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.jpg
Frequently, 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.

Atlantic 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 less.

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:

...and 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."