Home : Media : Speeches

Gen. Dempsey's Interview with WTOP's J.J. Green

By As Delivered by General Martin E. Dempsey, The Pentagon, Washington, D.C.
J.J. GREEN: Just for the record, would you please give me your name, title and organization please, sir?

GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: Yeah, I’m General Martin E. Dempsey. I’m the general in the United States Army and currently the 18th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

MR. GREEN: General Dempsey, one of the things that’s high up on the list – at least it seems as though whenever you go up to the Hill, and certainly lately, it’s been something in the media – Syria. What is going to happen with Syria? What kind of support are you going to give Syria? What are they asking for and are you going to be able to give them what they ask for?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, let me first say that I try not to see Syria in isolation, because Syria – the conflict in Syria and the forces involved – and I don’t mean the manning; I mean the issues, whether it’s the opposition – moderate opposition against a repressive regime, or whether it’s, you know, an underpinning of Sunni and Shia conflict, or whether it’s, you know, the fact that the conflict has been somewhat hijacked by extremists on both sides – Lebanese Hezbollah on the Shia side or on the regime side, and elements of al-Qaida on the Sunni side – it’s a conflict or a challenge that stretches from Beirut to Damascus to Baghdad.

So when you ask me, what should we do about Syria, I think it’s a much broader question than that. I think it’s a question of how do we address this as a region – as a regional issue?

MR. GREEN: Will you give them weapons? They’ve been asking for weapons and specific kinds of weapons. Will you give them weapons?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, there’s a – you know, we’ve prepared – at the request of our senior elected officials we’ve prepared options across the whole spectrum, from arming to use of our own military forces, and those decisions have not yet been made so I won’t comment on them.

MR. GREEN: OK. Do we know yet of a date when that is going to be made, that decision, or at least that time frame for that?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, I don’t know when that decision will be made. I mean, look, it’s not that we’re not doing things already, and that’s an important point. I mean, we’ve provided hundreds of millions of dollars in nonlethal assistance. We’ve got military forces that are supporting our allies in the region, notably in Turkey and in Jordan. And so we’re not idle, but in terms of application of our own military instrument power, that decision has not yet been made.

I would say, though, that, you know, the suffering is absolutely atrocious and tragic. At the same time, this is a – I think the issues – remember I suggested to you that the internal factors contributing to the conflict are very deep-seated and enduring. And so my personal judgment is that we’re looking at probably a 10-year challenge. This is not something that’s going to be solved overnight, no matter what anyone does.


One trusted and longtime source I’ve spoken to referred to Syria, when you start looking at the complexity of problems and actors there, as the bar scene from “Star Wars.” And what you just said there seems to confirm that. It doesn’t matter whether or not it’s a civil war or whether or not it’s something else. It’s going to spiral out – so that’s a real key is getting to other places perhaps in dealing with some issues in other places like Baghdad, like Beirut. Is that accurate or close?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, I think we need to both help our partners in the region – and I include in that the Lebanese armed forces, the Jordanian military and the Iraqi security forces. I think we need to help them deal with the spillover effect, sure.

MR. GREEN: When you look at what’s going on in Iraq as well, Syria was one of the gateways during the Iraq War for Islam – for extremists that were pouring in killing U.S. forces and others and causing all sorts of mayhem. That seems to have started up again. So when it comes to Iraq, what are you able to do to help in that situation now?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, we’ve got an Office of Security Cooperation there that’s modestly sized – it’s a little over 150 or so at this point in time – helping them build their institutions, facilitating foreign military sales, and providing advice to Iraq’s military leaders.

And I think that in terms of what we can do help them, we could expedite some of the foreign military sales agreements that we have with them. We can certainly – at their request we could certainly provide small groups of trainers – we are providing and we could provide additional resources to help their special forces deal with the threat of a re-emerging al-Qaida threat in their western provinces and in the north a bit.

So, you know, this is about training and advising, not assisting, because we think they are capable of taking the actions they need to take, with some additional advice and training from us, and maybe, you know, additional intelligence sharing.

