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Obama Taps Army Leader As New Joint Chiefs Head


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

On this Memorial Day, President Obama announced his pick for new leadership in the military, including his nominee for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And that will be Army General Martin Dempsey.

President BARACK OBAMA: With nearly 40 years in uniform, Martin Dempsey is one of our nation's most respected and combat-tested generals.

The nomination requires Senate approval. NPR's Tamara Keith has been following this story and joins us now. Good morning.

TAMARA KEITH: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: General Dempsey is currently chief of staff of the Army. What can you tell us about his career?

KEITH: Well - and he's only had that job of chief of staff for about a month and a half. He's held a number of important positions in the Army over a 36-year career. He spent time in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and then led the Training and Doctrine Command. And in that position, he spent time thinking about the future of the Army. He's known as a thoughtful person - he was an English professor at West Point for a time - and also a skilled battlefield general.

MONTAGNE: Well, you just said, he spent time in Iraq. How important is it that the new chairman have combat experience - I mean, given the U.S. is still in Iraq and really, in Afghanistan?

KEITH: Well, the nation has basically been at war for a decade now. And much of that time, General Dempsey has had his boots on the ground. He's been very involved. And the man that the president nominated for vice chairman also has post-9/11 combat experience. He's Navy Vice Admiral James Winnefeld. And the president made it clear in his announcement that this experience was important to him.

As for General Dempsey, in 2003 and 2004 he led the First Armored Division in Baghdad. It was a very difficult time. And just as his troops were about to head home, the insurgency picked up. And here's how President Obama told the story.

President OBAMA: He suddenly got new orders. He turned his division around, shifted to new parts of Iraq, and defeated an insurgent uprising - a remarkable maneuver that has entered the annals of Army history.

KEITH: General Dempsey realized he needed to win over the people of Baghdad to quell the insurgency. And at the time, that was a pretty unique perspective. And then later, General Dempsey got a more strategic view of the wars when he was, for a short time, the head of the U.S. Central Command; he was acting head. And that's the the military position that overseas combat in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

MONTAGNE: Now, the Senate will have to approve the president's choice. If, presumably, General Dempsey does get the job, what are the challenges for the next chairman, going forward?

KEITH: Well, the U.S. military is supposed to have all troops out of Iraq by the end of year, though that may change. In Afghanistan, the military is beginning to look to draw down troops, though it's likely to be small numbers. And then there are the budget pressures. The military is being asked to cut costs significantly, to go sort of from being a wartime military to more of a peacetime military. And the chairman will be a critical adviser in discussing what to cut.

MONTAGNE: Now, as you say, General Dempsey just took the job of chief of staff of the Army. Who has the president chosen to replace him?

KEITH: His pick is General Ray Odierno. He is a giant in the military - and I mean literally, he is a huge tower of a man. He served multiple tours in Iraq. Most recently, he had the task of winding down the Joint Forces Command, which insiders say will make him both battle ready and also ready to battle budget pressures.

MONTAGNE: Tamara, thanks very much.

KEITH: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Tamara Keith. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.