10:21am

Mon May 30, 2011
Politics

Obama Taps Army General To Lead Joint Chiefs

President Barack Obama Monday nominated Army General Martin Dempsey to be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Navy Admiral James Winnefeld to be Vice Chairman.

Dempsey, who is known as a thinker and a combat commander, has done tours in Saudi Arabia training the National Guard and in Baghdad at a time when the insurgency was gaining steam. He later led the effort to train the Iraqi military. More recently he served as Acting Commander of U.S. Central Command — the military position that oversees combat in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

In making his announcement - President Obama highlighted this experience.

"For the first time, the Chairman and Vice Chairman will have the experience of leading combat operations in the years since Sept. 11," Obama said.

Dempsey is currently chief of staff of the Army, a job he's held for less than two months. In 2003 and 2004, he led the 1st Armored Division in Baghdad during a very difficult time. Retired Army Colonel Mark Olinger was General Dempsey's assistant chief of logistics in Baghdad.

"Imagine a city whose entire government processes are just eliminated," Olinger says. "There's no local law enforcement. There's no government at any level to speak of, and the citizens can do what they want at will."

And there was an insurgency, with many of the citizens supporting it. Olinger says Dempsey understood the dynamics.

"He viewed it that we had to build trust and confidence with those Iraqis who were emerging to try to assume leadership roles and also with the Iraqi citizens in general," Olinger says.

Retired General Jack Keane says Dempsey's experience sends the right kind of signal to a military force that's fighting now and will continue to fight for some time to come.

"He was one of our most effective division commanders we had in Iraq during that entire time frame," he says. "If we're going to have a chairman of the joint chiefs of staff during a time when we have been at war in the longest time in the nation's history, we just must have a general officer who participated in that war."

But in Dempsey, the president gets much more than a battlefield tactician. Dempsey once took the microphone at a reception at Fort Monroe, singing a Frank Sinatra song. The general really can sing — and he's not afraid to show it off in the name of boosting morale.

This may seem like a silly factoid, but it gets at something else about Dempsey that military insiders repeat over and over: he's a skilled communicator.

Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, the commander of U.S. Army Forces in Europe has known Dempsey for nearly two decades and says the general is just good with people whether they be kings and princes or regular folks.

"That's what allows him to not only make his ideas known to higher ranking people but also interact with perhaps the privates and the sergeants and the lieutenants that he does so well," Hertling says.

If confirmed by the Senate, Dempsey's job will be to make his ideas known to the president and his national security team. And there will be plenty to discuss: With the U.S. Military involved in Iraq and Afghanistan and now Libya, and with pressure to cut military spending significantly in the coming years.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.