Is Gen. Martin Dempsey the Right Choice for Joint Chiefs Chair?

Obama's choice of Gen. Martin Dempsey to chair the Joint Chiefs passes over Gen. James Cartwright.

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President Obama’s selection of Gen. Martin Dempsey as Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman came as a surprise last week when the Associated Press broke the news ahead of the president’s Memorial Day announcement. Dempsey, who started what was supposed to be a four-year term as Army Chief of Staff in early April, will replace outgoing Adm. Mike Mullen as the nation's top military officer in October.

The decision passes over Marine Gen. James Cartwright, who has been vice chair of the Joint Chiefs since 2007 and has been called “Obama’s favorite general.” He had been the presumptive appointee. Insiders conjecture Cartwright’s clashes of opinion with Mullen, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and other military leaders (particularly over Cartwright giving the president independent advice that wasn’t aligned with the rest of the Pentagon) derailed his chances, as did leaked reports of a Pentagon investigation into an alleged improper relationship with a young female aide (Cartwright was cleared of this charge). The Washington Post reports that the leak, along with other negative attention, was part of a concerted lobbying effort Cartwright's critics launched against him. Obama had repeatedly asked Cartwright if he’d be willing to take the job, the Post reports, telling him “You’re my guy;” that is, until the president reportedly took the advice of Mullen and Gates to look elsewhere.

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But Washington Post blogger Jena McGregor thinks Dempsey’s leadership focus is a better choice for the nation at war than Cartwright’s. “Dempsey was favored for his focus on building up the leadership capabilities of the army and the near-term needs of the boots on the ground, while Cartwright was bent on making sure the military had the technological advances ready to fight the next war,” she writes. “All the gee-whiz technology in the world can’t make better leaders. But officers who feel their needs are being met and who are skilled at making better decisions can think more soundly about the future wars we will fight.”

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