By Eve Hunter
Best Defense guest columnist
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in an appearance at the Center for Strategic and International Studies this past Monday, quoted F. Scott Fitzgerald's definition of a first-rate intelligence as being able to hold two competing and opposing ideas in your mind at the same time. That is precisely the predicament he put his audience in.
Gen. Dempsey approached the current geopolitical situation with a jovial attitude. He compared the U.S. position in the world with the TV character "Mayhem," of Allstate Insurance (and 30 Rock) fame. His face was aglow with patriotism, even while confronting questions concerning "the West's failure in Syria." Hedging his bets, he spoke positively of the Iraq War, saying that Iraq is now a "partner, not [an] adversary."
Despite the general's optimism, however, he was very clear in the fact that Congress is inhibiting America's potential to be a "global leader" and a "reliable partner." Dempsey spoke of a prospective shift in defense strategy that would include eliminating unnecessary weapons and recognizing, with funds, that diplomacy is the key to global security.
The most engaging part of his speech was his willingness to admit uncertainty. On a macro-level Dempsey was ebulliently confident, but on country-specific questions, he seemed just as flummoxed as the rest of us. For example, our understanding of the Syrian opposition is more opaque than it was six months ago. On Iran, the one question he would ask Ayatollah Khomeini is why he is doing what he is doing. Dempsey's relationship with his newly appointed Chinese counterpart is only in the beginning stages; implications for defense remain murky.
Many may see a lack of decisiveness as a weakness, but at this inflection point in history I am happy to have a man like Dempsey leading our Joint Chiefs. He is aware of the complexities of today's world, as made clear by an alliterative reference to bits and bytes being as dangerous as bullets and bombs. At the same time he is painstakingly deliberate, which, at the 10 year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, is a welcome change.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.