MR. GREEN: General Dempsey, North Korea has been a perplexing state since its inception, since it came into being, and now is no different. Several weeks ago they were talking about blasting the U.S. with nukes. Now they want to sit down and talk. The military is in the middle. Again, you have to come up with solutions, possibilities. So what are your thoughts on North Korea and what are you doing about that?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, I think you actually described them pretty accurately. You know, they have a history of entering into cycles of provocation. I think one of the differences perhaps in the newest leadership, Kim Jong-un in North Korea, is that the periods of let’s call it calm in between peaks of provocation have shortened. So he’s been more provocative is another way to describe it.

And in response to that, of course we’ve had to adjust some of our positioning of resources around the globe and increase our states of readiness and alert posture, and we’ve done that. And we’re in now a period where the provocations seem to have subsided a bit, but I’m under no illusions. I mean, look, the other part of it, the diplomacy part of it, is ongoing, or will if they choose to do it.

I mean, I personally – my personal judgment is we should never accede to Korea’s wishes without something in return, because history has shown that good will is not part of their vocabulary. So in the meantime my job is to keep the forces that are allocated to the defense of our Republic of Korea allies at the proper readiness levels, and we’re doing that.

MR. GREEN: Another complex situation that’s related to North Korea is China. China, some say – some political minds and some military as well say China could do more to prevent North Korea from engaging in this type of behavior and other types of behavior that are detrimental to it and the rest of the world, especially its nuclear program. What are your views on China and dealing with China, because I understand it’s a very delicate balance and delicate situation, specifically considering the rebalance?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Sure. And as you know, I’ve recently returned from a trip to China. So in response to your question about the influence that China can have on the DPRK, on North Korea, I think that – I think they certainly have more influence than we do, and I think they have wielded that influence. They don’t advertise it. I personally believe that they’re doing more than we may know they’re doing because, you know, as I mentioned to you, the most recent provocation cycle has calmed a bit. And I suspect that at least in part that was due to Chinese intervention.

I also think we have to be careful not to assume they have more control over the DPRK than they do. I mean, I don’t know the limits of their control. I also know that they do have some economic leverage in particular with them. But, you know, China will act as all nations act, in what they perceive to be their interests, and that’s the conversation we’ve been having with them, trying to find that common ground in dealing with North Korea. And notably, the Chinese have said that they, as we, will not accept a nuclear threat – a nuclear threat from the Peninsula.

MR. GREEN: Do you think or consider the U.S.’ relationship and the events that have taken place in that may be in the process of being staged another cold war or phenomena similar to that?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Are you talking about with China?

MR. GREEN: Yes, sir.

GEN. DEMPSEY: That’s not a fait accompli. I mean, there’s certainly a path that, were we to travel, would result in a Pacific cold war and an arms race. That’s not the path we’ve chosen, and nor do I believe the Chinese have chosen that path.

Now, history is against us, by the way. You know, if you look – and I am a student of history, and rising powers, if you will, have almost always in history ended up in conflict with the existing powers as the rising power emerges onto the scene.

I believe we can break that cycle of history. I don’t think we should be intimidated by it. I think we can actually manage the relationship with China into the future such that we welcome a competitor but we avoid becoming adversarial with each other. And, you know, our recent engagements with them on the military-to-military side have been very positive.

MR. GREEN: What about the cyber end of it?

GEN. DEMPSEY: You know, cyber – so there’s five domains: air, land, sea, space and cyber. And we’re doing better in the conventional, traditional domains of the air, sea and land, meaning we have, you know, a pretty clear pattern of rules of behavior, if you will, and we have relationships in those three domains. I think we have work yet to do in the domains of cyber and space.

MR. GREEN: How would you assess the military’s capabilities when it comes to cyber?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Ours or theirs?

MR. GREEN: Ours.

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, look, I think that like most – in most domains we are the pre-eminent power, military power, on the planet and we intend to remain there.

MR. GREEN: Want to elaborate –


MR. GREEN: – on how you do that? (Laughter.)


MR. GREEN: I didn’t think so but – so I’ll ask you this question: One of the things that’s been difficult about navigating in cyberspace that some military experts have mentioned to me is that you can’t see it. So navigating in that – so what’s your view on how to fight or defend in that domain? How does it go?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Yeah. Well, first of all it’s not only that you can’t see – there is a bit of – it’s not only that you can’t see. There is a bit of mythology about the Internet, if you will, that it’s somehow invisible. But, you know, let’s face it; it rides over wavelengths; it is enabled by devices, by machines. The challenge, of course, in dealing with cyber is that it can bounce from machine to machine at the speed of light and therefore it’s very difficult to trace. That’s what makes it feel kind of mythological or somehow less than physical. But it’s not. We can figure this out.

