Not So Fast On Fighting Joe

A case for skepticism about the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

• May 7, 2015 5:00 am


It is not every general who can find himself praised at the website of the Weekly Standard and by President Obama himself on the same day. But a defining trait of Joseph Dunford, nominated this week to replace Martin Dempsey as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is the universality of the respect that he commands. I have never heard a credible source say a bad word about the man. Come to think of it, I have never heard an untrustworthy source speak ill of him.

His nomination certainly hasn't changed that: praise and even excitement have been the theme of the reaction. My favorite endorsement came from a former military intelligence officer and defense aide for the Obama administration, who told The Hill that Dunford is "an operational artisan"—as pretentious a phrase as you're likely to come across anywhere, let alone among people who are supposed to be superintending the nation's security. (What's next? Artisanal airstrikes?) Now, over-the-top praise is not Dunford's fault. But when the Weekly Standard praises Dunford for seeming to be less of an "Obama general" and more of a "Mattis general," while Obama simultaneously praises him by saying, "I know Joe. I trust him," it stands to reason that someone is wrong. At the least, those of us with hopes that this appointment signals positive change at the highest levels of national security policymaking might consider some caution.

Consider the velocity of Dunford's rise, which has been one of the fastest (the fastest?) in modern Marine history. He famously skipped the rank of Major General in 2008, such that his most recent elevation, holding the post of commandant of the Marine Corps for only part of a year before getting the nod for chairman, is more of the same. One foundation of this ascent is Dunford's record as an aggressive combat leader. He commanded a regiment of Marines in the invasion of Iraq, and so, unlike a lot of very senior officers today, has personally experienced sustained combat. (I wonder how many Americans appreciate how few three- and four-star generals and admirals have ever heard a shot fired in anger—or, to expand the sample, have experienced combat only as the sound of shots fired in anger at a very great distance.) But there are a lot of aggressive combat leaders out there, and few of them make it to four stars, or any stars.

Dunford's portfolio has other elements. He seems to be a talented politician. The fact that in these contentious days both the administration and its conservative critics think highly of him is evidence enough of that, but we can also add the fact that, unlike Admiral Samuel Locklear—an outspokenly liberal officer who was also mentioned as a possible pick for chairman—no one really knows the details of Dunford's positions on a number of controversial issues. As in elected office, so in appointed office—defining for the public where you stand can hold you back. Dunford hasn't made that mistake.

There is no doubt in my mind that Dunford will be an improvement over General Dempsey, and that between him and Secretary Carter some good can be done on important issues, especially those that lie mostly below the White House radar, like personnel reform. We can hope that Dunford will never be an enthusiastic flack, as Dempsey has been, for this administration's deception of the American people on a number of issues. In Dempsey's case, this was most striking regarding the question of our strategy against the Islamic State, wherein the JCS chairman actively promoted the White House spin that it is U.S. policy to "defeat" IS, when very clearly what has been done in the field is a half-hearted effort to contain it. Loyal obedience to lawful orders should not extend to spreading politically convenient falsehoods in public.

But as for the policy itself? Even assuming that the Dunford-Carter team will take a tougher line in internal administration debates than the Dempsey-Hagel team did (not, on every issue, a safe assumption) what are they meant to achieve on matters that are very much on the administration's radar? A tough line on a lawless Iran? Dealing with the alarmingly real possibility of another European war, which if taken seriously implies that we shouldn't be cutting forces in Europe as a cost-saving measure? (Even Dempsey reportedly wanted to arm the Ukrainians, and look how that has turned out.) The intense pressure to relax physical standards in ground combat units in order to ensure that a critical mass of female troops can qualify to join them?

Some caution is called for on expectations for these and other major issues. To think, though, that Dunford is someone who will push an internal debate so far as to end up being publicly kneecapped, as Mattis was over Iran, is unrealistic. Before this week, Dunford's highest profile command was to lead American and allied forces in Afghanistan in 2013 and 2014—in essence, to manage the drawdown. To his credit, he resisted pressure to end the American commitment there completely, arguing before Congress (and, presumably, the president) that the Afghan state would collapse if we did so. But it is also impossible to say that things are going well in Afghanistan as a result of our current policies—policies that were, in many respects, above Dunford's pay grade as the ISAF commander. He was given a job to do, and he did it. Which is what we can expect he'll do in the future.