What Dempsey meant by “complicit”

The Pentagon today tried to dampen the continuing barrage of speculation raised by Gen. Martin Dempsey’s remark last week that he did not want to be "complicit" in an Israeli decision to attack Iran. "I don’t want to be complicit if they choose to do it," the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told ...

DOD photo by D. Myles Cullen/Released
DOD photo by D. Myles Cullen/Released
DOD photo by D. Myles Cullen/Released

The Pentagon today tried to dampen the continuing barrage of speculation raised by Gen. Martin Dempsey's remark last week that he did not want to be "complicit" in an Israeli decision to attack Iran. "I don't want to be complicit if they choose to do it," the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told a London audience on Aug. 30 during a roundtable at the U.S. embassy.

The line went viral in Israeli and other foreign press, with some questioning whether it was part of a concerted Obama administration effort to dissuade Israel from launching a strike. Some even suggested Dempsey was suggesting such an act would be a war crime. On Thursday, as Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. James Winnefeld arrived in Jerusalem for talks with his counterparts, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Israeli news outlets were still asking what the remark meant.

So the E-Ring asked the Pentagon.

The Pentagon today tried to dampen the continuing barrage of speculation raised by Gen. Martin Dempsey’s remark last week that he did not want to be "complicit" in an Israeli decision to attack Iran. "I don’t want to be complicit if they choose to do it," the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told a London audience on Aug. 30 during a roundtable at the U.S. embassy.

The line went viral in Israeli and other foreign press, with some questioning whether it was part of a concerted Obama administration effort to dissuade Israel from launching a strike. Some even suggested Dempsey was suggesting such an act would be a war crime. On Thursday, as Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. James Winnefeld arrived in Jerusalem for talks with his counterparts, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Israeli news outlets were still asking what the remark meant.

So the E-Ring asked the Pentagon.

According to a transcript of the roundtable provided to the E-Ring by Dempsey’s spokesman, Col. David Lapan, [now available here] the exchange on Iran began when an unnamed reporter noted "a toughening of U.S. rhetoric" recently and remarked how U.S. leaders are speaking out against an Israeli attack. The reporter then asked: "Why is it that you can’t simply — or have you explicitly told the Israelis that any kind of attack now would be a very, very bad thing for them and a very bad thing for you?"

Dempsey’s response was classic Dempsey: "Well, first of all, I don’t do rhetoric…my job is options, readiness, preparedness. And to why we haven’t said explicitly to Israel, ‘Don’t do it,’ — they’re a sovereign nation. I mean, we’re not in the business of telling other nations — other than those with whom we’re in conflict — but we’re not in the business of telling other nations how to behave."

Then, Dempsey answered a follow-up question by saying he doesn’t know all of Israel’s contingency plans, which is normal even among allies.

Then, Dempsey is asked outright if he will get warning from Israel:

DEMPSEY: I don’t know. We — I haven’t asked the question.
Q: Really?
DEMPSEY: Yes, really.
Q: I would have thought that would have been a fairly basic question — [cross talk]
DEMPSEY: Well, remember what I said. I don’t want to be — yeah, no, no, no. I don’t want to be accused of trying to influence — nor do I want — nor do I want to be complicit if they choose to do it. So I haven’t asked the question.

According to Lapan, "Gen. Dempsey was emphasizing that he does not expect Israel to clear its sovereign choices with the U.S., and he doesn’t want others to think or suggest the U.S. has such a role."

That may simply be the best gloss on an uncomfortable situation. But the Israelis are taking the same tack: "Israel maintains for itself the right to make decisions about its sovereignty, and the United States respects that," Barak said according to the Jerusalem Post. Barak praised U.S. military cooperation with Israel, but he also noted: "our timetables are not the same and we have our differences."

And as for war crimes?

"He wasn’t using complicit in the context of ‘illegal,’" Lapan said.

Kevin Baron is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy, covering defense and military issues in Washington. He is also vice president of the Pentagon Press Association. Baron previously was a national security staff writer for National Journal, covering the "business of war." Prior to that, Baron worked in the resident daily Pentagon press corps as a reporter/photographer for Stars and Stripes. For three years with Stripes, Baron covered the building and traveled overseas extensively with the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, covering official visits to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East and Europe, China, Japan and South Korea, in more than a dozen countries. From 2004 to 2009, Baron was the Boston Globe Washington bureau's investigative projects reporter, covering defense, international affairs, lobbying and other issues. Before that, he muckraked at the Center for Public Integrity. Baron has reported on assignment from Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the South Pacific. He was won two Polk Awards, among other honors. He has a B.A. in international studies from the University of Richmond and M.A. in media and public affairs from George Washington University. Originally from Orlando, Fla., Baron has lived in the Washington area since 1998 and currently resides in Northern Virginia with his wife, three sons, and the family dog, The Edge. Twitter: @FPBaron

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