And if you ask me, militarily – and I remember my role as the leader of the United States armed forces is to protect our – the dot.mil domain within cyber, and, when asked, to be prepared to also defend the nation. And we can figure this out. Let me give you – we haven’t yet, by the way, because there’s been some concerns about privacy and about – you’re probably familiar with the arguments.

But I’ll use the example of our activities in protecting the airspace of the United States. If something happens domestically in the air in the United States, you know, we have this partnership with the transportation – the TSA, with the FBI, with Homeland Security. And so if something happens, the authorities are passed from agency to agency as the situation evolves.

And if the TSA can’t handle it, or the FAA can’t handle it, or the FBI can’t handle it, we handle it. And we ought to have some similar – we’re working towards some similar arrangement in cyber because we don’t want the American people believing that, you know, we are in control of their – of the information domain. And so we do have, and have to continue to refine, the authorities, and we do need some legislation. And it all ought to be – the legislation ought to articulate and be transparent about how this all evolves as challenges arise.

MR. GREEN: One final question on that venue.


MR. GREEN: Are you affected at all by the NSA leaks?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, no, we’re not to this point, but there is the risk of course that as a result of the NSA leak that we may have some of the authorities – which are, by the way, you know, legal and there is an oversight – you’re talking about the surveillance part of it. There is the risk of course that we may have a reaction and find ourselves less well protected than we need to be.

MR. GREEN: Can you characterize that risk?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, sure. I mean, you know, those around the world who would do us harm communicate – and they don’t communicate with letters and postage stamps any longer; they communicate on telephones and on mobile devices over the Internet. And I think it is necessary for us to have the kind of authorities to surveil those that would do us harm.

I believe we’ve got the right authorities now. I think we’ve got the right oversight. But this will now be a debate, and the American people, with their elected leaders, will decide. But, you know, we have to make a pretty clear case that we would put ourselves at risk as a nation to terrorist attack if we don’t have the ability to track these terrorist networks that are still out there and very much engaged.

MR. GREEN: General, moving on to a broader question, but I think just as important a question, what is the biggest set of challenges – what is the biggest threat, in your mind, to the U.S. today?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, let me talk in terms of physical threats to us and then I’ll talk briefly about – I’ll describe it as a psychological threat, which may be imprecise but it’s the best I’ve got right now.

So the physical threats are – you know, you’ve mentioned most of them actually – nuclear proliferation. There’s more states and even nonstate actors seeking to develop capabilities for weapons of mass destruction, notably nuclear capability.

Secondly, if you couple that with a proliferation of ballistic missile technology – so that is to say the means to deliver it – and then add on to that the conversation we just had about cyber, which heretofore has been largely a threat in terms of theft and disruption but could very well migrate to destruction – and we’ve really got to get ahead of that. We are, but it’s a race, and we can’t stand still while this race is ongoing. Those are the most physical threats to us. And that threat can manifest itself either from a nation state or a group.

OK, the psychological threat is one of confidence, really, and it’s related to the uncertainty that we’re working through in terms of the budget, frankly. You know, with certainty, you know, we can figure out how to absorb the budget changes. It’s really an historical fiscal correction, and I got that.

And believe me, those of us who serve understand that we have to help contribute to gaining of a more stable economic platform in this country, and we’re committed to doing it but we can’t do it one year at a time, meaning we really need the kind of budget certainty over time, and then the help and cooperation and collaboration with our elected leaders to absorb the cuts in a way that allows us to keep the force in balance.

And I’ll describe “in balance” as the proper amount of money toward manpower costs – compensation, health care, retirement – the proper amount of money to modernization, the proper amount of force structure and the proper amount of readiness. And with certainty, time and flexibility, we can figure this out.

And as you know, the secretary of defense just recently completed a Strategic Choices Management Review that we’re now working through to determine where along the spectrum of today’s budget authority to the possibility of full sequestration, where do we begin to break the strategy? And I think with some clarity we’ll be able to identify that point.

