By Jim Garamone
DoD News, Defense Media Activity
WASHINGTON, July 17, 2015 – In the world of political-military affairs, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey likes to say that he is “the dash.”
The dash is not the name of some superhero. It is the punctuation mark found between “political” and “military” when both factors exist in a given situation.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff lives at the intersection of policy objectives and the military activities used to achieve them.
“When we testify, we all get drawn into different discussions about strategic objectives and campaign objectives and political objectives,” Dempsey said during a recent interview. “But the one that lives at that intersection is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”
Dempsey is the 18th officer to hold the chairman position since it was established in 1947. Nominated by President Barack Obama, he was confirmed by the Senate and took office in October 2011, succeeding Navy Adm. Mike Mullen.
By statute, the chairman is the military advisor to the president, the secretary of defense and the National Security Council. The chairman also has the responsibility of consulting with Congress on issues related to national security.
Highest-Ranking Officer, But Commands No Troops
The chairman is the U.S. military’s highest-ranking officer, but he commands no troops. “I’m an advisor on matters related to the use of the military instrument of power,” Dempsey explained. “I’m not intended to be, nor would it appropriate for me to be, an advocate for any particular strategy or policy.”
He said there are three questions asked when developing a strategy, the first being whether the United States can do something. If that something is in the military sphere, it becomes a question for the chairman.
“In that context, in that room, among our elected officials and our appointed officials, I’m the one that is most accountable to answer the question: Can we do something militarily?” Dempsey said.
The chairman shares responsibility for the second question, which is “Will it work?”
“If there’s a particular political objective, I first describe the military capabilities that might be applied against that challenge, and then I integrate that conversation about … the military instrument of power with diplomatic power, economic power, information, [and so on],” he said.
The third question is one for elected officials: Should the United States do it?
“I’m at the table, I have a voice, but at that point, my voice becomes far less prominent in the room than it is in answering the first two questions,” Dempsey said.
Nature of Job Often Misunderstood
The general noted that people who don’t understand the nature of the job -- the idea of the chairman being the dash -- accuse the chairman of being an administration stooge. “It has happened to every chairman since I’ve become aware that there was a thing called the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” he said.
Having served as a special assistant to then-chairman Army Gen. Hugh Shelton, Dempsey said, he has some unique insight into this.
“I remember working for General Shelton and [reading] some very hurtful … articles about him … as a lapdog of the president -- by the way, a phrase which has been reprised recently,” he said.
But a chairman has an obligation to provide military advice more broadly, the general said. Dempsey provides military advice and expertise to members of the Senate and House of Representatives, regardless of political party.
The statute is set up so the chairman can give his personal advice. But any chairman quickly comes to the conclusion that consulting with the other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- the vice chairman, the Army chief of staff, Air Force chief of staff, the commandant of the Marine Corps, the chief of naval operations and the director of the National Guard Bureau -- is the preferred way to go, Dempsey said. He meets with the Joint Chiefs at least twice a week.
“They help formulate and articulate what we call best military advice,” he said. Those meetings are part of the chairman’s significant convening power.
“I can convene a meeting of the JCS, which I do,” he said. “I can convene a meeting of combatant commanders, who work directly for the secretary of defense. They understand that the secretary is going to ask me for my advice, so it’s very clear to them and to me that we need to be consulting with each other frequently on issues as they arise around the globe.”
The chiefs of the services build their forces, the combatant commanders employ those forces, and the chairman, once again, finds himself in the middle. “I’m kind of the one in the middle of that who adjudicates the priority,” Dempsey said. “Literally, I’m at the intersection of … political objectives, military activities, service chiefs and combatant commanders, and … international partners.”
The president is the commander in chief of the military, and he chairs National Security Council meetings. These happen, on average, about once a week, the chairman said. In addition, Dempsey said, he goes to all of the principals’ committee meetings in the White House -- usually two or three a week.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Dempsey also have a scheduled meeting with the president every week.
“From time to time, either I will ask to see [the president] privately or he will ask to see me privately,” the chairman said. “I have access to him, and obviously he has access to me.”
Being at the center of so many processes made him realize early in his term that the key to being effective was building relationships, Dempsey said. Any chairman must build up relationships with elected officials, appointed officials, other U.S. military leaders and foreign military leaders, he added.
One of those relationships is with the American people, he said, and he feels an obligation to speak periodically about the military to the American people at large.
But also, he said, a private first class wants to know that if he or she is asked to go into harm’s way, someone is thinking about the implications at the national level. “And that happens to be -- generally speaking -- the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” he added.