The Last Adult Is Leaving the Room

Other military leaders got all the attention—but the quiet and unassuming Joseph Dunford handled Donald Trump best of all.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen.Joseph Dunford answers questions during a Pentagon briefing in Arlington, Virginia, on May 19, 2017.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen.Joseph Dunford answers questions during a Pentagon briefing in Arlington, Virginia, on May 19, 2017. Win McNamee/Getty Images

In mid-August 1993, then-President Bill Clinton held a dinner for senior military commanders at the White House. This was more than a get-acquainted session. Clinton was looking for a replacement for Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell, whom Clinton had crossed swords with during his administration. In the wake of the dinner, the press anointed a Marine, Gen. Joseph Hoar, as Powell’s likely successor, but Clinton ultimately picked soft-spoken Army Gen. John Shalikashvili for the job. Hoar was disappointed, but Clinton’s decision freed him to do what he did best—which was mentor a group of rising young Marine officers who (he was convinced) would lead his beloved Corps into the next generation: John Allen, Joseph Dunford, John Kelly, and James Mattis.

He succeeded beyond all expectations. Hoar can be credited with mentoring the most influential quartet of U.S. military commanders since Army Gens. George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, Omar Bradley, and George Patton dominated the headlines more than 70 years ago. Each of Hoar’s disciples rose to four-star rank, each of them commanded in combat, and all of them were best of friends. Allen and Mattis succeeded Hoar as head of U.S. Central Command; Allen and Dunford headed up the U.S. command in Afghanistan; each of them rose to public prominence following 9/11; and Mattis, Kelly, and Dunford were viewed as among the “adults in the room” during the Donald Trump years.

Of the four, only Dunford remains in uniform—and in the Trump administration. But Dunford is set to retire as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in September, marking the end of Marine influence in the senior ranks of the U.S. military. While not as well known as his colleagues, Dunford has not only defied the pitfalls that befell each of his Marine colleagues, but he has thrived in his role. Quiet, studious, and unassuming, Dunford will leave a lasting legacy: Despite his lower profile during the Trump years, he proved he could handle the president better than anyone else—and certainly better than either Kelly or Mattis, who preceded him in retirement. He’s the last adult to leave the room.

Hoar singled out his relationship with Dunford as something he was “really proud of,” noting that both of them not only grew up in Boston but attended Boston College High School, albeit a generation apart. Then too, as Hoar noted, Dunford’s path to the top of his service was nearly cut short. “Joe came to me when he was a young officer and said he was getting out of the Corps and going to law school,” Hoar said. “And I just couldn’t believe it. I was shocked. He just thought he wasn’t really getting anywhere. I pressed him hard—I told him he needed to be patient, that someday he’d be Marine Corps commandant.”

It was good advice. After commanding in Afghanistan, Dunford returned to Washington to serve as the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps and then as its commandant—as Hoar had predicted. Most senior Marines assumed that serving as commandant would be Dunford’s last assignment, but in May 2015, Barack Obama named him as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs, succeeding the Army’s Martin Dempsey. Dunford wasn’t an afterthought, but his nomination wasn’t assured. Obama had always had a complex relationship with the Marines: He’d never acclimated to the low-key style of Marine Gen. James Jones, his first pick as national security advisor; he’d had a testy relationship with Mattis when the latter was Centcom commander; and Marine Gen. James Cartwright, an Obama favorite, had had his career derailed by his lack of rapport among senior Pentagon officials, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates and then-Joint Chiefs Chairman Michael Mullen. Political observers surveyed this wreckage and concluded that Obama had probably had his fill of Marines, but the president liked Dunford. He seemed everything that Jones, Mattis, and Cartwright weren’t: highly motivated, nonconfrontational, thoughtful, nonthreatening, and above reproach. He was the original “adult in the room.”

And so he proved to be. But being an adult in the room, as senior military officers will attest, comes with a price. “The Marines do well in the field,” a senior retired U.S. Army officer said, “but they do less well in Washington. It’s kind of outside their comfort zone. These are hard-chargers, tough guys. That doesn’t work on Capitol Hill or the White House. They just don’t have a feel for politics.” That has been especially true during the Obama and Trump years. Jones was shoved aside by White House insiders; Cartwright was ushered to the exit by Pentagon insiders; and, after barely surviving a scandal involving a Tampa socialite, Allen turned down another command, retired—and then raised eyebrows with an over-the-top endorsement of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 Democratic National Convention. The wreckage worsened under Trump. Kelly was not a good fit as White House chief of staff and was shown the door, while Mattis bobbed and weaved for two years as defense secretary but then opened the door himself. Not so with Dunford, who has steered clear not only of Washington’s political potholes but also Trump’s blessing—the beginning of the end for both Kelly and Mattis. In the meantime, he has shaped a military that reflects his thinking.

“He’s a Marine George Marshall,” said Harlan Ullman, a combat veteran, U.S. Naval Academy graduate, and author of the military’s “shock and awe” doctrine. “And I want you to quote me on that. He’s been one of the best [Joint Chiefs] chairmen we’ve had. Smart, articulate, thoughtful, and a leader.” Among Dunford’s “really first rate” attributes, as Ullman called them, has been “his ability to navigate successfully what might have been a very difficult time in civil-military relations.” Ullman expanded on his thesis: “At any time over the last two years, with all the other challenges this country has had, the one thing that we haven’t had is a crisis in civilian-military relations. Everyone kept predicting it, waiting for it, and it just never happened. And a major reason it didn’t happen is because of Joe Dunford.”