MR. GREEN: Is there a time frame on that?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Yeah. I mean, we’ve got to turn – the secretary owes a letter to the Senate – to the Senate – SASC – the Senate Armed Services Committee leaders on or about the first part of July, and then we’ve got to submit the next future year defense plan, the FYDP, which takes us from ’15 to ’18. And we’ve got to submit that sometime around August or September. So this summer we’re going to have to come to grips with this.

MR. GREEN: General, yesterday I sat down with some leaders from Western Sahara to talk about issues in their region. And one of the things that they mentioned to me was the Polisario problem that they have there and the fact they believe al-Qaida-linked extremist forces are using the Polisario, or at least that issue that they’re facing, to recruit people for al-Qaida in that part of the continent. What is your strategy or your view or your vision for Africa, not just dealing with, you know, al-Qaida but in general?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Sure. You’ve described it the right way, meaning we really have a vision of working through partners. I mean, look, we can’t put – shouldn’t put American boots on the ground anyplace we find these groups. Rather, we really need to work by, with and through partners. And so we are increasing our efforts in notably Northern and Western Africa to work with host nations to – you know, to steel-plate them against this threat.

And I would also point out, though, that although these groups often, you know, align themselves under the al-Qaida banner, they’re not all global threats. And I want to make an important distinction here. There’s global al-Qaida, which is to say those extremists who have intentions of attacking Europe and even the United States homeland, and then there’s regional threats, and you probably know some of their names in Africa – you know, Ansar al-Sharia.

You know, I mean, I could list off the alphabet of those groups who have ideologically aligned themselves with al-Qaida, the ideology of al-Qaida, that are regional threats, and then there’s local threats, meaning there are some groups that have aligned themselves to the larger al-Qaida ideology who are threats to a particular country but not a threat to their neighbors and certainly not a threat globally. And I think we have to be very precise in identifying which groups fit into which category.

MR. GREEN: So one quick follow up on that, then. It is not likely that beyond training and advisory – maybe not even advisory – that U.S. forces would appear or engage in Africa.

GEN. DEMPSEY: No, I wouldn’t say it’s – you know, I would suggest that we retain the option to actually employ our own forces. So let me use the acronym: train, advise and assist.


GEN. DEMPSEY: Certainly training and advising is ongoing right now, and so is assistance, by the way. And so in Mali, for example, we are assisting the French with logistic support and with intelligence. We’re sharing intelligence. We’re also doing some of that with AMISOM in Somalia. So that’s a form of assistance that can enable our partners to have a better effect against these groups, give them an advantage.

The question about whether we’d put our own forces in place, we would have to see that there was a direct threat to the homeland, I think, before we would take that step.

MR. GREEN: A couple more things as we wind down. What keeps you up at night?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, how much time do you have? (Laughter.)

MR. GREEN: As much as you’ll give me.

GEN. DEMPSEY: You know, first of all, despite the number of issues that kind of converge and could make us feel as though we’re at greater risk and a military that’s in decline, what I worry more about are maintaining our swagger, you know? I mean, even the Miami Heat, if they don’t walk out there with a swagger, I don’t care how good their athletes are, they’re going to have less confidence than they need to have.

And so we need to maintain our swagger. And the way I think we do that is by maintaining close contact with the force to explain to them what we’re doing, why we’re doing it – you know, issues such as the future of Afghanistan, our relationship with partners in the Mideast, our rebalancing to the Pacific, and importantly the way we’re going to address this budget so that it’s more of an opportunity than a liability.

You know, most of us believe in the phrase “never waste a crisis,” you know? You can do things in the middle of a crisis that you might otherwise not be able to do. And there are some things I think that will make us a better force. But as I said earlier, we’ve got to get some view of how this plays out over a 10-year period and not try to do it one year at a time, because doing it one year at a time puts too much of a burden on those young men and women who serve and who would like to know what the future looks like so they can commit and recommit themselves to this very dangerous work that we ask them to do.

MR. GREEN: Afghanistan, the drawdown. The U.S. is leaving. Are the forces in Afghanistan ready enough?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, first of all, we’re not leaving. And we’re going to certainly reduce our presence there considerably, and should. The Afghan security forces, this is their first summer – in fact, just this week, as you know, the president of Afghanistan, with the NATO secretary general, announced that the Afghan forces would now be in the lead, if you will, across the country.

So this is their first summer to have responsibility for security broadly across the country. And frankly, I’m eager to see how they do. And the early indications are pretty good, you know? They’re not perfect certainly, and they’ll have a little more difficultly than we will because, again, we happen to be the best at what we do. But we’ve built into them a level of capability.

