Israeli acquaintances of General Martin Dempsey, the chairman-elect of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon, speak extremely highly of him. He is a pro, keeps away from politics and from self-aggrandizement, a military authority, and serious. President Barack Obama announced his appointment, which has to be approved by the Senate, four months before the term of office of Admiral Michael Mullen ends. Alongside him, and slightly above him, Dempsey will encounter a new Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta, the successor to Robert Gates who will retire at the end of the month.
Obama has chosen the summer of 2011, about a year before the election season warms up in 2012, to refresh his national security staff. Within a few short months, he released his national security adviser, the retired General James Jones, in favor of his deputy, Tom Donilon; he parted from Gates; he transferred Panetta from the CIA to the Pentagon and General David Petraeus from commanding the forces in Afghanistan to the CIA; and he signed another round of senior military appointments. His image as supreme commander was strengthened following the success of the campaign against Osama bin Laden.
Dempsey, like Petraeus and others of their generation, is a thinking officer who reads and writes a great deal. As head of Tradoc, the Training and Doctrine Command of the ground forces, he aimed at enhancing it as an organization that can learn new things, and adjust to surprises and new and unknown rivals. Most of his time in the past two decades has been devoted to the Middle East - as an operations officer with the armored corps in the 1991 Iraq war, as a planner in the joint chiefs of staff, as the head of the American delegation that upgraded the Saudi Arabian national guard, as the commander of an armored division in Iraq in 2003, as the person responsible for training the new Iraqi army, and as the replacement for a commander who was ousted in the Central Command that covers Iran and Egypt, Syria and Jordan.
Dempsey is familiar with the Israel Defense Forces both from his days in Tradoc that first gained praise for studying the lessons of the Yom Kippur War just when the young Dempsey, a fresh Second Lieutenant from West Point, preferred the armored corps to the other corps, and from exchanges of information and opinions between the ground forces of both armies in recent years. The IDF has a permanent liaison officer with Tradoc at its headquarters in Virginia. Tradoc has also studied in depth the lessons of the 2006 Second Lebanon War, Operation Cast Lead and the war against terrorism in the territories.
The head of the chiefs of staff does not command the corps but serves as the senior military adviser to the president. During the 1990s, only generals from the ground forces served in this position - Colin Powell, John Shalikashvili, and Hugh Shelton (whose bureau Dempsey headed ). In the past decade, only officers from the Air Force, Marines and Navy were appointed. Dempsey's appointment reflects the decisive part played by the ground forces, which Dempsey headed for only a few weeks, in American intervention overseas, mainly in the Middle East. It is deeply involved with its current assignments and does not have strength for further involvements.
Therefore the changes in leadership at the Pentagon are not merely an American story. The chance that Dempsey, at the start of his term of office, would advise Obama to attack Iran, or to permit Israel to do so, is not high. The outgoing head, Mullen, is likewise not enthusiastic about that but his ties with the IDF's general staff are close and it can be assumed that, if Benny Gantz was persuaded to sign a plan by Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, Mullen would not be happy but would also not torpedo it.
The conclusion is that between the end of June and Gates' retirement, and the end of September and Mullen's retirement, the danger that Netanyahu and Barak will aim at a surprise in Iran is especially great, especially since this would divert attention from the Palestinian issue. As the Supreme Court explained to Moshe Katsav's lawyers, some plans for summer vacations might be canceled.
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