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Obama taps Army general to lead Joint Chiefs

Top military leaders are reshuffled

General Martin Dempsey General Martin Dempsey
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post / May 31, 2011

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WASHINGTON — President Obama nominated Army General Martin E. Dempsey as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and promoted two other senior military leaders yesterday, completing an overhaul of his national security team in advance of his reelection campaign.

Obama’s appointments will usher in an entire new leadership at the Pentagon, where for the first 2 1/2 years of his term he had kept most of the existing brass from his predecessor, President George W. Bush.

Dempsey, who served two tours as a commander in Iraq, was not believed to be Obama’s first choice. For more than a year, the president had been leaning toward Marine General James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, one of his most trusted military advisers.

But Obama informed Cartwright on May 21 that he wouldn’t get the job because of opposition from Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and outgoing chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, who butted heads with Cartwright over strategy for the war in Afghanistan.

Speaking at the White House before he headed to Arlington National Cemetery to lay a wreath in honor of the nation’s war dead, Obama did not explain why he bypassed Cartwright, but he showered the general with praise, saying he had “benefited enormously from [his] advice and counsel.’’

In turning to Dempsey, Obama had to pull him out of a high-ranking position — Army chief of staff — that he had appointed him to just last month. Obama called Dempsey “one of our nation’s most respected and combat-tested generals.’’

To fill the fresh vacancy of Army chief of staff, Obama said he would appoint General Raymond Odierno, another veteran four-star commander from Iraq who has served for the past year as head of the Joint Forces Command, based in Norfolk, Va.

The Pentagon is closing the Joint Forces Command as part of a broader money-saving restructuring plan.

Obama also named Admiral James “Sandy’’ Winnefeld Jr., head of the military’s Northern Command, to take over as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

All of the appointments are subject to Senate confirmation. If approved, Dempsey will take over Oct. 1 from Mullen, who is scheduled to retire four years after Bush named him to the job.

Cartwright’s term as vice chairman ends in August.

Obama said Dempsey and Winnefeld would make “an extraordinary team’’ on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Between them they bring deep experience in virtually every domain,’’ he said. “Land, air, space, sea, and cyber. Both of them have the respect of our troops on the front lines, our friends in Congress, and allies and partners abroad.’’

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the highest-ranking officer in the armed forces and the principal military adviser to the president.

Dempsey’s appointment comes one month after Obama nominated CIA Director Leon E. Panetta to move to the Pentagon to replace Gates as defense secretary. Gates, another Bush administration holdover, is scheduled to retire June 30.

Army General David H. Petraeus, commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, is slated to succeed Panetta as CIA chief.

Dempsey, 59, has had 36 years of Army service after graduating from West Point. He commanded the Army’s First Armored Division during the height of the Iraqi insurgency, overseeing 20,000 soldiers based in Baghdad. He also spent two years in charge of the development of Iraqi Army and police forces.

Dempsey holds three master’s degrees and survived one bout with cancer. And he has one catchy hobby: singing. He’ll belt out Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York’’ at the drop of a hat.

Odierno also served several years in Iraq, including as commander of all US forces in the country from September 2008 to September 2010.

Obama will need to name another member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to replace Admiral Gary Roughead, the head of the Navy, who is scheduled to retire in September.

The new national security team is taking shape as Obama faces pivotal decisions in Afghanistan, where he has promised to begin withdrawing at least some troops in July amid waning support for the war.

Obama’s war Cabinet also must decide its role in quelling the violence in Libya, where a NATO-led campaign to protect civilians has lapsed into a drawn-out conflict with Libyan ruler Moammar Khadafy.

Yet more questions loom in Iraq, where the White House has an agreement with the Iraqi government to withdraw all US forces by year’s end. Some White House and Pentagon leaders would like to allow at least some troops to remain longer.