In the world of political-military affairs, Army Gen. Martin E.
Dempsey likes to say that he is “the dash.”
The dash is not
the name of some superhero. It is the punctuation mark found between
“political” and “military” when both factors exist in a given
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff lives at
the intersection of policy objectives and the military activities
used to achieve them.
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the 18th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testifies during a Senate hearing, July 7, 2015. The chairman's responsibilities include consulting with Congress on national security matters. (DoD photo by U.S. Army SSgt. Sean Harp)
“When we testify, we all get drawn into different discussions
about strategic objectives and campaign objectives and political
objectives,” Dempsey said during a recent interview. “But the one
that lives at that intersection is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs
Dempsey is the 18th officer to hold the chairman
position since it was established in 1947. Nominated by President
Barack Obama, he was confirmed by the Senate and took office in
October 2011, succeeding Navy Adm. Mike Mullen.
By statute, the chairman is the military advisor to
the president, the secretary of defense and the National Security
Council. The chairman also has the responsibility of consulting with
Congress on issues related to national security.
Highest-Ranking Officer, But Commands No
The chairman is the U.S. military's
highest-ranking officer, but he commands no troops. “I'm an advisor
on matters related to the use of the military instrument of power,”
Dempsey explained. “I'm not intended to be, nor would it appropriate
for me to be, an advocate for any particular strategy or policy.”
He said there are three
questions asked when developing a strategy, the first being whether
the United States can do something. If that something is in the
military sphere, it becomes a question for the chairman.
that context, in that room, among our elected officials and our
appointed officials, I'm the one that is most accountable to answer
the question: Can we do something militarily?” Dempsey said.
The chairman shares responsibility for the second question, which is
“Will it work?”
“If there's a particular political objective,
I first describe the military capabilities that might be applied
against that challenge, and then I integrate that conversation about
... the military instrument of power with diplomatic power, economic
power, information, [and so on],” he said.
The third question
is one for elected officials: Should the United States do it?
“I'm at the table, I have a voice, but at that point, my voice
becomes far less prominent in the room than it is in answering the
first two questions,” Dempsey said.
Nature of Job Often Misunderstood
The general noted that people who don't understand the nature of
the job -- the idea of the chairman being the dash -- accuse the
chairman of being an administration stooge. “It has happened to
every chairman since I've become aware that there was a thing called
the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” he said.
Having served as a special assistant to
then-chairman Army Gen. Hugh Shelton, Dempsey said, he has some
unique insight into this.
“I remember working for General
Shelton and [reading] some very hurtful ... articles about him ... as a
lapdog of the president -- by the way, a phrase which has been
reprised recently,” he said.
But a chairman has an obligation
to provide military advice more broadly, the general said. Dempsey
provides military advice and expertise to members of the Senate and
House of Representatives, regardless of political party.
statute is set up so the chairman can give his personal advice. But
any chairman quickly comes to the conclusion that consulting with
the other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- the vice chairman,
the Army chief of staff, Air Force chief of staff, the commandant of
the Marine Corps, the chief of naval operations and the director of
the National Guard Bureau -- is the preferred way to go, Dempsey
said. He meets with the Joint Chiefs at least twice a week.
“They help formulate and articulate what we call best military
advice,” he said. Those meetings are part of the chairman's
significant convening power.
“I can convene a meeting of the
JCS, which I do,” he said. “I can convene a meeting of combatant
commanders, who work directly for the secretary of defense. They
understand that the secretary is going to ask me for my advice, so
it's very clear to them and to me that we need to be consulting with
each other frequently on issues as they arise around the globe.”
The chiefs of the services build their forces, the combatant
commanders employ those forces, and the chairman, once again, finds
himself in the middle. “I'm kind of the one in the middle of that
who adjudicates the priority,” Dempsey said. “Literally, I'm at the
intersection of ... political objectives, military activities, service
chiefs and combatant commanders, and ... international partners.”
The president is the commander in
chief of the military, and he chairs National Security Council
meetings. These happen, on average, about once a week, the chairman
said. In addition, Dempsey said, he goes to all of the principals'
committee meetings in the White House -- usually two or three a
Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Dempsey also have a
scheduled meeting with the president every week.
to time, either I will ask to see [the president] privately or he
will ask to see me privately,” the chairman said. “I have access to
him, and obviously he has access to me.”
at the center of so many processes made him realize early in his
term that the key to being effective was building relationships,
Dempsey said. Any chairman must build up relationships with elected
officials, appointed officials, other U.S. military leaders and
foreign military leaders, he added.
One of those relationships is with the American people, he said,
and he feels an obligation to speak periodically about the military
to the American people at large.
But also, he said, a private
first class wants to know that if he or she is asked to go into
harm's way, someone is thinking about the implications at the
national level. “And that happens to be -- generally speaking -- the
chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” he added.
By Jim Garamone
DOD News / Defense Media Activity
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