Dempsey among those calling for greater role for State Department

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey answers questions during an interview Wednesday, December 11, 2013, before a town hall meeting with servicemembers at Aviano Air Base, Italy.


By RAY GRONBERG | The Herald-Sun | Published: April 13, 2016

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (Tribune News Service) -- The U.S. will need a lot more help from Europe and its Middle Eastern allies to address the instability that enables the rise of groups like ISIS, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said at UNC on Tuesday.

But unless the region's governance, economic and social problems "are dealt with simultaneously, we could wipe ISIS from the face of the world today and we'd be back there a year from now with another group with another acronym," said retired Gen. Martin Dempsey.

The general's appearance at UNC came as part of the capstone event of a fellowship program that brings active-duty military officers and other government officials to the Triangle for nearly a year of research work. Professors from UNC, Duke University and N.C. State University work with them.

Dempsey shared the stage Tuesday with one of the Duke professors involved, political scientist and former White House national security aide Peter Feaver, and with Washington Post investigative reporter Dana Priest.

A good part of the resulting discussion, moderated by Feaver, focused on military/media relations. But it also turned to the question of whether the U.S. national-security apparatus is well organized to handle the sort of "failed-state" problems it faces in the Middle East and other places.

Dempsey and Priest agreed the military for a couple of decades now has carried too big a burden because the State Department and other civil-affairs agencies aren't set up to contribute in the way they ideally should.

Priest said that was a problem the military's regional commanders discussed freely with her even before 9/11, and it continues to be one now.

And Dempsey said it's likely the sort of thing that Congress will ultimately need to resolve, perhaps in the course of reworking the legislation that empowered the regional commanders to control Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine units.

"The State Department has regional desk, but the power resides with the undersecretaries and ambassadors" who focus on county-level problems," Dempsey said. "That system is probably ill-suited to the fact most of the security challenges we face are at the regional level or even global level."

To Priest, Dempsey wasn't thinking big enough.

"To change that it would take more than a restructuring," she said. "It would take a re-thinking of the State Department, and making Foreign Service officers an entirely different breed."

The media-relations discussion touched heavily on the Obama administration, which Priest has covered and in which Dempsey worked from 2011 to 2015.

Priest complained that President Obama and his staff keep a tighter rein than their predecessors on how officials elsewhere in the federal government interact with reporters.

And "it's not just us who complain about it," she said, alluding to the Washington press corps and indicating officials in cabinet departments chafe under the White House's control of communications.

But Dempsey countered that the civilian leadership of the government is operating in a changing media landscape.

While in office, "I might have an interview with a particular reporter, even in back of an aircraft, and he or she would go file [a story]," he said.

"In seconds, there would be a Twitter feed on the article," he continued. "In 140 characters, that interview could really go badly. My instinct is that, as they've gone along, it's not about the story that eventually comes out, it's about that initial burst."

(c) 2016 The Herald-Sun. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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