The Curse of Internal Contradictions: Dempsey’s Speech on the Middle East Angers Friends, Emboldens Enemies

In a speech to Danish Army Academy cadets on 17 AUG 15, U.S. Army General Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs Staff, addressed the conflict in the Middle East in terms meant to provide the strategic framework for defeating ISIL.

Viewed from a Western and, in particular, American perspective, GEN Dempsey made what the NEC-SE recognizes to be politically difficult yet critical and insightful statements and points. The view from a Middle Eastern perspective, however, is altogether different. To the people of the Middle East GEN Dempsey’s remarks are symptomatic of a profound insensitivity and lack of understanding of the region and its peoples.

As reported in the official DoD account of the chairman’s speech,* Dempsey asserted that “the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is just the most recent manifestation of an underlying set of instabilities, inequities and ideologies that will be around for at least 20 years” and that “the issues that created ISIL and earlier groups such as al-Qaida in Iraq are both internal and external to Islam and fanned by ‘extraordinarily bad governance and disenfranchisement.’”

Further, “Even if ISIL goes away, those underlying issues are going to provide the catalyst and the environment in which some other group takes their place” and that stability is unlikely to return to that part of the world and until Islam “confronts its internal contradictions.”

As an objective assessment of the situation, GEN Dempsey’s remarks are quite valid (if arguable) and they are refreshing insofar as they clearly spell out the American viewpoint. Still, they miss, or obscure, two larger truths that are readily apparent to Middle Easterners.

The first of these is that the chairman’s views are out of step, and contradictory to, current national strategic efforts in the region as set forth in the 2012 National Security Strategy plan as well as the political statements concerning that plan made by key State Department, Congressional, and Executive Branch representatives.

Second, and far more troubling to the peoples of the Middle East, is that his remarks constitute what is, effectively, a declaration of war against Islam—not just radical Islam, as represented by ISIS and other terrorist groups, but against Islam in its entirety.

When Dempsey characterizes ISIL as “just the most recent manifestation of an underlying set of instabilities, inequities and ideologies that will be around for at least 20 years,” what the Middle East hears is a man who does not seem to grasp that 1) the enemy should no longer be referred to as ISIL but as IS; and that 2) in 20 years’ time the Islamic State will have evolved from being an Islamic State into an Islamic Caliphate with all the trappings of sovereign statehood including national boundaries, a functioning economy, an army, and a strategic plan for territorial expansion.

It will be, in short, a superpower with the capability to expand its geopolitical reach globally. Given current population projections for Europe, the Caliphate will by then have an extensive political footprint and ideological support throughout Europe.

In stating that the creation of ISIL and earlier groups are attributable to issues both internal and external to Islam, including “extraordinarily bad governance and disenfranchisement, ” GEN Dempsey effectively blames Islam and its adherents for the war and related crises currently besetting the region. It is important to grasp that, whereas this formulation makes perfect sense to Westerners—the moreso because it comes as a welcome change from the politically correct remarks on the subject by politicians, and because a dispassionate analysis of the situation tends to support it—Middle Easterners, especially those who count themselves as allies of the United States, find it highly offensive.

And why wouldn’t they? At the same time our Middle Eastern allies are engaged in a desperate struggle for survival against a brutal and merciless foe, America’s top military commander is telling them that their problems are caused by their own failings and the inherent flaws of their deeply held faith.

To understand why Middle Easterners are offended, readers should imagine how they would feel if a Middle East Coalition general officer made statements equally critical of America and Western religions and philosophies at a NATO graduation ceremony.

Also (and not surprisingly), our Middle Eastern allies are dispirited by his remarks. When GEN Dempsey says “even if ISIL goes away” what they hear is equivocation and doubt: an admission that, despite everyone’s best efforts, ISIL may yet emerge triumphant. What they hear, in other words, is the counsel of defeat—and futility. In the (uncertain!) event of ISIL’s defeat, they are told, another group like ISIL will replace it. This outcome, they are given to understand, is inevitable unless and until Islam and Muslims can clean up their act and change their dysfunctional ways.

What’s more, these comments embolden ISIL leadership and funders who may have been rethinking their efforts in the region. They figure that if they are going to be replaced by a group like ISIL, they may just as well stay in the fight.

GEN Dempsey goes on to advocate a “whole-of-government approach” entailing effective law enforcement, governance, and diplomatic and economic lines of effort. He then declares that “ISIL has to be defeated militarily and then the internal issues have to be addressed by responsible governance or they will just come back under some other name.”

This is an astoundingly contradictory statement in light of what he said just moments before, in practically the same breath, that “corruption, cronyism, bad governance” [and] “the enduring internal disagreement between the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam . . . have to be addressed and then ISIL can be defeated.”

Here it must be said that Middle Easterners are not insensible to the unintended irony of an American general officer in a formal NATO setting speaking so forcefully and with such apparent clarity about the “internal contradictions” in Islam while remaining unmindful of the internal contradictions in his analysis of the region.

GEN Dempsey compounds his error by declaring that the “military instrument is doing well against the group in that they are interdicting supplies and disrupting ISIL command and control. The effort is enabling Iraqi security forces and some partners in Syria to inflict military damage on ISIL.”

