Meet Robert Dees, a retired general who believes Muslims pose a threat to the U.S., the military should spread Christianity, and Carson should be president.
- By James BamfordJames Bamford (@WashAuthor) is a columnist for Foreign Policy and the author of The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA From 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America. He also writes and produces documentaries for PBS.
When it comes to foreign policy, it’s tempting to grade Ben Carson on a curve. A retired neurosurgeon with no political experience, Carson has promised that, as president, he would be as ready “as anybody else when foreign-policy questions come up” by surrounding himself with experts who would help him craft and, eventually implement, foreign policy.
But Carson’s foreign-policy experts are likely part of his problem. The candidate’s most outrageous statements on national security — including his shocking declaration in September that he believes Muslims are unfit to serve as president — aren’t merely a collection of ill-informed gaffes. They are a reflection of the troubling worldview of the people he has turned to for advice. Chief among them is Robert F. Dees, a retired Army officer who has indulged in anti-Muslim bigotry and advocated for a national security strategy centered on Christian evangelism.
Carson is said to have first met Dees at church last February. A four-hour dinner, and regular “study sessions,” followed that initial encounter. Carson has since called Dees “one of my most regular people” when it comes to foreign-policy briefings, and his campaign manager, Barry Bennett, has said that Carson’s national security team is headed by Dees. Dees, for his part, describes his current job title on LinkedIn as defense and national security advisor for Carson America.
It’s impossible to know the precise content of Dees’s advice to Carson. But Dees’s professional background doesn’t provide much reassurance. In 2013, he told a gathering at Wildfire Weekend, an all-male religious retreat, “My greatest pleasure has been being a private in the Lord’s army.” He also recounted being introduced to Jesus Christ by a math instructor at West Point not long after he enrolled there as a student in 1968. “Then I went off in the military,” he said, “as an ambassador for the Lord Jesus Christ.” Dees spent most of his career in the infantry and in staff positions in the United States, Germany, and Korea, eventually becoming deputy commander of the V Corps in Europe. His resume does not appear to list any combat assignments.
Dees has cited the 9/11 attacks as a personal and professional turning point. Speaking at Wildfire Weekend, Dees described visiting an intelligence center in Virginia sometime after the attacks. “I looked up on the wall … and there were cell-phone calls coming from certain places, and you could see where they would go into other places, and all of a sudden I saw Kandahar, Afghanistan, to Nashville, Tennessee; Dearborn, Michigan; Greensboro, South Carolina,” Dees told the gathering, describing the links between people in Afghanistan, where America was about to go to war, and residents of the United States.
Dees claimed to have an epiphany: When it comes to terrorism, all Muslims — some 23.4 percent of the world’s population — are equally worthy of suspicion. “It’s not about these guys who came from way out, knocked down some buildings, and then have left,” Dees explained at Wildfire Weekend. “We have a serious internal issue. We’ve been infiltrated.”
Dees has elaborated on these views in other settings. “I think it’s very important that we understand the threat,” he told a reporter for WND-TV after speaking at the 2014 Values Voter Summit, a conservative conference where Carson came in second behind Ted Cruz in a presidential straw poll. “Trying to appease the Muslim religion by saying [it is] a peace-loving religion is problematic. I think they need to show us. Rather than speak of peace, they need to demonstrate peace, and they need to demonstrate how their religion does not lead people to a final end state of violence and oppression.”
These views are consistent with the work Dees pursued after retiring from the military as a two-star general in 2003. For nearly six years, beginning in March 2005, Dees served as executive director of Military Ministry, a division of Campus Crusade for Christ, now called Cru, a Christian evangelical organization with an annual budget of almost half a billion dollars. His Military Ministry was dedicated to converting members of the military to Christian evangelicalism. Under Dees, the organization oriented its mission around “six pillars,” the first of which was: “Evangelize and disciple enlisted U.S. military members throughout their military careers.” According to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which worked closely with the organization on a conference, “retired Maj. Gen. Bob Dees, U.S. Army, outlined goals that [included] evangelizing all enlisted personnel in the U.S. military.”
In a short video he posted to YouTube in 2007, Dees said: “Within Military Ministry, we do a number of things. We’re at our nation’s boot camps; we are at the ROTC detachments called the Valor Program, over 80 universities of our country.… We also pass out spiritual resources, something called Rapid Deployment Kit, 1.5 million since 9/11: bibles, how to know God personally, and a daily bread, in a waterproof bag inside troop cargo pockets. It’s amazing to hear the power of the word of God among these troops in combat.”
Dees has also described the military as a vehicle to eventually “indoctrinate” the American public at large to evangelical Christianity. “We must pursue our particular means for transforming the nation — through the military,” he noted in a 2005 newsletter published by Military Ministry. “And the military may well be the most influential way to affect that spiritual superstructure. Militaries exercise, generally speaking, the most intensive and purposeful indoctrination program of citizens.”
Dees also had troubling international ambitions for Military Ministry, in line with the organization’s “sixth pillar” to “change continents for Christ.” In the 2007 YouTube video, Dees described his group’s goal of converting foreign countries to Christianity by evangelizing their militaries. “We seek to transform the nations of the world through the militaries of the world,” he said. “And we’re in twenty different countries around the world, recognizing that if you could possibly impact the military, you can possibly impact that whole nation for Jesus Christ and for democracy and for proper morality and values-based institutions.”
After leaving Military Ministry, Dees focused on turning his ideas into concrete action at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. Founded by televangelist Jerry Falwell, Liberty is the world’s largest Evangelical Christian university. Dees became the first director of the Institute for Military Resilience, which is dedicated to educating military personnel. (He has described its mission as “putting the person of Jesus back into the resilience equation that has become so popular within the military.”) Since Dees arrived at Liberty, the school has continued to attract vast numbers of military students, including 21,000 active military personnel enrolled as of 2013, according to Liberty’s statistics.
In his speech at the institute’s 2015 commencement ceremony (which took place around the same time Dees became Carson’s national security advisor), he referred to the 5,400 military graduates as “champions for Christ.” He closed by quoting Psalm 21:31, which declares, “Victory comes from the Lord.” In addition to a diploma, the military graduates were also given commemorative coins engraved with images of the Bible and the American flag.
In addition to his work at Liberty University, Dees lectures at military bases around the country. In 2014, he delivered a PowerPoint presentation at West Point, his alma mater, entitled, “Resilient Life & Leadership ‘God Style.’” The presentation was filled with quotes from the Bible and Christian messages, including “JESUS was the ultimate Resilient Warrior & Leader,” “You are faithful, God, You are faithful,” and “Consider JESUS.”
It’s not hard to imagine the types of policies he might pursue if he achieved high office in Carson’s administration. His national security principles, after all, have been consistent for much of his career. He has repeatedly made it clear that he believes it is important to use the military to convert the American public and foreign nations to Christianity while addressing the “threat” posed by the world’s Muslim population whose “final end state,” he believes, is “violence and oppression.”
If you want to predict a presidential candidate’s future national security policies, the easiest shortcut has always been to consider whom he or she turns to for advice on the subject while running for office. Needless to say, if the pattern holds true with Carson, a front-runner for the Republican primary, the country has serious cause for concern.
Photo credit: Photoillustration by FP/Ed Johnson