WASHINGTON — The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said recently that the world is more unsettled and unpredictable than at any time during his 41-year military career.
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey sat down with DoD News to discuss his four-year tenure as chairman. He retires at the end of the month.
He said one constant throughout his term as chairman has been the increasing complexity of the world situation.
Complex World Situation
“It has always been the case that there have been threats to our national interests, and in some cases in the past, at home,” the general said. “What’s different about this period is that we’ve got this kind of convergence of both state actors who threaten us and we have the persistent threat of, let’s call it sub-state or non-state groups like the Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant.”
ISIL and the other “alphabet soup” of terrorist organizations bring a new aspect to the fight, he said. These groups share a common interest in changing the American way of life and propagating theirs, the chairman said.
Over his career it has been one or the other. When the chairman was commissioned out of West Point in 1974, the superpower rivalry between America and the Soviet Union dominated strategic thinking.
New Threats Emerge
From 2001 to 2011, al-Qaida and its affiliates dominated the threat spectrum. The U.S. military concentrated on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations, Dempsey said.
“What’s happened, I think, that increases the instability now is you’ve got state actors who are asserting themselves and trying to change the international order, and you’ve got the persistent threat from these non- and sub-state groups,” he said. “It’s the combination of those that makes it difficult to distribute the force, … because each kind of threat requires a different kind of military instrument.”
Dempsey noted the cliché that every problem looks like a nail if the only tool you’ve got in your tool bag is a hammer. “Well, we’ve got nails, we’ve got screws, we got bolts, we got, you know, thumbtacks,” he said. “There are a lot of problems out there.”
Confronting these threats — especially the threat of violent extremism — will be a generational struggle, he said. Some critics have said the United States doesn’t have the patience for such an effort.
Struggle in the Middle East
“It doesn’t matter whether we have the patience — our adversaries have the patience,” Dempsey said. “It is a generational struggle, because the underlying causes of this violence in the Middle East have a lot to do with demographic shifts and tribal and, of course, religion, economic disparity, bad, bad politics and governance.”
He added, “Those underlying issues are not going to be resolved for a generation or more.”
Overcoming such issues are key to defeating the threat of groups like al-Qaida or ISIL or whatever comes next, Dempsey said. Just addressing the threat posed by current groups without addressing the underlying causes of their popularity means that another group will rise and take its place, he said. Good governance, economic hope, and laws justly enforced are just as important in the fight against terror as bullets and bombs, the chairman said.
The adversary exploits the underlying issues, the exploitation of social media and the perversion of religion to create “a very dangerous, volatile situation that’s going to take a very long time to overcome,” he said.
“Now, we are getting it done,” Dempsey said. “We’ve got great leaders at every level from lieutenant and ensign all the way up to general and admiral, and we’re figuring it out.”