General Dempsey: NATO has Taken Deterrence ‘For Granted’

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, July 30, 2015Dempsey sees yet more escalating crises while Washington and other Western capitals slash defense budgets, still vainly searching for a “peace dividend” when there is little real peace to be leveraged. “The elephant in the room among NATO military leaders is declining resources, and increasing commitments,” Dempsey says. His own struggles to break through the political dysfunction in Washington have been well documented. The Army general with a master’s in literature was ultimately unable to find the words to convey a simple truth to Washington politicians: The continued subtraction of seemingly abstract numbers in a budget document would one day translate into blood spilt and American lives unnecessarily lost on a future battlefield….

The primary question posed at the next stop in Dempsey’s final official journey — a meeting of NATO chiefs of defense in Istanbul, Turkey — was whether, after an unsatisfactory decade in Afghanistan, the alliance has the political will and military wherewithal to contemplate a long-term commitment in the Middle East….

In Istanbul, Dempsey and the other NATO chiefs of defense were forced to confront the reality, however, that the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition has to date achieved only an impasse. Some of the Islamic State’s early momentum has been checked by coalition airstrikes, but without fundamentally altering the dynamic of continued sectarian violence, terrorism and refugee spillover that is spreading well beyond the immediate region. A $500 million U.S. program to train and equip a viable Syrian rebel force has, by the recent admission of U.S. Central Command leader Gen. Lloyd Austin, produced only a literal handful of fighters.

“The fight against ISIL has reached a phase that I would call tactically stalemated,” said Dempsey. On the plus side, he argued, coalition airstrikes have been effective in interdicting ISIS’ supply chain, interfering with its information operations, striking its command-and-control, and putting pressure on the group from numerous directions. “On the other side, we’ve had some leadership changes and logistics challenges with the Iraqi Security Forces, and some internal disagreements within the Iraqi government about the role of Popular Mobilization Forces, some of which are under the influence and control of Iran,” said Dempsey. “That’s a very important debate for the Iraqis to have, and how it turns out will probably determine the future of Iraq….”

Dempsey is no uber-hawk, and his caution is clearly informed by his long experience in Iraq, and by NATO’s 2011 operation to unseat Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi without having a plan for the day after his fall. “My belief is that when the military is used as the sole instrument of power, that never has a good outcome,” said Dempsey. U.S. or NATO ground forces could quickly defeat ISIS on the battlefield, he noted, and at the same time help create a failed state. “If there’s no one to take ownership and develop that failed state, human suffering can be even worse than that created by the conflict itself….

“In tiny Estonia, with its long border with Russia and a large Russian-speaking population, Dempsey’s high-level talks were consumed by the “little green men” with modern Russian weapons and no insignia on their uniforms who had mysteriously appeared in Crimea shortly before Moscow annexed it in 2014; just as they materialized suddenly in Georgia’s “breakaway republics” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia before Russia occupied them in 2008; just as they are still fighting alongside separatist, Russian-backed rebels in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region. In NATO circles the form of hybrid warfare they specialize in — combining disguised Russian Special Forces, local guerilla fighters, information warfare and cyber-attacks — is called the “Gerasimov Maneuver,” for Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, one of its architects.

The U.S. response to the Ukraine crisis has been to keep a nearly constant rotational presence of U.S. and NATO troops and aircraft in the Baltics, conducting joint ground exercises and flying expanded air patrols. In high level discussions, Dempsey also began dusting off venerable concepts such as “deterrence,” “containment,” and supply line “interdiction” that have not darkened alliance counsels in decades.

“I’m the oldest of chief of defense in the alliance now, and the youngest was probably a teenager at the end of the Cold War, so when we talk about ‘deterrence’ I’ve actually had to reeducate some folks that never had the task of delivering it,” said Dempsey. “As an alliance we’ve taken deterrence for granted for 20 years now, but we can’t do that anymore.”

At a remote Estonian army base Dempsey met with a company of U.S. paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. They represented a miniscule, tripwire force, a sign of the precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Europe over the past decade as the nation fought a war in the Middle East and “pivoted” to Asia.

And yet the American flag on the shoulder of their uniforms still stood for a commitment, and a line that no nation would lightly cross. Thus, the final overseas journey of General Martin Dempsey recalled the grip that contested geography and bloody history still retain on the present. Certainly in the young U.S. lieutenant who commanded a company of the 173rd Airborne, Dempsey couldn’t help but see a mirror image of himself as a young officer, guarding the border of West Germany against stiff odds. In that forty-year gulf of memory they had managed to push the border nearly a thousand miles east, putting over 100 million people on the side of freedom.

Image: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, July 30, 2015 (photo: Marvin Lynchard/Department of Defense)