An Interview with General Martin Dempsey

by Benjamin Collinger

Retired General Martin Dempsey spoke to students at Trinity University in March 2016 about his career, government policy and public service. Prior to his retirement in 2015, Dempsey most recently served as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest-ranking position in the U.S. Military and principal advisor to the President, National Security Council, Homeland Security Council and the Secretary of Defense. This interview draws upon General Dempsey’s answers to questions from Benjamin Collinger, The Contemporary‘s Editor-in-Chief, and other Trinity University students. 

Is there an event that has impacted your life the most?

Beyond personal milestones, participating in ceremonies honoring the return of the fallen at Dover Air Force Base had a dramatic effect in shaping my view of the use and limitations of force.

How can higher education improve to produce global citizens?

Some form of universal service would benefit those who participate and broaden their perspectives.

Which skills are crucial for successful leadership?

Expertise, Humility, and Courage.

Has President Obama’s visit to Cuba opened a window for a new era in U.S.–Cuba relations?

When President Obama was elected and re-elected, he wanted to get us out of the middle east, pay more attention to the pacific, emphasize diplomacy and break the cycle of misunderstanding with two countries in particular: Iran and Cuba. He’s done it. When we were going through the process of the Iranian nuclear deal, he had me over several times one-on-one, because he knew I was uncomfortable with Iran, and still am. At one point in the conversation, he asked me to tell him why I worry about Iran, and I told him what I thought. He asked if I thought this will be a step to moderating their behavior and convincing them that they don’t have to have this Sunni-Shia perpetual conflict, potentially bringing them back in economically and empowering their significant middle class.


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I said, Mr. President, one of us is going to be right, and I hope its you. I really do. I believe his motivations are sound with Cuba as well. It has been decades, and I think that he really believes that the way to moderate behavior is not by a lack of communication, economic sanctions, and political posturing, but rather by engagement and opening up doors where they can be opened. I admire him for that. His world view is admirable. It scares me, but like I said to him, one of us will be right. But what I really think will happen is that neither of us will be right– me saying let’s keep Iran at arms length and him saying lets try to cooperate–neither of us will be exactly right. But his effort might produce a more moderate Iran in the near future. Presidents do exactly what they say they are going to do, because they believe the people believe the people elect them to do it. 

How does education shape your approach to public affairs?

Education is necessary to understand how our government works, to gain a perspective on America’s role in the world, and to gain an appreciation of how different cultures and religions interact across the globe effecting our security.

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What is President Obama’s foreign policy legacy?

Not for me to say.

How should American leadership adapt its security apparatus to an increasingly decentralized world?

We need more and more capable partners. So we must be prepared to invest in them. Internally, we need to continue to push capability and responsibility to “the edge”.

In light of the events in Brussels, Ted Cruz called on police to ‘patrol and secure’ Muslim neighborhoods. Is that a policy you would support?

It’s a troubling trend. Even in retirement, a general can’t give any particular political figure the idea that he is for or against him or her. They’re not going to do anything to me, but they’ll take it out on my successor. So, we just don’t do it. I’m going to dodge your question about Ted Cruz specifically. But let me tell you about trends that I’ve seen in Europe: politics have taken a decided turn to the conservative. There’s nothing wrong with conservatism, but if it becomes ultra-nationalism, we have a problem. These are parties that would have been unimaginable in the past, with a xenophobic platform. Everything they worked for to achieve the European Union is certainly being walked back. The Schengen agreement that talks about open borders in Europe is invalidated right now.

There have been intermittent congressional debates on a new Authorization of Military force geared towards terrorist groups. How does the AUMF impact proportional force, the limits of U.S. power and presidential powers?

If you’re a student of the relationship between the executive and the congress, you would know that the congress and the executive branch have been at each other’s throats about the war powers act since it was passed. We invoke the war powers act frequently, any time we send a group with particular weapons we have to make a war powers notification. That’s different than declaring war. As you know, the debate is about who can actually declare war and under what circumstances. The AUMF was a workaround, to be honest with you, that the executive branch latched on to in order to authorize military force on the basis that it wasn’t a nation state we were dealing with, it might be a group like ISIS or Al-Qaeda. ISIS is becoming a different challenge, because they have aspects that are state-like; they control territory, have an economy of sorts and a legal system based on Sharia law.

What the president invoked was the 2001 AUMF that says the U.S. can use military force against Al-Qaeda and affiliates. Since ISIS was, before they changed T-Shirts, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the legal opinion is that we can use the 2001 AUMF. I find the whole conversation disappointing, because this is a new challenge spread over a very large swath of territory. Right now, the AUMF only really allows Iraq and Syria. Although, I did read that we took a shot in Libya, so somebody must have rendered an opinion about the fact that somebody in Syria presented a clear and present danger. But we still can’t address ISIS in Libya generally, and we need to. ISIS is not confined to Syria and Iraq.

We really need an AUMF that deals with the problem we have and not the problem we wish to have. Are we going to get it? No. Not between now and November. But you’re right, its an interesting case study: the use of AUMFs versus war powers, and watching the history of how each president has found his way forward, and present what they believe are their authorities as commander-in-chief while recognizing the congressional, constitutional requirements. It’s a matter of scholarly debate, and sometimes it bogs us down.

The President and Secretary Carter recently pushed the idea of opening combat roles to women. Do you believe that is a good policy for the U.S. Military?

