Obama Reshuffles His Defense Team


06/01/2011 by Richard Weitz

With the appointments announced on Memorial Day, President Barack Obama has almost completed the transformation of his defense team from the senior leaders he initially inherited from President George W. Bush to a group of men that he selected.

The new team looks well-prepared to deal with Afghanistan, but has less experience with other key security issues, such as managing China’s rise. They face the difficult task of winning the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, maintaining a powerful military force to reassure allies and deter potential aggressors, restoring equipment and people that has degraded during the past decade of high-tempo combat operations, and developing  next-generation capabilities to counter the military modernization drives of other states.

If the Senate confirms all the president’s appointments, which seems likely, then current U.S. Army Chief of Staff, Martin E. Dempsey, will be the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS). The Chairman is the highest-ranking military officer in the United States. He has many roles, including be responsible for helping provide strategic direction of the U.S. armed forces, but perhaps his most important is to serve as the president’s senior military advisor. Dempsey will replace Admiral Mike Mullen, who will retire at the end of September.

Furthermore, Navy Admiral James “Sandy” Winnefeld, Jr., currently dual-hatted as head of NORTHCOM and NORAD, will replace retiring Marine Corps General James E. Cartwright. Finally, U.S. Army General Ray Odierno, commander of all U.S. troops in Iraq from September 2008 to September 2010, will back fill for Dempsey and become the 38th Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army.

Dempsey,  Winnefeld, and Odierno will join a team led by a new Secretary of Defense. Obama has nominated CIA Director Leon Panetta to replace retiring Secretary Robert Gates. Current Afghan war commander General David Petraeus has accepted Obama’s offer to become the new CIA Director. President Obama has yet to announce who he wants to replace Gen. Patreaus as Afghan war commander. He also needs to propose a new Admiral to run the Navy since the current Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Gary Roughead, will retire by September of this year.

Dempsey’s appointment was a surprise. He became the U.S. Army Chief of Staff, which normally entails a four-year term, less than two months ago. Until a couple of weeks ago, General Cartwright was expected to be promoted to CJCS, but he apparently alienated Gates and Mullen through his close personal ties with President Obama. According to media reports, Cartwright also stepped on some toes when he joined with Vice President Joe Biden to lobby against the 2009 Afghan troop surge decision. Still, it awkwardly seems that Gates and Mullen, who will both retire soon, were Dempsey’s strongest advocates. Meanwhile, Panetta, who must work with him, seems to have had little impact on the selection process. Still, Dempsey and the other two men have extensive combat command experience, which Cartwright (and Obama and Panetta) lack..

In any case, General Dempsey and the rest of the new DoD team face many challenges. They seem well-prepared to deal with some of them, at least in terms of their recent professional experience. For example, Dempsey,  Winnefeld, and Odierno have developed extensive expertise in the kinds of Middle East security issues that concern U.S. Central Command, which will prove helpful in addressing the security impact of the regional political-military upheavals, an issue Robbin Laird has rightly called our attention to


Since the Libyan War will likely be over by the time Dempsey becomes CJCS, his immediate priority for the Middle East will likely involve Iraq. Specifically, he must help define and oversee either the withdrawal of almost all U.S. troops from Iraq, which is scheduled to occur at the end of this year, or the implementation of a novel arrangement to extend the American military presence on Iraq beyond 2011.

(There is broad agreement that a couple hundred U.S. Defense Department military and civilian personnel should remain attached to the civilian-led U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.) If the Iraqi and U.S. governments decide to postpone this withdrawal date, they will need to engage in detailed negotiations to determine how many U.S. forces will remain, for how long, with what legal rights and immunities, and what specific roles they will undertake.

The U.S.-Iraq Security Agreement (also known as the Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA), which entered into force at the beginning of 2009, established that all remaining U.S. troops must withdraw fro Iraq by the end of 2011. Although both the Iraqi and U.S. governments continue to work according to this timetable, media leaks from Baghdad and Washington suggest that influential people in both countries want the United States to have an extensive military presence in 2012 and perhaps beyond since the Iraqi military forces will require many more years to develop the capacity for effective external defense.

