Gen. Dempsey's Interview with Fareed Zakaria for "GPS" (CNN)
As Delivered by General Martin E. Dempsey , Washington, D.C. Tuesday, February 14, 2012
MR. ZAKARIA: General Dempsey, thank you for joining us.
GEN. DEMPSEY: Thanks. I’m glad to be here.
MR. ZAKARIA: You’re just back from Egypt.
GEN. DEMPSEY: Mmm hmm.
MR. ZAKARIA: Is it your best judgment, after meeting with Egyptian officials, Egyptian military, that the Americans who are being held there will be released and will be able to come back home?
GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, I can’t guarantee that. What I can tell you is that in my engagement with them – and I’ve known Field Marshal Tantawi and General Anan and General Muafi; those are the three key interlocutors with whom I met – I can tell you that I – we came to a very clear understanding of how serious this was, and also a clear understanding that we – our relationship would be somewhat stalled until this particular issue was resolved.
Now, that said, we did – I did reinforce the importance of our relationship with the Egyptian military. And I do believe that Egypt is, in many ways, a cornerstone of the future of the region, in that if this Arab Spring is to have a positive outcome, I think we’ll see it first in Egypt. And so, you know, the stakes are extraordinarily high. And I made that clear.
MR. ZAKARIA: In your congressional testimony you said you would be against withdrawing American aid to Egypt. But do you think we will be able to withstand the – you addressed it in Congress – do you think we’ll be able to withstand the public pressure that the – that everyone will face in the United States if these – if these Americans do not come back – to maintain those – that kind of aid to the Egyptian regime?
GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, what I think, probably there’s some interim steps. And I think now that they are kind of seized with the fact that this is truly a crisis if they don’t respond. And I think there’s probably some measure of conditionality placed on the aid. But I think going immediately to the complete cessation of aid and engagement, it would be a mistake. I mean, we’ve done that in other countries in that region in the past and we always look back upon those complete separations as a mistake.
MR. ZAKARIA: You know that in Egypt many people, including now the largest political party, the Muslim Brotherhood, believe that the Egyptian military seems very reluctant to yield power, both in terms of giving up some of its – some of its political power, but also its economic privileges. Do you sense that this is a problem that is an obstacle to Egypt’s democratic development?
GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, I think that the various parties in Egypt are kind of circling each other trying to determine just what they intend to do. My personal observation is I think that the military is actually eager to cede power, because they’ve experienced how challenging it can be to – you know, to manage – as they describe it – to manage the street, manage the media, manage a judiciary.
You know, although the military has been largely running the country for decades, they haven’t been under the – under the unblinking eye of the people and the media in this new world in which they find themselves. So I think they’re actually eager to cede power and go back to barracks. But they also have some vested interest in, you know, protecting their budget and protecting their – you know, their authorities that they’ve become quite accustomed to. They’re going to have to work that out internally
MR. ZAKARIA: Are you optimistic about Egypt?
GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, you know, I am optimistic because I do think that the – that the Arab Spring could – can produce a democracy. And I think that – you know, that – I’d be eager to see a competition of ideas actually play out. But, you know, I’m concerned because in some way I think the competition of ideas may be somewhat stymied. We’ll see.
And I’ll be keen to watch, you know, who becomes the controlling party in particular ministries. I mean, for example, you know, the ministry of education is an extraordinarily important part of any democracy. And, you know, I’d be concerned to see how that particular ministry evolves, because I think that could be indicative of the future.
MR. ZAKARIA: Tell me what the – no, let me ask it this way. What would you say to those who argue that the United States should arm the opposition movement in Syria?
GEN. DEMPSEY: I think it’s premature to take a decision to arm the opposition movement in Syria because I would challenge anyone to clearly identify for me the opposition movement in Syria at this point. And let me – let me broaden the conversation a bit.
Syria is a – it’s an arena right now for all of the various interests to play out. And what I mean by that is you’ve got great power involved now. Turkey clearly has an interest – a very important interest. Russia has a very important interest. Iran has an interest.
And what we see playing out is that – not just those countries, in fact potentially not all of them in any case – but we see the various groups who might think that the – that that issue is a Sunni-Shia competition for, you know, regional control.
