I still think Gen. David Petraeus—the most successful general the U.S. has produced in decades—would have been the logical candidate to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Admiral James Stavridis, currently Supreme Allied Commander in Europe and before that the head of Southern Command, would have been another logical choice because of his diplomatic experience.
But it is hard to argue with the selection of Gen. Martin Dempsey, who was only recently tapped to become army chief of staff. He is a veteran of two combat tours in Iraq and a former acting commander of Central Command who is widely respected for his intellect and his grasp of Middle Eastern complexities. Certainly he is a far better choice than Gen. James Cartwright, the Marine who is the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and was widely seen as the front-runner for the top job until a few weeks ago in spite of his having absolutely no combat experience at a time of war.
Cartwright endeared himself to some in the White House by backing Vice President Biden in his opposition to the counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, which was strongly backed by Defense Secretary Bob Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. In the process, Cartwright got a reputation within the Pentagon as a devious and disloyal bureaucratic operator. If he had been appointed as chairman, a crisis in civil-military relations would have ensued. That flare-up has now been avoided.
As a bonus, the selection of Dempsey as chairman opened up the army chief of staff’s job for Gen. Ray Odierno, who did as much as Petraeus to make the surge in Iraq a success. Odierno has been on the frontlines as long as any senior general, and he will bring to his new job a comprehensive knowledge of all the army units that served under his command—which by this point must include most of the army.
Today’s announcements confirm the point I had made earlier about Obama: He has had to undergo a long period of on-the-job training and he has made a number of stumbles along the way but he also has a capacity to learn from experience and correct course before things go too disastrously awry. The decision to drop Cartwright in favor of Dempsey is another indication of that process in action.