FPI Bulletin: General Dunford’s Common Sense

July 13, 2015

On Thursday, the Senate Armed Services Committee gathered to consider the nomination of General Joseph Dunford, Commandant of the Marine Corps, to serve as the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In his testimony, General Dunford gave candid assessments of the many growing threats that the U.S. and its allies face around the globe. Such candor is long overdue at the White House, where habitual passivity and a hesitation to confront America’s adversaries has done extensive damage to the country’s credibility and strength over the past six years.

General Dunford took much of his audience by surprise with his blunt assessment of Russia, calling it “the greatest threat to our national security.” Noting that Russia has an extensive nuclear arsenal and is in the process violating its neighbors’ sovereignty, its behavior, Dunford remarked, is “nothing short of alarming.” In contrast, President Obama and Secretary Kerry continue to implore Vladimir Putin to abide by the Ukraine ceasefire known as the Minsk Agreement, despite  the State Department’s own admission that Russian violations are pervasive.

Whereas President Obama refuses to provide Ukrainian forces with the weapons they need to defend themselves from Putin’s onslaught, General Dunford said plainly, “without that kind of support, they’re not going to be able to protect themselves against Russian aggression.” Since Congress has already given President Obama the authority to arm Kiev, it is only the President’s intransigence that stands in the way.

While General Dunford’s comments about Russia deserve considerable attention, he also made an important observation about the dangers of ranking national security threats in a simplistic, numerical manner. When asked how he would rank the threats from China, North Korea and ISIS, Dunford placed them second, third, and fourth behind Russia. Then he added that ranking threats on a list doesn’t mean that “we can attack those issues in sequence or that a prioritization of one at the expense of the other is necessarily something that we’d have to do.” Rather, “they all create a challenge that needs to be addressed.”

To address the challenges posed by such diverse threats, the U.S. must have military forces capable of taking decisive action around the globe. In that regard, General Dunford’s comments about the impact of defense budget cuts are unmistakably troubling. When asked about the effects of sequestration-level budgets, Dunford said, “The readiness of the Joint Force, the modernization of the Joint Force, will suffer what I would describe, and without exaggeration, as catastrophic consequences.”

While Dunford expressed confidence in the Armed Forces’ ability “to deal with the challenges we have today…There’s very little residual capacity.” He admitted, “It’s the readiness to respond to the uncertain, frankly, that keeps me up at night.” Yet uncertainty abounds. Just 18 months ago, the President dismissed ISIS as amateurs while continuing to pursue a faltering “reset” with Vladimir Putin.

President Obama has also made a choice to prevent Congress from providing the military with additional resources, so that it can prepare for an uncertain future. While his current budget request asks for an additional $35 billion per year for the Pentagon, the President refuses to accept this money unless and until Congress also provides a similar increase to fund the President’s domestic agenda. This position reflects mistaken priorities. As the editors of the Washington Post commented, “When all is said and done, national defense is a clear constitutional responsibility of the federal government; fully funding it should take priority.”

General Dunford pointed to Tehran as one source of danger that will persist regardless of whether a nuclear agreement emerges from the current negotiations in Vienna. “I think it's reasonable to assume that if sanctions are lifted, the Iranians would have more money available for malign activities,” the general said, “But I'd probably say that regardless of whether there's an agreement or not, my expectation is that Iran will continue the malign activity across the Middle East that we have seen over the past several years.”

Nor is there any reason to be complacent about ISIS. “If we were to fail in stopping ISIL,” Dunford observed, “I think you'll see an expansion of ISIL not only across the Middle East but outside the Middle East.” Whereas the President refuses to embed American advisors in frontline units in Iraq, General Dunford said this approach can strengthen the ground forces on which American strategy now depends to roll back ISIS. “It’s been my experience,” the general said, “that when U.S. forces have [accompanied] Iraqis or, for that matter, my experience in Afghanistan, that those units are more effective.

A former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, General Dunford also warned diplomatically of the costs of withdrawing American forces on a schedule determined by American politics rather than Afghan realities. Noting that timelines are often based on assumptions that cannot withstand the pressures of war, Dunford insisted that any withdrawal “ought to be based on conditions on the ground.” If the administration follows through on its plan to have just 1,000 troops remain in Kabul as of 2017, the result would be “a significant degradation of our counterterrorism mission.”

Appropriately, General Dunford never contrasted his judgment with that of the Commander-in-Chief. Yet there is an unmistakable consistency to the differences between the two men’s perspectives. Whereas President Obama plays down threats to national security while refusing to take prudent measures to protect the nation’s interests, General Dunford takes a more cleared-eyed and less timid view. If the White House takes his advice seriously, perhaps it can re-orient its foreign policy toward one that can generate bipartisan support on Capitol Hill and among the electorate.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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