Richard Kohn, a respected expert on civilian-military relations at the University of North Carolina, agreed: “There’s no question that he’s done a very good job as [Joint Chiefs] chair, but he’s also had a little ‘top cover’ [protection] from Kelly, Mattis, and, to a degree, [Gen. H.R.] McMaster. When all eyes were on them, Joe Dunford was just doing his job.” Like Ullman, Kohn focused on Dunford’s handling of Trump—and noted the Marine’s ability to navigate the often submerged shoals of civilian-military relations. “He’s very attuned to the difficulties in civilian-military relations, and he’s made it a point to work well with the Congress and with [the military’s combatant commands].” And Dunford, Kohn believed, was more intent than many of his predecessors to represent the views of his senior colleagues on the Joint Chiefs. “At a time when senior military officers have intentionally taken a lower profile, Dunford has been front and center,” a senior Pentagon official said. “And you will find that he’s often accompanied by one of the other chiefs. It’s as if he’s signaling that he has the support of the entire military—that he doesn’t just speak for himself.”

But it’s one thing to be front and center and another to be effective. And while Dunford has been praised for what he hasn’t done (“He hasn’t gotten in a fight with Trump,” a senior civilian government official said), his partisans credit him with a number of under-the-radar accomplishments. “The big thing was the defense budget,” one partisan said. “And it’s not the size of the budget that he was concerned about. It was predictability. He never exactly told the Congress, ‘We care as much about what it’s going to be as we do about how much it is,’ but he certainly implied it. Nine years of continuing resolutions played havoc with military planning. It just drove him nuts. And he straightened that out.” Dunford also urged his colleagues to adopt his view of capability (or “quality over quantity” as he phrased it), a point he hammered at during a May appearance at the Brookings Institution—where he was introduced by his old friend, Allen. “When you have to make a choice between capacity and capability, I would go with capability,” he said. “And I wouldn’t grow the force in a way that exceeds what we predict is going to be sustainable.” Dunford also quietly dampened the increasingly worrisome competition for resources among combatant commanders—what one Pentagon official called “his quiet crusade.” Dunford urged them to stop the sniping and think globally. “Somewhere there’s a memo, signed by Dunford, that says, ‘Enough.’ This was his hobby horse,” the senior Pentagon official told me in June. “No one was taking a look at the big picture.”

Dunford’s colleagues also note the Joint Chiefs chairman’s decision to restart military-to-military talks with his Russian counterpart, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, in 2017—after a three-year hiatus. The two met, most recently, in Austria. “This was a pretty tense relationship after 2014 and during Dempsey’s term,” the senior Pentagon official said, “but Dunford was absolutely dedicated to turning it around.” Dunford initiated the contact to mitigate the risk of an inadvertent Russia-U.S. standoff in Syria but also “to begin a conversation on all of the issues.” Given the chill in Russia-U.S. relations, the Dunford-Gerasimov exchanges represent the most effective diplomatic channel. (There have been 12 telephone conversations between the two in the last year, I am told.) But Dunford’s great contribution to peace has nothing to do with Gerasimov and everything to do with Trump.

It was Dunford, and not (as reported) Tucker Carlson, who had the most influence in stopping the president from striking Iran in June, when Tehran downed an American drone. The key to Trump’s turnaround on the strike, Pentagon officials said, was Dunford’s decision to flood the White House with plans and papers laying out the costs and likely Iranian response—and arguing that the United States needed a measured response. In the end, Trump decided that swapping 150 Iranian lives for an American drone was simply too much. “[Dunford] told the president what would be involved, what it would cost, how Iran might strike back, and how many people would die,” as the senior Pentagon official told me in July. “He just laid it out. It was pretty grim, but it’s what made the difference.”

“Slow-rolling Trump,” as a retired senior U.S. Army officer described it, is a Dunford specialty. The Joint Chiefs chairman signed on to the president’s July 4 military parade but then nibbled away at it—providing Trump with plans and costs and inundating the Oval Office with details. “He flooded the zone,” this officer noted. Retired U.S. Army Colonel Kevin Benson, who has crossed paths with Dunford throughout his career and has watched him up close, agrees. “You always know a Marine is a success when no one in the Army complains about him,” he says. “And that’s true for Dunford. I haven’t heard a bad word. That’s pretty unusual.” He chuckles: “And then too, and I don’t know how he did it, but he kept our tanks from ripping up the streets of Washington.” In fact, the only problem with Dunford, to hear many senior officers tell it, is that he’s leaving—to be replaced as joint chiefs chairman, in September, by Army Gen. Mark Milley, a Trump favorite.

“Don’t be fooled,” the senior U.S. Army officer with whom I spoke told me. “Milley has spent a lot of time ingratiating himself with the president. Sooner or later Trump will call him ‘my general.’ Joe Dunford was never Trump’s guy. Remember Jim Mattis? He was Trump’s guy, too. But Dunford has not only survived—he’s been effective. You watch, we’re headed for a civilian-military crisis that’ll happen the first time that Milley does something Trump doesn’t like. And we’ll wish we had Joe Dunford back again.”

Mark Perry is a senior analyst at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and the author of ten books on foreign policy and military history.

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