MR. ZAKARIA: You mean the Iranians on the one hand –
GEN. DEMPSEY: I do.
MR. ZAKARIA: -- and the Saudis, perhaps, on the –
GEN. DEMPSEY: The Saudis on the other hand. I mean, you saw – you know, there’s indications that al-Qaida’s involved and that they’re interested in supporting the opposition. I mean, there’s a – there’s a number of players, all of whom are trying to reinforce their particular side of this – of this issue. And until we’re a lot clearer about, you know, who they are and what they are, I think it would be premature to talk about arming them.
MR. ZAKARIA: Militarily, is Syria very different from Libya in the geography? In the case of Libya you had an eastern half of the country that the rebels had. They had a city, Benghazi. Or do you believe if you needed to, you could militarily intervene in Syria in the same way you did in Libya?
GEN. DEMPSEY: Not in the same way we did in Libya. I mean, Syria is a very different challenge. It’s a different challenge, as you described it, geographically. It’s a different challenge in terms of the capability of the Syrian military – they are very capable. They have a very sophisticated integrated air-defense system for example. They have chemical and biological weapons.
Now, they haven’t demonstrated any interest or any intent to use those, but it is a very different military problem. That said, of course we’re looking at all of that. We’re trying to, you know, gather the best intelligence we can and take a look at what options we might have should we be asked to provide those to the national command authority in this country. But we haven’t been asked to do that yet.
Do you think intervening in Syria would be difficult?
GEN. DEMPSEY: I think intervening in Syria would be very difficult.
MR. ZAKARIA: So what would you do? You’re watching thousands of people get slaughtered. The regime is isolated, but because it seems willing to be brutal it’s surviving.
GEN. DEMPSEY: No, that’s a fact. And I think that the current path of trying to gain some kind of international consensus is the proper path, rather than take a decision to do anything unilaterally. And I know that those diplomatic efforts are ongoing. But, you know, I’m – I wear the uniform I wear to provide options when asked. And we’ll be prepared to do that. But this would not be – it’d be a big mistake to think of this as another Libya.
MR. ZAKARIA: Another difficult military challenge: Do you believe that Israel has the capacity to strike Iran in a way that would significantly retard its nuclear – its nuclear program?
GEN. DEMPSEY: I think that Israel has the capability to strike Iran and to delay the production or the capability of Iran to achieve a nuclear weapon status – probably for a couple of years. But some of the targets are probably beyond their reach. And of course that’s what – that’s what concerns them. That’s this notion of a zone of immunity that they discuss.
MR. ZAKARIA: If they were to do it, they would have to fly over Iraqi air – Iraqi air space, probably.
GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, I mean, I’m not privy, obviously, to their plans. But that is the shortest distance between two points.
MR. ZAKARIA: And if that were to happen, do you – do you believe that Iran would engage in retaliatory measures, not just against Israel but against United States interests in Iraq and Afghanistan?
GEN. DEMPSEY: That’s the – that’s the question with which we all wrestle, and the reason that we think that it’s not prudent at this point to decide to attack Iran. I mean, that’s been our counsel to our allies the Israelis – well-known, well-documented. And we also know, or believe we know, that the – that the Iranian regime has not decided that they will embark on the – or the effort to weaponize their nuclear capability.
MR. ZAKARIA: You think that is still unclear – that they’re moving on a path for nuclear technology, but whether or not they choose to make a nuclear weapon is unclear?
GEN. DEMPSEY: It is. I believe it is unclear. And on that basis, I think it would be premature to exclusively decide that the time for a military action was upon us. And I think that the economic sanctions and the international cooperation that we’ve been able to gather around sanctions is beginning to have an effect. I think our diplomacy is having an effect.
And our preparedness – I mean, fundamentally, we have to be prepared. And that includes, for the most part at this point, being prepared defensively. But, just as I mentioned in the earlier segment about our preparedness to provide options should the nation decide to do something in Syria, we have to have the same options available should the nation decide to do something in Iran.
MR. ZAKARIA: When you observe Iranian behavior, does it strike you as highly irrational? Does it strike you as sort of unpredictable? Or do they seem to follow their national interest in a fairly calculating way?
