic costs
and benefits to the country.  The public should be a part of this
discussion, and frankly — those generals and admirals in the tanks
would be wise to take the temperature of an American public that is
growing weary of seeing the services that they pay for at home hollowed
out in favor of building out the national infrastructure of countries
abroad.  It’s still a remarkable and disturbing data point that the
United States is now spending about $120 billion per year in Afghanistan
which has a GDP of approximately $14 billion.

The transcript
of my exchange with General Dempsey follows below — but for those with
the time and interest, I think that the entire C-Span covered session is worth watching, including the General singing a Christmas tune.

Council ‘Commanders Series’ Meeting with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman
General Martin Dempsey; interviewed by David Ignatius

David Ignatius: 


Steve Clemons, The Atlantic:

Thank you General, Steve Clemons with The Atlantic.

At the Halifax International Security Summit,
Leon Panetta seemed a bit frustrated.  Part of his message was that
there is an age of austerity upon us and that NATO members, particularly
NATO defense secretaries there — he pushed them sort of hard, saying
that they needed to do more with less.  We understand that you have less
— but you need to do more.  There was some grumbling about the notion
that there was not a lot of talk about how the US would do more with

He made a statement:  “I refuse believe that we have to choose between
fiscal responsibility and national security.”  But in the talk, while he
was admitting that there are financial hits coming — as you have done
today — he tilted more towards almost disbelief that it was really
happening as opposed to talking about shifts in strategy.  When Don
Rumsfeld came in as Secretary of Defense before 9/11, you may remember
he wrestled with the generals a lot …

General Martin Dempsey:

I do…

Steve Clemons, The Atlantic:

talked about smart soldiers, smart systems, the applications of IT, the
changing nature of war, that we were going to create greater
efficiencies in this sector, and I have been surprised that we haven’t
seen more discussion of that kind of changing role.  How can you
actually get more security deliverables even if you are going to have
less fiscal resources.  We talk a lot about dollars but not about
capacity, and I’m interested in your reactions.  And that was the tone
you got from Leon Panetta at that Halifax summit.

General Martin Dempsey:

Sure. I’ll have to go back and tell Leon thanks a lot.  That’s the third time he has been quoted to me for me to react.

Let me pick up on one thing you said and maybe I can tie it together,
and that is that you’ve been surprised by the lack of discussion about
what kind of shifts in strategy…

I’m actually quite remarkably pleased by that, that we haven’t played
this out in the media.  I mean, no offense, but we’ve had to make some, I
mean really go through, I mean multiple “tank sessions” — and you know
what the “tank” is — it’s where military leaders gather and try to
have conversations without note-takers; it’s just to try to wrestle with
ourselves, these complex problems, to provide advice.  Then do the same
with combatant commanders; do the same with our civilian leaders.

I frankly can only tell you that I am encouraged by where we are.  I
think some time in the next couple of, well before the budget is
submitted we actually have to consult with Congress.  I carry a little
copy of the Constitution, a little pamphlet of the Constitution, in my
black jacket with me to remind myself of who is responsible for what,
and of course Congress is responsible for maintaining the navy and
organizing, equipping and training an army. That’s not to say that they
are not interested in the air force or the marines.

The point is that they have responsibilities.  We have to consult with
them. And then we have to show what the budget does to build a force for
the nation.  I think the process we’ve made, the progress we’ve made,
has been encouraging.  

There are hard decisions that will manifest themselves here shortly. I
wouldn’t read too much into the silence. I think the silence has allowed
this thing to follow a process that is best for the country.

For those interested in singing along with General Dempsey at the end of the C-Span video, here are the lyrics to “Christmas in Kilarney.”

— Steve Clemons is Washington Editor at Large at The Atlantic, where this post first appeared. Clemons can be followed on Twitter at @SCClemons


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