Advancing a Free Society

The President’s National Security Appointments

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

President Obama made it official yesterday: pending confirmation, Army General Martin Dempsey will become the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  Admiral Sandy Winnefeld, the current NORTHCOM commander (responsible for protection of U.S. territory) will become the Vice Chairman, and Army General Ray Odierno will replace Dempsey as Chief of Staff of the Army.

Admiral Mullen has been a genuinely great Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  He was reportedly offered the job because Secretary Gates was so impressed with Mullen’s concern about the Army -- an unusual priority for the Chief of Naval Operations, which was Mullen’s job at the time.  And Mullen has held that course true, worrying about the young soldiers and Marines carrying the largest burden of our wars, celebrating their strength and the resilience of their families, setting the example of how to address suicides, supporting his civilian leadership on initiatives that are properly the civilians’ choice (like allowing homosexuals to serve openly) and setting processes in motion that will minimize their disruptiveness to the force, quietly giving his best military advice and working to create the circumstances where his advice will carry the debate.  He will be greatly missed.

General Dempsey is, however, a fitting successor to Admiral Mullen.  The only concern this slate poses is that the Army is perhaps more in need of General Dempsey’s understated leadership than is the broader military. Under General George Casey -- the pre-surge commander in Iraq who was too servile to ask for the forces he needed and too plodding to seek different approaches when his course was clearly not succeeding -- the Army adopted policies that brought lots of churn but little progress.  Typical of the cynicism General Casey’s tenure elicited is this opener to an article in the Army Times last year: “the Army is redesigning itself — again.”

As a result of General Casey’s tenure, the Army desperately needs a Chief of Staff with vision for the institution.  I spent Memorial Day with some military families, and the Lieutenant Colonels talked about how refreshing it was to have a Chief they could emulate.  They’re reading General Dempsey’s command philosophy and can already feel the positive change his leadership has brought.

General Odierno has his work cut out for him in continuing to rebuild the Army; but he likewise did in Iraq, where his two command tours are a contrast in approach: the first, a guns blazing, house raiding military operation; the second, development of a nuanced and restrained politico-military strategy that perked up from battle leaders’ recommendations of what was working.  The Army needs both those approaches as it rebuilds its vitality.

Admiral Winnefeld is a nice balance to the slate; he has different expertise, fleet command, and demonstrated ability from his time as J-5 in the Joint Staff to work effectively in the politico-military environment.  The Obama Administration is to be commended for resisting the temptation to pick guys they like instead of leaders that have the respect of their military community, command responsibilities in the wars we are fighting, and diversified experience.  What a fitting closing act for Secretary Gates to put this solid team in place.

(photo credit: White House photo by Pete Souza)