I do. In 1995, Les Aspin put up a DOD policy that was called the combat exclusion for women. There was enormous political pressure not to have women killed in Bosnia and this exclusion in theory would have kept them out of harm’s way. Well, it didn’t even work in Bosnia. It caused us to do some really strange things in assignment. For example, a woman could be a military intelligence officer but she couldn’t go into an infantry unit because of the combat exclusion. When I became chairman, [Leon] Panetta said to me, does this make any sense? Panetta was one of my favorites, he was a plain speaking common-sense guy. I said no, women are all over the place in Iraq. The enemy isn’t over there and we’re over here, the enemy is all around us. It’s a very dynamic environment. The thought that we could keep women out of combat in the first place is a silly notion. So we lifted the policy, and we knew the next question would be why they can’t serve in any specialty for which they can meet the physical requirements. We deliberately set a three year study of our set of standards. As we did that, those who are the military’s admirers, and I say that tongue-in-cheek, accused of bowing to political pressure. That [policy change] didn’t come from the white house. That came from us, the uniformed military. Here’s why it’s the right thing to do: its not about equality.

Look, my two daughters served in the army, one was in the transportation unit and one was an engineer. Its partly equality; anyone who meets the standard ought to be able to do the job. But let me give you a demographic fact. Only one in four American males between 18 and 22 can get into the military. One in four. And we compete with corporate America for that one in four. Those are high quality kids: they’re physically fit, highly educated and morally admirable. It’s a volunteer force, and you have to go out and compete to get the right kids. But the track record is such that, we anticipate that there will be a time where we cannot fill the all volunteer force with just men. We could today, but that’s probably not true in 2020. Moreover, we may have to grow the force if these issues that we’re talking about here get worse. The all volunteer force is much better for the nation than an all conscript military is. To preserve the all-volunteer force, we actually need women. It’s like when we rescinded Don’t ask Don’t Tell, the people above 50 were concerned, but your generation was not. And guess what happened? Nothing. This too will go that way, as long as we hold our standards. I find it to be a pretty positive outcome, but nothing is positive in an election year.

Could you shed some light upon how the military handles rape?

We handle it differently today than we did before. The condition where a commanding officer used his influence to suppress evidence or the allegation – we’re way beyond that. I think we handle it better than civilian law enforcement. A Sheriff can decide whether to take a case or not. In our case, it’s taken immediately out of the specific unit. We assign a lawyer as a victim’s advocate. The victim can choose to report openly or privately, so that they can get medical care. We learned a lot, and in the past 2-3 years we have come a long way. I would rather have my daughter in the military environment than on a college campus. That’s a bold statement, but I really believe it. I wouldn’t have believed it two years ago.

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The Hillary Doctrine credits Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with bringing women from the periphery of U.S. foreign policy to the center by focusing on the link between the status of women and achieving national security objectives. How would you describe the status of women in U.S. foreign policy?

The same way I would describe the status of men. This isn’t true in most other countries.

Has the National Security Agency’s (NSA) bulk data collection program been a valuable tool to prevent terrorism, or has it sacrificed American ideals?

The NSA got a stain on their reputation by the Snowden leaks. But let me assure you of this: nothing that the NSA did was done autonomously. In every case, the information that was drawn, whether it was from a foreign head of state – we never ever collect on a U.S. citizen. If there is a misfire where we are collecting on somebody who is a foreign person of interest and all of the sudden they’re talking to a U.S. citizen, we are bound to cut the link and report it. Everything [the NSA] did was in accordance with the laws as they exist. The president also has the authority by executive order to allow the NSA on occasion to do things, and he exercises that right. We never did anything that rose to the level of being illegal. Is it a useful tool? Yes, frankly it is.

We [the military] pledge our allegiance and swear an oath to the constitution, not to a political party or leader. We hold ourselves accountable to the rule of law. Would I like to have the same authorities we had pre-snowden, yes I would, but that’s an issue for the U.S. congress to decide. Its very much like the debate between Apple and the FBI. From the start, that issue should be debated by the legislature – your elected officials. In other words, the legislative branch had the responsibility to decide how much personal privacy would be sacrificed in the interest of security, and we still haven’t really had that debate. We deal with it one crisis at a time, which is why I want you to get into public service. Cyber isn’t mysterious, my mother who is 88 probably thinks its mysterious, but it’s man-made, definable and we can understand it. We need to deal with it like any issue on land, air or sea. And until we do that, I think we’re going to miss some opportunities and create some vulnerabilities.

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Do you think that the South China Sea will erupt in conflict in the near future?

The two most volatile issues in Asia for me, are first [North] Korea, because they are just so opaque and [Kim Jong-un] is more than a little unpredictable and they have nuclear weapons. The second issue that is a flash point for miscalculation is the South China Sea. Thucydides said it was the rise of Athenian power that caused Sparta to arm and eventually led to the peloponnesian wars. When you look at history, every great power that was challenged by an emerging power ended up in conflict. We’re fighting against history in a way, but I think we can pull it off. I don’t see a reason we would end up in conflict with China, but the exception is a miscalculation in the South China Sea. 90 percent of the commerce that comes to the west coast of the U.S. transits the South China Sea, and you don’t want to have to ask permission. Secondly, we have five allies in the pacific, one of whom happens to be the Philippines and the other is Japan. Both have territorial disputes. To the extent to which our two allies become involved in tension and even confrontation with China, we are going to be involved because we have an alliance. Third, these are not just piles of rock. They have airstrips, missile batteries and in some cases radars.

If you have all of that and you declare an Air Defense Identification Zone, it means you control the airspace over and 12 miles out. And if you establish an economic exclusion zone, that means anyone transiting your waters has to have permission to do so. Add all of that together, and the South China Sea could become impassable. That’s not good. The last thing is, if they put radars there, those radars allow for cruise missiles that are carrier killers to be far more effective. The stakes in the South China Sea for China are sovereignty, resources and honor. The stakes for the U.S. are freedom of navigation, commerce and alliances. We’re going to have to be really careful as we move forward.


This interview has been edited and condensed.

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