Obama Picks Top Marine as Next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs
General Joseph Dunford will be the first officer to have commanded all U.S. troops in one of the two war zones to assume the Pentagon’s top military post.
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford will be nominated as the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the White House on Tuesday morning, putting a wartime commander into the nation’s top military post for the first time since the start of the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As President Barack Obama’s second nominee to the chairmanship, Dunford will enter a world vastly different than the one his predecessor, U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, saw when he assumed the role as the president’s top military advisor in October 2011. If confirmed by the Senate — which seems virtually certain — Dunford will leave his post as the commandant only months after taking the job late last year.
Dunford’s ascension has significant ramifications inside and outside the Defense Department. Within the Pentagon, Dunford’s appointment means that Defense Secretary Ashton Carter now has his top uniformed counterpart in place and that the White House has completed the leadership team that will run the Pentagon until Obama leaves office.
More broadly, Dunford — will spent a year commanding all U.S. forces in Afghanistan — begins his tenure at a time of deep uncertainty for the nation’s armed forces and will need to help the president maneuver through a welter of difficult policy decisions.
The flagging fight against the Islamic State is at that top of that list. Obama pulled all American troops out of Iraq in 2011, but has since sent 3,000 back to the country to train a hybrid force of Iraqi troops and Sunni tribal fighters to help beat back the militants. The Iraqis recently reclaimed the key Sunni city of Tikrit, but the Islamic State has been steadily tightening his grip on Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province.
With the situation on the ground appearing somewhat stalemated, Dunford will be asked to advise the president on whether to expand the U.S. military campaign there, either by dispatching Special Operations personnel to fight alongside the Iraqis or by dispatching larger numbers of warplanes and other armaments.
Dunford faces similar challenges in Syria, where the Pentagon and the CIA are racing to train a force of moderate Syrian rebels to combat the Islamic State within that country and to eventually try to topple Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad. Senior Pentagon officials — including Dempsey, the current chairman — have said that training enough fighters to challenge the militants could take months, if not years.
The strategic challenges come at a time of declining budgets in Washington, where the Pentagon is for the first time in more than a decade of war being asked to start canceling or scaling back high-end weapons programs and to begin effectively firing more than 100,000 troops. Dunford, as chairman, will have to oversee that entire process and work to ensure that morale stays high throughout the uniformed force and that individual services like the Army don’t try to undercut Obama and his plans for the Pentagon by directly lobbying the services’ allies on Capitol Hill.
A former senior Pentagon official who worked extensively with Dunford before leaving his job last year said the general had impressed many in the White House with his intellect and political skill. Dunford’s previous posting in Afghanistan had required him to maintain strong relationships with senior military personnel from an array of countries– including several Eastern European and Baltic nations that Washington is working to bring more closely into its orbit — as well as multinational organizations like NATO and the U.N.
The official said Dunford’s political skills were evident in the general’s appearances on Capitol Hill and in closed-door meetings at the Pentagon and White House.
“A lot of generals know how to talk, but he also knows how to listen,” the official said.
The official said Dunford’s wartime service would also buy him more credibility inside and outside the Pentagon than any of the other top commanders who had been rumored for the post. Dunford, 59, is the first general who served as the top overall commander in Iraq or Afghanistan to ascend to the chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs.
Dunford will also likely have much in common with Obama’s point man on the fight against the Islamic State, retired Marine general — and himself a former commander of the fight in Afghanistan — John Allen, who has been travelling the globe cajoling allies to stay in the fight in Iraq and Syria.
That could come in handy when Dunford takes to Capitol Hill to defend Obama’s proposed defense spending cuts in front of wary lawmakers from both parties. Even after Dempsey departs, the Defense Department will still be forced to push back against the congressionally-mandated budget cuts known as sequestration. Budgetary gimmicks on Capitol Hill have allowed the department to skirt the cuts for the past two years but they come back in full force in the fiscal year 2016 budget, which will take effect in October of this year.
The budget fights won’t be easy, but Dunford should get a boost from the sterling reputation he enjoys on Capitol Hill. As news of his appointment spread Monday night, lawmakers from both parties lined up to praise the selection. Democratic Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, praised Dunford’s the selection in a statement Monday night, calling him “a superb choice to lead the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” and added that “I strongly support his nomination.”
Dunford has generally received glowing reviews from members of Congress, in particular the Senate Armed Services Committee. During the 2013 hearing to confirm him as the head of the war in Afghanistan, then-chairman of the panel Sen. Carl Levin said that Dunford “has demonstrated remarkable skills as both a military leader and a diplomat in his interactions with the Afghan leadership, which have been essential to keeping the transition in Afghanistan on track.”
Obama’s decision to elevate Dunford comes in parallel with a decision to promote General Paul Selva, the current commander of U.S. Transportation Command, as the tenth Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The Dunford and Selva nominations will set off a landslide of jobs changes among the upper echelons of the military leadership, kicking off the search for not only a new Commandant of the Marine Corps but also getting the ball rolling for the upcoming nominations of a new Army Chief of Staff and Chief Naval Officer later this year. By the end of 2015, the Joint Chiefs of Staff — the nation’s highest-ranking military personnel — will have been almost completely replaced. Dunford is the first piece to move, but he won’t be the last.
Photo Credit: SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary