It's safe to say that Gen. Martin Dempsey, the officer expected to be nominated by President Obama as his next Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman on Monday, did not expect a new job offer so soon.
After all, Dempsey had just settled into an E-Ring billet as the new chief of staff of the Army—and been given a mandate to transform the force into a leaner, more agile, more flexible multipurpose war-fighting machine. The American military is turning away from the type of wars that infantrymen like Dempsey were trained to fight and toward a future battle space where the Navy and Air Force, given their instant global reach, will find their skills needed more.
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But Dempsey is the highest-ranking Army officer available for a job that has not been filled by a black-and-gold-clad soldier since 2001, when Gen. Hugh Shelton retired. Since then, an Air Force general, a Marine general, and a Navy admiral have occupied the post. Dempsey is among a number of American general officers who earned their stars in battle. He is a classmate and close friend of Gen. David Petraeus, who has been nominated to take over the Central Intelligence Agency.
The president's announcement is expected at 10 a.m. Monday in the Rose Garden.
Though every president wants a top military adviser he can explicitly trust, the White House is aware that the officer who fills the position has to be seen as an independent advocate for the armed forces, someone who is capable of saying “that’s not my view” when the rest of the president’s staff says “yes it is.” At the same time, the incoming chairman has to be copacetic with Obama’s policy goals—a drawdown of troops in Afghanistan, budget cuts across the services, and the implementation of the repeal of "don’t ask, don’t tell." Dempsey fits the bill. He’s not known as being Obama’s favorite general, something that, in retrospect, might have been most harmful to the chances of Marine Gen. James Cartwright, the current vice chairman and the presumed front-runner until this weekend.
CIA Director Leon Panetta, nominated to succeed Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense, will make force modernization a priority, officials have said. The military community correctly interprets that phrase to mean that Panetta will face significant pressure from the White House to hold defense spending constant and begin to cut it, in real dollars, after 10 years of big increases. Panetta’s deft hand with Congress, which will have to endorse all but the smallest of alterations, will come in handy.
Dempsey surprised some colleagues by stating in a memo to his troops in April that the Army “will not present any unfunded requirements” to Congress for the next budget cycle. In practical terms, that means that Dempsey will not ask for more money in the near term. He called it a “fact of life” that the Army needs to understand as it struggles to “adjust our global posture in line with the country's strategic requirements, and to provide our soldiers with the most effective equipment and training available.” Those members of Congress whose districts were counting on money for items like more Patriot missile batteries might object. That’s why Dempsey’s imprimatur will be useful for Obama, especially since no one has accused him of being an administration insider. (Dempsey did promise to fight for future funding should the need arise.)
A career infantry officer, he commanded Old Ironsides—the Army’s fabled 1st Armored Division—in the early stages of the Iraq War and later served as Multi-National Security Transition Command–Iraq and commander, NATO Training Mission–Iraq. Before assuming the mantle of Army chief of staff in April, he was the military’s training and doctrine chief. In Iraq, Dempsey was not among those senior officers who objected to sharing mission space with special-forces troops, and he is on friendly terms with the incoming head of the Special Operations Command, Vice Adm. William McRaven, whose special-forces orientation has influenced Obama’s thinking on military matters considerably.
White House officials would not confirm the choice on the record, and those who would speak on the condition of anonymity so as not to upstage the president said that there would be no formal word of the appointment until the president was confident that relevant senators, Democratic and Republican, were comfortable enough with the Dempsey pick to ensure a smooth confirmation. The timing is critical because the next chair’s confirmation hearings would be scheduled for this summer, just as the administration finishes its review of the Afghanistan war and begins a long-anticipated drawdown of U.S. troops.
The White House did not seem prepared for the news to leak. This much is clear from the fact that the members of Congress usually given courtesy notices by the administration, including Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and ranking member John McCain, R-Ariz., had not been consulted as of Wednesday. On Saturday, Obama notified Cartwright that the job would not be his. That day, word began to leak out that Dempsey would get the nomination.
On Wednesday, before dinner with Queen Elizabeth II in London, Obama spent a few private moments with the military officer who, putting aside military and congressional politics, would get the job: Adm. James Stavridis, the commander of U.S. forces in Europe.
A scholar-solider of the first rank, Stavridis is known as a revolutionary thinker, a flag officer with bold ideas and a fine command of history, and a student of politics. Where he ends up will be important to the morale of the Navy. Some prominent fans of Stavridis’s bristle at the suggestion that his two interviews with President Obama did not go well, and an administration official said such “gossip” was “nonsense.”
Dempsey was in Washington on Wednesday visiting wounded troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, according to his Twitter feed. He has also been overseeing Army National Guard efforts to provide emergency assistance to the Joplin, Mo., tornado victims. An Army spokesperson said that no one had been formally offered the job by Obama as of late Wednesday.
CORRECTION: The original version of this report misstated the number of Navy admirals who have served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff since 2001. There has only been one.
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Megan Scully contributed