Ryan vs. Dempsey

White House

President Barack Obama talks with, from left, Gen. Ray Odierno, Gen. Martin Dempsey, and Admiral James "Sandy" Winnefeld in the Oval Office, May 29, 2011.

Article Highlights

  • #Obama's administration attitude on #military: cut first, ask questions later

    Tweet This

  • Military leaders must be able to answer defense cuts questions honestly, without political repercussion

    Tweet This

  • .@RepPaulRyan is skeptical of massive cuts to the #military while maintaining America's global presence

    Tweet This

Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey is getting an appetite for political controversy.

Earlier this week he offered up a “clarification” of his analysis of the effects of “sequestration,” the automatic spending cuts called for under the Budget Control Act that threaten to slash defense by another $500 to $600 billion over 10 years. Where he had originally asserted that the United States would no longer be a global power, what Dempsey meant to say was that “we wouldn’t be the global power that we know ourselves to be today.” The problem, quite clearly, was not that the chairman’s meaning was imprecise, but that his original statement had become a politically salient argument against sequestration—making life difficult for President Obama, who has said he would veto any sequestration-lifting legislation that didn’t include tax increases.

Dempsey’s claim of purity and virtue would be more credible if the Budget Control Act hadn’t become law several months before the Pentagon’s strategy review.

But now Dempsey’s Irish has provoked a public confrontation with Rep. Paul Ryan, head of the House Budget Committee. At a National Journal forum on the federal budget, Ryan expressed the doubts of many in Congress when he said, “We don’t think the generals are giving us their true advice” when it comes to the geopolitical and military risks associated with the defense budget. Given that, even before sequestration, the Obama administration’s 2013 budget takes $487 billion out of defense spending and reduces the Army and Marine Corps by 100,000, yet avers that this same stretched force can continue to do whatever it’s asked to do, Ryan’s skepticism is both warranted and actually expressed with gentle deference.

Dempsey has chosen, however, to take offense, claiming that Ryan was “calling us, collectively, liars.” In response to the charge that the administration’s defense plans were budget-driven, Dempsey went all in: “I stand by my testimony. This was very much a strategy-driven process to which we mapped the budget.”

Dempsey’s claim of purity and virtue would be more credible if the Budget Control Act hadn’t become law several months before the Pentagon’s strategy review. And if President Obama hadn’t completely surprised then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates last April with the announcement of his intention to cut defense spending another $400 billion—on top of a previous cut of $400 billion made by the administration—without a hint that a strategic review of the implications should come first. And if the commander in chief’s January “defense guidance” hadn’t begun with the injunction to “put our fiscal house in order here at home.”

And, finally, Dempsey would be more persuasive if he hadn’t admitted in his confirmation testimony—also last April—that “we’ve got a task to try to keep strategy running parallel with resources decisions.” Following up, Sen. John McCain translated: “So we have announced cuts without the commensurate strategy to go along with it?” Answered Dempsey: “Well, Senator, what I would describe is we’ve announced a target and we’re trying to determine what the impact would be. .  .  .” McCain: “In most cases that I’ve seen, the strategy has been developed and then the budget for it is arrived at, not the other way around.”

By barking so loudly and so readily in justification of administration policy, Gen. Dempsey will only raise suspicions about the politicization of the senior ranks of the military—not tamp them down. The danger is that Dempsey’s zeal will undercut the cause of military professionalism. 

Civil-military tensions have run high in the Obama years, and the president has been willing to overrule his generals when he feels the need, most notably contravening the Afghanistan recommendations of Gen. David Petraeus, whom the White House famously feared for his alleged political ambitions. Whatever one thinks about the strategic wisdom of the president’s decisions concerning Afghanistan, you have to give Obama credit for courage: The decisions were unmistakably his. Ryan’s comments did not need to spark confrontation; civil-military norms extend to the legislative as well as the executive branch. 

The service chiefs, in particular, have a legal obligation to render their best military judgment and advice to Congress. This is even truer when it comes to budgets, which draw on the unique perspective of the chiefs as the long-term uniformed stewards of the military services, while Congress plays an analogous role for civilian government. This demands not only civility but credibility.

Thomas Donnelly is a resident fellow at AEI and co-director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies and Gary J. Schmitt is a resdient scholar and co-director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies.



Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author




Gary J.

What's new on AEI

Defeating ISIS: AEI experts weigh-in before the president’s address on Wednesday
image Degrading, defeating, and destroying the Islamic State
image Wealth Building Home Loan: Building wealth through homeownership and retirement savings
image The $3 iPhone
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 15
  • 16
  • 17
  • 18
  • 19
Tuesday, September 16, 2014 | 5:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m.
The Constitution as political theory

Please join us for the third-annual Walter Berns Constitution Day Lecture as James Ceasar, Harry F. Byrd Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, explores some of the Constitution’s most significant contributions to political theory, focusing on themes that have been largely unexamined in current scholarship.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014 | 8:10 a.m. – Thursday, September 18, 2014 | 1:30 p.m.
Third international conference on housing risk: New risk measures and their applications

We invite you to join us for this year’s international conference on housing risk — cosponsored by the Collateral Risk Network and AEI International Center on Housing Risk — which will focus on new mortgage and collateral risk measures and their applications.

Event Registration is Closed
Thursday, September 18, 2014 | 2:15 p.m. – 3:00 p.m.
Speaker of the House John Boehner on resetting America’s economic foundation

Please join us as Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) delivers his five-point policy vision to reset America’s economy.

Event Registration is Closed
Friday, September 19, 2014 | 9:15 a.m. – 11:00 a.m.
Reforming Medicare: What does the public think?

Please join us as a panel of distinguished experts explore the implications of the report and the consumer role in shaping the future of Medicare.

Event Registration is Closed
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.