GEN. DEMPSEY: That is a great question. And I’ll tell you that I’ve been confronting that question since I commanded Central Command in 2008. And we are of the opinion that the Iranian regime is a rational actor. And it’s for that reason, I think, that we think the current path we’re on is the most prudent path at this point.
MR. ZAKARIA: That they have in the past seemed to be deterred by things; that they have seemed to respond, as it were, to pressures and inducements?
GEN. DEMPSEY: They act and behave as a rational nation-state. Now within that nation-state there are elements that are, it seems to us, maybe a little less in control – or are being directed – and of course I’m referring to the IRGC Quds force, that seem to have – that are less predictable, and therefore potentially more dangerous. But the nation itself does seem to be acting as a nation-state would expect to be – and to react to pressures accordingly.
MR. ZAKARIA: Do you worry about the prospect – let me put it this way: Do you think that the Israelis understand that the United States is counseling them not to strike? And do you think that they will be deterred from striking in the near future?
GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, I’m confident that they understand our concerns that a strike at this time would be destabilizing and wouldn’t achieve their long-term objectives. But, I mean, I also understand that Israel has national interests that are unique to them. And of course, they consider Iran to be an existential threat in a way that we have not concluded that Iran is an existential threat.
So I don’t – I wouldn’t suggest, sitting here today, that we’ve persuaded them that our view is the correct view and that they are acting in an ill-advised fashion. But we’ve had a very candid, collaborative conversation. We’ve shared intelligence. And I was in Israel about three weeks ago and spent two days there with the senior leaders. And so we’re – you know, we are continuing that dialogue.
MR. ZAKARIA: If you were a betting man, would you bet that Israel won’t strike?
GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, fortunately I’m not a betting man.
MR. ZAKARIA: When we come back, more with General Dempsey.
And we are back with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Dempsey. Let me ask you about the news this week, which is of course about China and Xi Jinping, the soon-to-be president of China. The Chinese military budget is going to double within three years or 2015; that is the estimate some people have. Does that worry you?
GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, let me, you know, raise from the tactical to the strategic issues. You know that on our – in our new strategy, we’ve taken a decision to rebalance ourself toward the Pacific. And some mutual acquaintances of ours – Joshua Cooper Ramo, Henry Kissinger – have been – Robert Kaplan – I mean, we’ve been – we’ve been looking at events in the Pacific for quite a long time, and shifting centers of power – demographic power, economic power and military power.
Now we’ve said we want to rebalance our efforts into the Pacific. And in so doing, it’s not as though we’re flipping a switch. We’ve never left the Pacific, really. But we want to – we want to become more engaged in the Pacific. I think this is more opportunity than liability, to improve our relationship with China. And I am personally committed to having that as the outcome, rather than get into an arms race or into some kind of confrontation with China.
MR. ZAKARIA: The part about China that most people, even experienced China watchers, admit is a bit of black box is the People’s Liberation Army.
GEN. DEMPSEY: Right.
MR. ZAKARIA: It’s a vast outfit, as I say, with a huge and growing budget. And people are unclear how powerful are they within the system. Are they the most hawkish element of the regime, or are they simply a conservative element that’s more cautious? How do you read your counterparts in China?
GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, for one thing, we haven’t had much contact with them, so it is – it’s difficult to have any real view of what motivates them. I will say, though, that the contacts I have had have been quite positive. I mean, last May, as the chief of staff of the Army, I hosted my counterpart. They – if you recall, they brought the People’s Liberation Army band over, and we had a bit of a battle of the bands. I – that’s the kind of battle I think we should aspire to.
MR. ZAKARIA: Who won? (Chuckles.)
GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, of course, I’d have to say that we won. But they might have a different view of that. But more broadly, I do think that more contact, more engagement will benefit both of us. And you know they have some – they, the People’s Republic of China, have some significant internal domestic issues with which they have deal, that should be a disincentive for any adversarial action that might accrue on their part toward us. So I – you know, I tend to be in the camp of those who are optimistic about our future relationship with China.
