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.

While 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.

America 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.

This 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.

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Steve Clemons is Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and editor of Atlantic Live. He writes frequently about politics and foreign affairs. More

Clemons is a senior fellow and the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C., where he previously served as executive vice president. He writes and speaks frequently about the D.C. political scene, foreign policy, and national security issues, as well as domestic and global economic-policy challenges.

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