May 28, 2011 — Gen. Martin E. Dempsey’s peers call him a “pentathlete,” the kind of post-Sept. 11 commander who not only knows the art of combat but is also adept at marshaling the power of diplomacy, money, allied cooperation and information.
He will need all those skills if, as expected, President Obama nominates him to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a move that could come as early as Monday.
As the military’s highest-ranking officer and a crucial member of the president’s revamped national security team, General Dempsey would face a complex and consequential set of challenges against the backdrop of both rapid change abroad and intensive political pressures at home: how fast to withdraw from Afghanistan, how to reshape the military and how to cope with an era of fiscal austerity.
If confirmed by the Senate, General Dempsey, currently the Army chief, would become the president’s senior military adviser, working alongside Leon E. Panetta, the Central Intelligence Agency director, who is in line to become defense secretary when Robert M. Gates retires in late June, and Gen. David H. Petraeus, who will take over from Mr. Panetta at the C.I.A.
Officials said the high opinion Mr. Gates has of General Dempsey — one shared by the departing chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen — was a significant factor in shaping Mr. Obama’s decision. The president initially favored Gen. James E. Cartwright, the current vice chairman, before questions of personnel management and command style pushed him out of the running.
General Dempsey carries no visible political baggage and has no vocal critics across the armed forces. The only sour notes sounded at word of his nomination came from those who regret his departure from the post of Army chief. The exhausted ground force, they said, needs someone like General Dempsey who not only can employ the Army in combat, but also knows how to rebuild it.
Of the senior commanders to emerge from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, General Dempsey is known as among the least self-aggrandizing. That, too, was said to have been an attractive trait to a White House that is seeking to avoid public drama and that has felt cornered at times by strong egos within the war cabinet during policy battles, in particular over Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Military commanders and Mr. Obama — who as a presidential candidate ran against the Bush administration’s war in Iraq — have struggled to build strong ties. And in some ways, the decision to pass over General Cartwright in favor of General Dempsey exposed lingering fault lines in the administration, despite what White House, Pentagon and military officials agree is a smoother working relationship today than during the review of Afghanistan policy.
Both Mr. Gates and Admiral Mullen were frustrated, even angered, by General Cartwright’s consultations with the White House in which he offered alternative options for troop numbers in Afghanistan, according to Pentagon and military officials.
General Cartwright’s supporters say the vice chairman was only fulfilling his required duties of giving his best professional advice to the president. But some senior Pentagon and military officials said that General Cartwright had erred in not keeping Mr. Gates and Admiral Mullen fully aware of the separate options he had discussed with the commander in chief.
A West Point graduate of 1974, General Dempsey, 59, earned a master’s degree from Duke University — in English, a subject he later taught West Point cadets.
And he can sing. Several thousand video scouts have found, seen and heard General Dempsey channel his inner Frank Sinatra in an acceptable rendition of “New York, New York,” delivered in Army dress uniform.
As a one-star brigadier general, he was sent to Baghdad in 2003 to stabilize the Iraqi capital region in command of an Army division — historically a task reserved for a two-star major general.
As a festering resistance exploded into full-fledged rebellion, he fashioned a complicated counteroffensive that mixed deadly attacks, political agility, media management and the infusion of cash into ravaged neighborhoods to suppress the Shiite revolt. And he did it so successfully that Barry R. McCaffrey, a retired general, labeled him the best combat division commander of the past decade. (Congress subsequently approved a second star.)
General Dempsey returned to Baghdad to oversee the training of Iraq security forces, building on experience he had gained advising Saudi Arabia’s armed forces, before being given a third star and the No. 2 job at Central Command. He had responsibilities not only for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also for keeping an eye on Iran and managing a complex set of regional alliances.
When Central Command’s four-star boss, Adm. William J. Fallon, was forced into retirement for some bold comments in a magazine profile, General Dempsey again was called to step up to a higher post without a formal promotion to the job.
For more than a year, he served as acting commander of American forces across the Middle East, impressing senior Pentagon leaders to the point that he was named Army chief earlier this year and now, in an unexpectedly rapid promotion, is expected to be nominated as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“During his 36 years of active service, General Dempsey is one who has never been satisfied with the status quo — a quality I have always looked for when selecting our military’s senior leaders,” Mr. Gates said last month when the general became Army chief. “He’s always impressed me with his keen mind, strategic vision, quiet confidence and the energy he brings to every assignment: a real soldier-scholar.”
On General Dempsey’s Pentagon desk is a carved wooden box, one of three made for him and his two deputy commanders of the First Armored Division after their Iraq deployment in 2003 and 2004. Inside, General Dempsey keeps laminated cards, each bearing a photograph and biographical information on one of the 122 soldiers killed in action during the 15-month mission.
Every morning, General Dempsey opens the box and selects a half-dozen cards that he carries in his pocket that day. On the box is etched “Make It Matter,” a reminder that his four-star responsibilities must serve the memory of those troops.
General Dempsey is married to his high school sweetheart, Deanie, and they have three children, Christopher, Megan and Caitlin. All three have served in the Army.
The three most recent books he read illustrate his interests, concerns and priorities.
One was “Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in an Age of Uncertainty,” by Karl E. Weick and Kathleen M. Sutcliffe. Another was “The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations,” by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom. And the third was “Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power,” by Robert D. Kaplan.