MR. ZAKARIA: You said, in congressional testimony this week, that you had some doubts about the reconciliation process in Afghanistan with the Taliban. Elaborate on that. Why do you have doubts about it? Everyone says we should be trying to get some kind of political deal with the Taliban so that we can stabilize the country and draw down forces.
GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, I concede – and I am supportive of the effort, because I can see that most every conflict that anyone has ever been involved with ends with some kind of political settlement. I think the Taliban – I think there’s no one Taliban. You know, there’s big T and little T. So to the extent that we can separate the – let’s call them, maybe more precisely, the reconcilable aspects of the Taliban with those who are irreconcilable – I think it’s effort – it’s effort well taken.
If I’m worried about the – you know, these – the immediate idea, it’s because we might be addressing the ideological side of the Taliban before we get to, you know, those that might be a little bit less ideological. It’s just not clear to me. So it’s not – you know, it’s not that I’m reluctant to try this. But my – you know, it’s pretty hard to be optimistic about it.
MR. ZAKARIA: So it’s a – it’s a kind of practical concern that we might be talking to the wrong people.
GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, that’s my concern. And you know, in support of the secretary of defense, who by law has to certify that these – that this first tranche and whatever we end up agreeing to release, that they won’t become recidivist – to the extent that he has to certify that they won’t return to the fight, you know, I think he shares my concerns.
MR. ZAKARIA: So, now this is about the proposal that five prisoners from Guantanamo be released as a good faith effort.
GEN. DEMPSEY: That’s right. Right.
MR. ZAKARIA: And I understand your concern is that these people will go right back –
GEN. DEMPSEY: Well –
MR. ZAKARIA: -- and start doing terrorism. Let’s use that as a way of talking about Guantanamo. This is a place the president promised he was going to close. Frankly, President Bush talked about how he’d wish he’d been able to close it. But this has been the concern – has it not – which is that is you release these prisoners and you don’t have some way of handling them, some other country that is willing to take them, they’ll go back and start engaging in terrorist activities. Why is that a problem that isn’t soluble? Why is it that three years in, it hasn’t been possible to close Guantanamo?
GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, the – there – we haven’t found a community of nations eager to have this particular population. And so, you know, from our perspective as the military, you know we don’t necessarily care where we hold people in detention, just that we have to have the capability to do that. And I do think that the – you know, the current policy of including all possibilities, meaning domestically and internationally, is the right policy – you know, as many tools in the toolbox as we can place.
But to your point about why is it so hard to close Guantanamo, I mean, this is the same fears playing out that have played out about what – you know, what to do with this population of radicalized individuals.
MR. ZAKARIA: And it doesn’t feel like much progress has been made in terms of either finding homes for them, finding a process by which they can be moved out of this kind of legal – legally ambiguous status of being in Guantanamo.
GEN. DEMPSEY: I mean, I share your feeling that there – it doesn’t feel like we’ve made much progress. I don’t think that’s from lack of effort. I think it’s just – you know, there are problems in – that we confront that are harder than others. And this may be as hard as it gets.
MR. ZAKARIA: So you don’t see – foresee any even near-term solution to the Guantanamo problem?
GEN. DEMPSEY: No, I wouldn’t – I wouldn’t say it that starkly. I mean, I don’t see – I guess I would if you said near-term. I think this will take time to resolve.
MR. ZAKARIA: The budget. Are you, as a military person, completely comfortable that the budget cuts proposed by the – by the Obama administration will leave the United States military with the – all the capacities it needs to defend its interests, its values, its global role?
GEN. DEMPSEY: Any strategy and any budget that supports any strategy has risks. I think the risks to this – to our strategy and the risk that this budget may not deliver what we intend are manageable. So I am confident that our – the revised strategy, that process we went through that did precede the budget, and the budget that supports it, I am confident it will – it will protect our national interests and allow us to provide options to the nation when, by the way, we confront things that we didn’t predict.
MR. ZAKARIA: You commandeered troops in Iraq, in Baghdad, right after – at the start of the Iraq War.
GEN. DEMPSEY: Mmm hmm.
MR. ZAKARIA: Do you look upon the fact that there are now no troops in Iraq with some sadness? Do you wish that there were still an American role? Do you worry that the – that Iraq is going to become a place where the United States has less and less influence?
