WASHINGTON -- The man chosen to lead the U.S. military as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the difficult years ahead is a muddy-boots combat soldier seemingly more comfortable in battle fatigues than in the dress blues of Washington's corridors of power.
But make no mistake: Martin Dempsey, a self-described Irish Catholic kid from Bayonne, N.J. is a battle-hardened commander seen by his colleagues as an inspired choice to guide the military through a painful period of deep budget cuts and manpower reductions. If he is confirmed as expected by the Senate, Dempsey's job will be to help forge a new strategy to direct the Pentagon's organization, investments, training and deployments for contingencies as disparate as managing a no-fly zone over Libya, a naval confrontation in the South China Sea, a failing government in nuclear-armed Pakistan and hostilities from North Korea and Iran.
Dempsey, a 1974 West Point graduate, led the First Armored Division through 14 months of bloody combat in 2003-2004 in Iraq, a campaign that culminated with extended urban warfare that sapped the resistance of Moqtada al-Sadr’s Shiite militia. Dempsey’s division suffered 130 soldiers killed in battle and 798 wounded. He went back to Iraq for another two years to supervise the training and equipping of the Iraqi army, and then spent a year at U.S. Central Command, the military's Middle East headquarters. Dempsey had previously spent two years in Saudi Arabia training the Saudi national guard. He took over as the U.S. Army's top officer in April.
"He's got all the merit badges," a fellow general said approvingly.
President Obama agreed. "With nearly 40 years in uniform, [Dempsey] is one of our nation's most respected and combat-tested generals," he said Monday, in a speech announcing Dempsey nomination as the nation's top military officer and principal adviser to the president on military issues. "I expect him to push all our forces to continue adapting and innovating to be ready for the missions of today and tomorrow."
Obama also selected Navy Adm. James Winnefeld as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and nominated Gen. Ray Odierno to replace Dempsey in the Army's top job.
"We have much to do," Obama told the three officers in a brief White House ceremony Monday. Despite the budget cuts ahead, Obama said he is committed to "keeping our military the finest fighting force in the world."
Together, Obama's selections for the national security leadership present a formidable triad of power. They may serve as a complement to Leon Panetta, who is expected to be confirmed next month as the new defense secretary. Panetta has minimal military experience and, in the words of one Pentagon insider, has "no friends in the building."
For a commander in chief who took office with no military experience and little exposure to or understanding of the military's culture, some said the decision to elevate combat commanders reflects Obama's increasing confidence in dealing with military brass.
"This really shows that Obama has matured in his relations with the military over the last two years -- and that has gone both ways,’’ said retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales, an Army historian and former commandant of the Army War College. “His initial discomfort with the intricacies of the military culture, and the military’s discomfort with Obama, has eased. I think Obama’s true empathy with those making sacrifices has allowed him to peel away layers of the military culture and see who’s best for the job.’’
In selecting Dempsey, Obama stepped away from several senior officers who had been considered for the job job, including Marine Gen. James “Hoss’’ Cartwright, the current vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Navy Adm. James Stavridis, currently NATO commander. Cartwright, a personal friend of the president and widely admired for his intellectual firepower, was nonetheless mistrusted by much of the Pentagon brass. His chilly relations inside the building stemmed in part from his role during the administration’s long and bitter debate in the fall of 2009 over Afghanistan war strategy. Cartwright worked with Vice President Joe Biden to help develop an option for a smaller troop presence, while the the Joint Chiefs and Defense Secretary Robert Gates were pushing for a major “surge’’ of troops.
In addition, neither Stavridis nor Cartwright has led ground troops in combat.
In contrast, Dempsey -- who took time off from his combat tours to complete a masters degree (English) at Duke University -- carries a reputation for a much more collegiate style of leadership common among soldiers under the stress of combat.
“He has a remarkable effervescent personality that attracts people to him and makes them want to work for him rather than just following orders,’’ said Scales. “As a veteran sergeant major once told me, ‘Never underestimate the advantage of being liked.’’’
Dempsey will need that power in the years ahead as the Pentagon struggles to fend off deep budget cuts and with the inertia of the military brass to pursue expensive, “big-ticket’’ solutions to security challenges. Already in the planning stages are a new long-range bomber and costly high-tech warships, for example, even before there is consensus on what strategic challenges lie ahead and how best to meet them.
Dempsey’s colleagues say he brings to that job an understanding that what the U.S. military needs to focus on now is not which new weapons systems it will need, but what kind of individuals it will need, and how to select and educate the best of them. “At a time of constrained resources, you need someone at the top who understands that human dimension,’’ said a senior officer.