One of the Army's most Iraq-savvy generals is taking charge, at least temporarily, of arguably the most important command in the U.S. military, with responsibility for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In a ceremony Friday at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey is to assume command of U.S. Central Command from Navy Adm. William J. Fallon, who announced unexpectedly on March 11 that he was quitting. Fallon cited press reports that he was at odds with President Bush over Iran policy.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has denied that Fallon was out of step on Iran, and Navy Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are scheduled to attend the ceremony.
Dempsey, whose field experience in the early stages of his 34-year Army career was largely in Europe, has been deputy commander at Central Command since August 2007. He will serve as the acting commander until Bush chooses a permanent replacement and gets that person confirmed by the Senate.
Fallon was the first Navy officer to head Central Command since it was created in 1983. It typically has been commanded by an Army general — John Abizaid prior to Fallon, and Tommy Franks before Abizaid.
Dempsey takes charge at a particularly sensitive time, not only because of heightened concern about relations with Iran and the uncertain outlook for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also because of the approach of the November elections and the prospect of policy shifts by a new president.
One of Fallon's final acts was to advise Bush and Gates on how to proceed in Iraq after July, when the last of the troop reinforcements that Bush ordered in 2007 are to have returned home. At points during his 13 months in charge at Central Command, Fallon was perceived as being at odds with Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, on how soon to end the troop surge.
Dempsey has extensive experience in Iraq. He earned high marks as commander of the 1st Armored Division in Iraq in 2003-2004. For nearly two years prior to taking the Central Command job he served in Baghdad as head of the command that is training and equipping Iraqi security forces.
Bush is not expected to nominate a successor to Fallon until after Petraeus reports to Congress April 8-9 on his assessment of conditions in Iraq and his recommendations for how to proceed.
It is possible that Dempsey could get the job, but there are several other candidates, including Petraeus.
When Gates disclosed Fallon's decision to quit he noted that Dempsey would fill in on an interim basis but named no candidates to be the permanent successor. Gates said Fallon's departure would "leave a hole" but he denied an Esquire magazine report that if Fallon were to leave prematurely it would mean Bush was going to war against Iran. The magazine said Fallon had fallen out of favor with the White House for public comments suggesting that war should not be an option in Iran.
No policy shifts foreseen
Andrew Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University, said he does not foresee significant changes in U.S. policy toward Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan or Pakistan as a result of Fallon's departure.
"Those who believe that Fallon was the only person preventing the administration from going to war against Iran are wrong, in my view," Bacevich wrote in an e-mail exchange. "When Secretary Gates describes the prospect of such a war as 'ridiculous,' we should take him at his word."
The job of Central Command commander is part war fighter, part strategist and part diplomat. The commander answers to the secretary of defense and is responsible for U.S. military relations with countries stretching from the Horn of Africa, through the Middle East and across Central Asia. That region is at the center of the administration's war on terrorism.
In addition to his years in Iraq, Dempsey headed a U.S. program in Saudi Arabia to modernize the kingdom's National Guard, which is an elite force designed to protect the royal family, from September 2001 to June 2003.
Dempsey graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and attended the National War College in 1995-1996.