GEN. DEMPSEY: You know, I’m not worried about having no troops in Iraq, because we do have troops in Iraq. You know, we have an office of security cooperation. That’s a fairly good-sized organization. And it’s responsible for doing the things that we did as a much larger force. It – you know, it partners with the ministries. It manages the program of record for foreign military sales. And it’s there to assist the ambassador in his engagement with Iraq’s civilian military leaders.
I’d like to see Iraq, as we go forward, embrace a kind of a theater security cooperation relationship with us. I’d like, for example, to have units that might be fully deployed in Kuwait from time to time move in to Iraq for an exercise or go to a tank gunnery range or in the case of the Air Forces, you know, to fly red flag-like exercise. And I think that’s actually possible.
So you know, I mean, I’m actually – I think Iraq has demonstrated that it intends to solve its significant challenges politically. And therefore, I think – I think the way ahead in Iraq might be – might be a little more manageable than some.
MR. ZAKARIA: The New York Times had a report on the fact that the United States was going to build up its special forces, their sort of things like the Navy Seals or commando forces as it were, and that this is going to become really a core part of U.S. military capacity. Is that the way of the future?
GEN. DEMPSEY: Let me state it a little differently. I think that among the lessons of the last 10 years of war, two capabilities are prominent and we have to better understand how to utilize them. One is special operating forces, which have quadrupled in size and which will grow by about another 3,000 or so in this budget just submitted. And the other one is cyber.
And so I think it’s a matter of understanding how we take what is a dominant conventional force that will somewhat reduce in size – not significantly but, you know, modestly reduce in size – maintain its dominance, but integrate these capabilities such that we become more agile, really, more adaptable. And we can provide to theater commanders, to their – to their combatant commanders a larger menu of capabilities with which to shape their areas of responsibility.
So I mean, special forces have clearly demonstrated their capability. I think it’s a matter of integrating all three of these – you know, the conventional, the cyber, and the special forces –
in ways that we haven’t thought of before. And I think – I think we’re going to be fine.
MR. ZAKARIA: Do you worry about the moral/ethical dilemma of sending a drone into some country that we are not technically at war with and eliminating some foreigner?
GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, that’s the third leg of the new capabilities that didn’t exist 10 years ago. Ten years ago, special forces were, you know, a fraction of what they are today. We didn’t talk about cyber. And we didn’t have the capability with ISR and with armed predators. And I think it’s a healthy thing actually to continue to examine ourselves as a profession. We’re a profession that has a certain set of ethics and values.
But I will tell you, I am very confident that we have the legal basis for those activities in which we’re engaged. And I think it’s a healthy thing to actually continue to assess the ethical basis. And to this point in time, I’m quite comfortable with where we are. But it bears – you know, it bears scrutiny as we go forward.
MR. ZAKARIA: You’re an Army general who’s been recently elevated into this job. What’s the biggest difference in doing this job than your previous long distinguished career in the Army?
GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, the pace is certainly different. You know, I guess it’s safe to say that, you know, by the time issues come to me, there’s no easy issues, you know, to deal with. They’re all – they’re all rather complex problems. So the pace is different. I think, you know, the responsibility – I mean, it does weigh on me that it’s not only the roughly 2.2 million men and women in uniform but their families, and also the nation’s security. You know, and I’m not talking about security today. I’m talking about not only prevailing in our current conflicts and challenges, but also preparing the force and the nation for the future. And so I think it’s some combination of pace and level of responsibility. But I’m honored to do it.
MR. ZAKARIA: In this job, you’re part soldier, part diplomat. And the diplomat role, I’m wondering whether you’re going to use what has now become, at least on YouTube, a famous singing voice. Are you going to try it – try and unleash that with your Chinese counterparts one of these days?
GEN. DEMPSEY: You know, I did actually challenge my Chinese counterpart during that visit of their – (inaudible) – to a – to a sing-off. He hasn’t taken me up on it yet. But if I thought it would it would get us in a better place with China, I’d do it.
MR. ZAKARIA: (Chuckles.) General Dempsey, pleasure to have you on.
GEN. DEMPSEY: Thank you, sir.
MR. ZAKARIA: And we will be back.