We’ve kept them at a capacity – 580,000 or so – and we think that that’s a number that’s sufficient to the task, and we think they’re capable. We continue to work with their leadership. We continue to build architectures for logistics and intelligence and so forth, institution-level stuff. But for now I will say that we’re on track to deliver on our campaign objectives.

Now, at the end of the summer we’ll have to take a very – the end of the summer being the end of the fighting season, generally – we’ll take a look – a very pragmatic, deliberate and clear-eyed look at how they performed and where there are gaps, and that gives us another year to see if we can close those gaps, and then in ’14 we’ll – once we get a bilateral security agreement with them, we will maintain our presence there at reduced numbers.

MR. GREEN: What if they don’t get it done?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, first of all we’ll have to – you know, I think that’s a fair question. Remember, I said that, as I sit here today with you, I believe that we will achieve our campaign objectives. If not, then we’ll have to have – we’ll have to have a conversation in NATO and bilaterally – because remember, now, we’re there both for our own bilateral interests with the Afghan government but also we’re there as part of a larger coalition that’s under a NATO mandate. So those conversations would have to have – would have to happen at that point.

MR. GREEN: Very last thing.


MR. GREEN: Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you think is important that we should discuss?

GEN. DEMPSEY: You know, we’ve pretty much crossed the waterfront, I think, pretty broadly. But, you know, I’m always interested in reflecting on my recent trips and what I’ve seen, and how proud I am of the United States military.

So, you know, this week, just by coincidence, I took a trip out to visit our airmen in Minot, North Dakota – a beautiful state, pretty remote location – where we have a portion of our intercontinental ballistic missile fleet, a wing. And, you know, they stand watch 24/7/365 is some pretty austere conditions, especially in the wintertime. And they’re kind of the silent service. You know, you don’t think about them until – until you have to think about them, and they better be ready when you have to think about them. And I was very proud to see that they are maintaining their focus and resolve despite some of the other uncertainties I described.

And then I went from there to Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri to meet our B-2 fleet. The B-2 is our long-range stealth bomber. You know, these young men, and in some cases young women, will strap themselves into a B-2 for a 36- or 40-hour global mission. And it’s pretty remarkable really. And then the support team that helps maintain the fleet and so forth.

And I ended my week at Transportation Command in Scott Air Force Base, where we’ve got what is arguably – but you’d be hard-pressed to persuade me otherwise – the most extensive, elaborate, capable logistics network in the world, both transportation and distribution, and doing so with a real eye on both getting the mission accomplished but also doing so more efficiently.

So it was a great week for me to interact. This week it happened to be airmen, but I’m privileged to interact every week with soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen by the way, who are out there trying to do what’s right for the country. And we just need to give them a little help from here in Washington.

MR. GREEN: Speaking of which – and this is just a quick follow up.


MR. GREEN: What does your day look like? What time do you get up and what time is it over? And what do you do in between?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, I get up at about –

MR. GREEN: Just briefly.

GEN. DEMPSEY: Yeah, I get up at about 6:00. I try to do, you know, at least something to get my heart rate up, because by the time I get here it’s well raised. (Laughter.) And I’m here – you know, generally speaking, I – first of all, I travel probably 10 or 12 days a month. Most of my job is here in Washington so I try to stay pretty close to home so that I can fulfill my responsibilities as the advisor to the SECDEF and the president.

When I’m in Washington, you know, I get – I’m probably home by about 1900, 7:00 p.m., every night. But you asked, when is it over? When is the day over? It’s never over because I’ve got – you see the communication suite over here, over my left shoulder. I’ve got exactly that same suite at home because, for the most part, every couple of hours, at least up until about midnight, there will be some email or there will be a phone call or they’ll be, in some cases, a videoteleconference, which I can do from home, which spares me the travel into the office. So the day is almost never over but at some point I do go to sleep.

MR. GREEN: Well, sir, thank you again for your service and the time to sit down and talk with you, and I am very, very excited about the possibilities for what you talked about.

GEN. DEMPSEY: Yeah, me too.

MR. GREEN: Well, thank you.

GEN. DEMPSEY: We can figure this out. Thank you.

MR. GREEN: Thank you. Thanks.