Throughout his tenure as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey has stressed that the military instrument of power may not always be the best tool to solve problems and issues.
Dempsey spoke recently to DoD News in a wide-ranging interview. The chairman retires at the end of this month after 41 years on active duty, including four years as the nation’s highest-ranking military officer.
He said he believes in the whole-of-government approach with economic, diplomatic, law enforcement, energy and the military instruments of power working together to confront problems and issues, and he's pushed for that approach many times during his tenure.
But many people still want the government to reach for the military first when confronted with an issue, the chairman said, adding that he's both flattered by and wary of the confidence people have in the military. “We embrace the idea that the American people and our elected officials have such confidence in us that we do tend to be the most prominent instrument of power,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to change that.”
Some surveys of the American public show the U.S. military with an approval rating as high as 72 percent, and the military is generally viewed as effective and capable. Also, Dempsey said, people are beginning to understand what the whole-of-government approach means, including how the military fits in as an underlying, stabilizing force.
“I do think there’s a recognition that most conflicts have these underlying issues … and that the military instrument, while it can bring a degree of stability to provide an opportunity for those underlying issues to be resolved, in and of itself and solely, it cannot resolve those,” he said. “The phrase whole-of-government is not just desirable --it’s actually imperative.”
Understanding of the concept has grown since 2001, he said. The experience in Iraq is just one example. The chairman has deployed to Iraq a number of times since 1990, when he served in Operation Desert Storm. He returned in 2003 to command the 1st Armored Division in Baghdad. As a three-star, he commanded the Multinational Security Transition Command-Iraq from 2005-2007. Iraq needed help from several different agencies, he said, and he saw the departments of State, Treasury and Energy as well as the U.S. Agency for International Development, the FBI and others join with DoD and the intelligence community to address the full spectrum of problems that nation faced.
While the military instrument was necessary to create conditions for other aspects of the whole-of-government approach to work, Dempsey said, diplomacy is necessary to negotiate among sectarian factions, economic advice is needed to grow economies and law enforcement professionals are needed to ensure the rule of law and application of justice. Finally, governance advice is needed to combat corruption and ensure citizens believe the government is working in their best interests, the chairman said.
“I think we’ve come a long way, actually, when I think about where we were in 2001 [compared to] where we are today,” he said. “But we’ve got some distance to travel in that regard, in particular as these challenges multiply. I already admitted it’s putting the Department of Defense under a certain amount of pressure. It’s stretching us out.”
The military has a “can-do” ethic, the chairman said, and he is worried that this undercuts DoD leaders’ requests for budget increases. “It’s why we’re having some trouble articulating the effect of the budget,” he said.
Budget cuts are eroding military capabilities a little at a time. “Erosion is tough to identify. It’s not temporal, you know -- you never know when … that erosion will cause a collapse or a near collapse,” the chairman said. “So the erosion of our advantages is troubling. But again, it’s somewhat because we’re victims of our success, and we’re having trouble articulating the way we’re accruing risk long-term.”
Dempsey said he never forgets that service members based around the world carry out decisions made in Washington. “I’ve thought a lot about the use of the military instrument of power, and in particular whether it’s … more appropriate to be cautious or aggressive with it,” he said. “I actually think … a bit of caution in the use of the military instrument is appropriate because the stakes are just so high.”
War is one of the most complex of human endeavors, he said, citing the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, who said that nations go to war out of fear, honor or self-interest. “It’s usually something of each of those,” Dempsey said. “And when conflict starts out of either fear or honor, and in the case of certain current conflicts, of religion, the ability to manage those conflicts becomes much more difficult, much more challenging.”
Caution is not a pejorative when considering war, the chairman said. “On the other hand … the use of the military instrument is different, whether you’re dealing with a nation-state or a peer-competitor or a non- or sub-state group,” he said. “Each of those challenges requires you to think deliberately about whether it’s appropriate to have a, as I’ve describe it, a bias for action or a bias for inaction. My point is this: if you have a universal bias for inaction that can become problematic.”
There must be a balance, the chairman said, given the threat and the other pressures on the system. “I think you have to be very judicious in balancing your tendency to go into action and your tendency to wait and see if other opportunities present themselves,” he said.
There isn’t a lot of time for contemplation. One trend the chairman has noticed is the phenomenal increase in the speed of information and the compression of the decision cycle. Social media plays a role in this. “Tahrir Square became a flash mob through social media that quickly changed the nature of the environment in Egypt -- profoundly changed it,” Dempsey said. “And of course, the fruit vendor in Tunisia who self-immolates, he becomes the catalyst for the Arab Spring.”
Social media also means officials are making policy and strategy in public. “It’s the recognition that the decisions we make are immediately visible and evident to large numbers of people, and not just at home but across the globe,” he said.
This can go two ways, he said: nations will either become more aggressive or more cautious. “I will leave it to historians to decide whether we become more aggressive or more cautious in the face of this proliferation of awareness and information,” he said. “But it is a part of the environment that can’t be ignored.”
It has to be understood at the highest levels. “When I talk to my peers in the military and when I talk to our elected officials, I talk about options and I talk about whether we’re in a period that requires either a bias for action or a bias for inaction,” he said. “But what we can’t allow is this proliferation of information to do is generate an almost insatiable appetite for more information and more options, which can actually paralyze the system.”
People want an exquisite solution, the chairman explained, and they often believe that with just a bit more information and a bit more time that a perfect solution exists. “What I’m suggesting is, as I pass the torch of the chairmanship to [Marine Corps] Gen. [Joseph] Dunford, I think that reality of making strategy in public and the risk of paralysis is much more real than it was when I became the chairman, and I can only imagine how that environment could change over the next four years.”