President Obama and Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter joined Dempsey and Dunford at the handover ceremony, accompanied by a gun salute, drum corps, and other military pomp, at a base near the Pentagon.
Obama praised Dempsey, retiring after a long Army career, for providing a “steady hand” in leading a military in transition after the large-scale deployments that followed the Sept. 11, 2011, attacks.
Obama named Dempsey, a former English professor who spent years tending to military problems in the Middle East, at a time when the White House was laying plans to end much of the United States’ on-the-ground involvement in that region. Those expectations were upended by the tumult caused by the Arab Spring, and more recently by the rise of the Islamic State, which has drawn the United States into an expanding campaign in Iraq and Syria.
Over time Dempsey, whose view of the region was shaped by two tours in Iraq, has increasingly become known as a voice of restraint in administration debates. After Islamic State militants seized much of Iraq in a surprise assault last summer, Dempsey advised sending special forces to assess the situation in Baghdad, which some officials feared would fall to militants, despite calls from other officials for an immediate offensive response.
More recently, he has opted against making a recommendation to insert American troops with Iraqi military forces, which some officials support because it could make the local forces more effective against the Islamic State. For Dempsey, such tactical moves are unlikely to resolve the underlying problems with the Iraqi military that have given rise to the country’s current crisis, making it hard to justify risking American lives there once more.
That restraint has appeared to sit well with a president skeptical of America’s ability to end generational conflicts in the broader Middle East. The shared inclination, however, has opened the Obama administration up to criticism of allowing dangerous conflicts, like the one in Syria, to fester.
Dempsey has been frank in his assessment of the progress being made against the Islamic State – which he recently said was stalemated – and about the challenges to U.S. interests in the Middle East at a time of growing Iranian influence.
Into that fraught environment steps Dunford. The Marine general earned respect at the White House in 2013-14 when, as commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, he balanced the ongoing fight against the Taliban with political realities at home, where officials were eager to curtail the military footprint before Obama leaves office in 2017. While Dunford, who more recently served as commandant of the Marine Corps, may devote more time as chairman to the conflict in Iraq and Syria, he is not done with Afghanistan. In coming months, the White House is expected to consider further revisions to Obama’s plan to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to 1,000 by the end of next year.
Dunford must also contend with the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Following his nomination to become chairman, Dunford said it would be reasonable to provide Ukrainian forces with anti-tank missiles, a step the White House has resisted thus far.