Shadow Government

Grill, Then Confirm General Dempsey

From the point of view of American civil-military relations, today’s confirmation hearing for Gen. Martin Dempsey, whom President Barack Obama nominated for a customary second tour as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is the second-most important hearing of the year. The first was Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearing earlier in the year. ...

From the point of view of American civil-military relations, today’s confirmation hearing for Gen. Martin Dempsey, whom President Barack Obama nominated for a customary second tour as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is the second-most important hearing of the year. The first was Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearing earlier in the year.

Hagel’s hearing was a train wreck, but he won grudging confirmation. I hope and expect Dempsey’s to go much more smoothly, and I hope and expect him to win an even more enthusiastic affirmative vote.

Hagel has performed better than his dismal performance in the confirmation hearing would have predicted. While I thought at the time that there were better choices for secretary of defense, I also thought that there was not a strong enough case against him to overcome the presumption that elections have consequences and one of them is that presidents should get the appointees they want. The confirmation hearings should not be a rubber stamp, and it is always possible that the vetting process was inadequate. However, the burden of proof should be on those seeking to reject, rather than on the president. 

The case for Dempsey strikes me as much stronger than was the case for Hagel, notwithstanding the sharp critiques from my friend and Shadow Government colleague Kori Schake (who has made her skepticism plain here, here, and here). By all means, I hope the Senate uses the confirmation hearing to raise the tough questions that deserve to be asked of the administration’s national security policy, which, as I argued before, appears to be in free-fall. However, it is obvious that these problems derive from decisions above Dempsey’s pay grade and that those elected and appointed officials responsible at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. do not appear before confirmation hearings, or any oversight hearings. So this is the moment to ask those questions of an administration official obliged to answer them.

It is also fair game to ask Dempsey the tough questions that belong at his level: How does he explain the evolution in his advice on Syria? Why does he believe that the United States has established credible coercive diplomacy vis-à-vis Iran? What will he recommend if, as seems probable, the sequester will not be fixed? And so on. Dempsey must provide compelling accounts of the many issues he will manage if he is confirmed to a second tour, ranging from sexual harassment policy to pay and compensation to rebalancing the force as it returns from war to barracks.

But I think he deserves that second tour. I admit to a certain bias here because Dempsey cares deeply about an issue that I think is vitally important: the health of civil-military relations. (Yes, I acknowledge another possible conflict of interest: Dempsey is a Duke alum with a graduate degree in English, which speaks well of his breadth of education. I also taught his son in class.) Dempsey has made educating the force about the do’s and don’ts of healthy civil-military relations a high priority in his first term. In this regard, he was responding to the same warning signs that motivated his predecessor, Adm. Mike Mullen, and his earlier boss, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, to likewise make civil-military relations a point of emphasis. Dempsey has spoken out persuasively about the dangers of senior retired military getting involved in high-stakes partisan politics, and he has spoken compellingly about the need for better communication between civilian and military institutions.

Both civilians and the military share responsibility for preserving healthy civil-military relations, but it is simply a fact that civilian political leaders are too distracted to pay the matter adequate attention, and the rest of civilian society is even more inclined to ignore the relationship. If military leaders do not make it a priority, no one in positions of influence will.

Dempsey understands this fundamentally important fact, and for that reason — and barring a black-swan surprise revelation in the hearings — he deserves to be questioned closely and then confirmed.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.

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