One reason Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has refrained from asking Washington for an extension in the U.S. troop presence is that the Sadrist bloc, a member of the governing coalition that is popular among radical Shiites, is strongly opposed to a continued U.S. military presence. Its leader Moqtada al-Sadr, son of revered Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, has explicitly threatened armed resistance if all U.S. forces do not leave Iraq by the end of this year.

Dempsey has already fought against the Sadrists during his two tours in Iraq. Suppressing the burgeoning Iraq insurgency was his main task when he commanded the 1st U.S. Armored Division in Baghdad in 2003 and 2004. And he led coalition efforts to train Iraqi security forces to counter guerrillas when he was the Commanding General of the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq, from August 2005 to August 2007. When he became Chief of the Army Staff in early April, Dempsey told journalists that he favored keeping some U.S. troops in Iraq after the end of this year.

The fundamental issue regarding Afghanistan for the Pentagon is similar to that concerning Iraq. As in Iraq, a key question relating to Afghanistan is how fast U.S. and NATO troops will leave the country. The answer depends on how rapidly U.S. forces can transition the lead role in fighting the war to the Afghan government. The announced dates for this transition have repeatedly slipped as the Taliban has proven more tenacious, and the Afghan security forces less effective, than expected.

And a key challenge will be war termination.  As I have written elsewhere, one does not want Afghanistan to become the next Korea.


There is also the problem of Pakistan-American relations. Here the CJCS can play an important role in containing the “trust deficit” between Pakistan and the United States. For example, Mullen’s visit to Islamabad in April put Pakistani military leaders on notice that the United States objected to their support for some Islamist terrorists, preparing the grounds for the May 2 Osama bin Laden seizure operation the following month. Mullen made some very candid  remarks to the Pakistani media about the continuing links between Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Haqqani insurgency network in Afghanistan.

Conversely, Mullen had also cultivated ties with Pakistani Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who has cooperated with the U.S. UAV operations in his country. Following Mullen’s post-bin Laden visit to Pakistan last week, when he was joined by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Pakistani military forces have reaffirmed their intent to drive the remnants of al-Qaeda, if not the Afghan Taliban, out of their country.

They may soon begin their long awaited offensive against North Waziristan, situated on the Afghan-Pakistan border. Until now, this terrorist hotbed could only be attacked by U.S. drone strikes since the Pakistani authorities have prohibited cross-border operations by U.S. and Afghan governments forces on their territory.

Dempsey and Kayani reportedly were classmates when they both attended the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in the 1980s. And Defense Secretary-designate Panetta has developed extensive operational ties with Pakistan’s influential intelligence leaders as head of the CIA, which conducts its own drone operation in Pakistan independent of the Pentagon.

Notwithstanding their experience with the Middle East, it is unclear how well the new team will address the challenges to U.S. security from outside the Middle East, including many that have been covered in earlier SLD postings. These novel threats include managing residual tensions with Russia, containing North Korea’s nuclear activities, defending against cyber attacks, and above all managing the rise of the People’s Republic of China so that it does not threaten international security. Whatever his flaws, Cartwright seemed well prepared to deal with these issues given his former leadership of U.S. Strategic Command, from September 1, 2004 to August 10, 2007.

Nonetheless, it is the men that Obama did appoint who will have to address these challenges. Above all, they will need to modernize the U.S. military’s doctrine and capabilities—essential conditions for maintaining America’s position as the leading world military power. And they will need to do this at a time when the Pentagon also must re-equip and re-set military units depleted in current operations, and at a time when pressures to curtail U.S. defense spending are growing.

For example, the U.S. Navy is struggling to provide the additional missile defense ships required to implement President Obama’s European Phased Adaptive Approach while still maintaining a forward deployed carrier task force or other big presence in regions of potential conflict.  Similarly, the Air Force is torn between buying an efficient number of new 5th-generation fighters and the need to apply resources to develop a new strategic bomber. Meanwhile, the Marine Corps is wondering whether it will receive any new airplane in coming decades given the development difficulties of its JSF variant. Finally, the Army is having to sacrifice one modernization project after another to stay within its budget.

Odierno’s current role as the person in charge of closing U.S. Joint Forces Command should help him terminate other programs. But an important part of all these leaders’ new positions is to preserve U.S. military power and resist proposals that excessively cut U.S. defense capabilities.