He adds, by way of explanation, that “to be successful, a group with such a radical ideology to recruit, for example, has to maintain momentum. Simply blunting their momentum gives us the advantage. Our real advantage is that we’ve got a 22-nation coalition. So ISIL’s strategic aspects [sic] are quite dim, but tactically day-to-day they have had some success.”

It is hard for Middle Easterners to make sense of this assessment, given GEN Dempsey’s preceding assertions. How, they wonder, can he say that ISIL’s strategic prospects (one may assume that this is what he meant) are “quite dim” after projecting a 20-year timeline for defeating the group? Twenty years is a long time, and ISIL’s ability to outlast all efforts to destroy it over the span of two decades, coupled with the implied admission (“even if”) that it just might defeat the coalition ranged against it, would seem to indicate that ISIL’s strategic prospects are actually fairly bright and apt to grow brighter in the coming years.

Middle Easterners believe quite reasonably, and in conformity with basic military theory, that an army cannot achieve much in the way of decisive results merely by inflicting damage on enemy supply lines and command and control nodes; it must engage the enemy main force in battle and either destroy it completely or at the very least shatter its cohesion and strength to render it combat-ineffective. GEN Dempsey’s failure to articulate a more forceful strategy for dealing with and defeating ISIL indicates to them a lack of intent and resolve by the United States to fully commit to the struggle.

And it is a policy that invites Middle Easterners to draw unfavorable comparisons between him and his predecessors in the region. Commenting on the First Gulf War, General Colin Powell famously remarked, “I don’t ever want to do a fair fight. I want to defeat my enemy … I want to take every advantage I can and if I have more power than he has then I am going to use that power, I am going to use it more decisively and when used decisively you can achieve your political objectives more quickly.”

Middle Easterners can only hope that GEN Dempsey and his generation of senior military leaders finally come to their senses and adopt Powell’s attitude, and that they do so before it is too late. As things now stand, they are baffled by America’s seeming reluctance to employ its vast military power against ISIL. They are, as well, angered by America’s “blame-Islam-and-the-Muslims” attitude. They believe that the U.S. and its coalition partners in the West have fueled and exacerbated the aforementioned internal issues that GEN Dempsey cites as factors leading to ISIL’s creation by blindly supporting incompetent governments and corrupt leaders (e.g., they cite the Shia-dominated Iraqi government, the KRG and its Peshmerga forces, etc.). When GEN Dempsey indicts Muslims in the region for ISIL’s creation, they respond in kind, and with considerable justification. They see the United States as being incompetent, weak-willed, and indecisive in its dealings in and with Middle Eastern nations and peoples; as such, they feel—again, with considerable justification—that the U.S. is at least as responsible as they are for ISIL’s formation, rise, and successes.

GEN Dempsey said nothing about the flaws in American policy, and policy execution, that helped to create ISIL. But he did say that “if we continue to think of this as a near-term conflict and a near-term threat, we’re going to fight this thing for 15 years, but we will fight 15 one-year fights. We need to grip the fact that this threat will be around for 15 or 20 years and we need to organize ourselves on a sustainable footing” The key to achieving this goal, he said, is letting Iraqis and Syrians “own the fight.” This can be achieved with coalition support, he said, and, as reported in the DoD article, he likened that support to the scaffolding around a house.

Thus, over time, “we will compress ISIL from the north through the Kurds, from west through Syrian opposition and from the east through Iraqi security forces and eventually squeeze it out of existence.”

Or not. Maybe, and as GEN Dempsey himself observed, the coalition will fail to make ISIL “go away”; maybe, as he speculated, another group as bad as ISIL will spring up in its stead. Which is it? Who knows? Not GEN Dempsey, certainly; and not the United States. In the absence of answers, America’s allies in the Middle East can only shake their heads and wonder what course they should take and who they can depend on for support.

And all the while, ISIL—or ISIS, or IS—becomes stronger and more powerful.


General Martin E. Dempsey serves as the 18th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In this capacity, he serves as the principal military adviser to the President of the United States, the Secretary of Defense, and the National Security Council. By law, he is the nation’s highest-ranking military officer.

NEC-SE wants to thank GEN Dempsey for his blunt and at times hard criticism of the various actors complicating the efforts to defeat ISIS in the region. However, since his comments are seen as a “manifesto” for the future Middle East conflict by the same Middle East allies who are supporting the 22 country coalition, we would like to pose a number of questions that he should address to better clarify U.S. policy and/or position in the region.

Understanding that GEN Dempsey is a soldier and is delivering a message which no politician is willing to deliver to the Middle East, NEC-SE would recommend to the Middle East military leadership to understand the difficult footing on which GEN Dempsey must operate, especially during an election year in the United States and given the reality of the economics which have pushed the I-5 plus one to strike a “Nuclear Deal” with Shia Iran.

A number of the questions come from the comments made in his closing sentence.

Thus, over time, “we will compress ISIL from the north through the Kurds, from west through Syrian opposition and from the east through Iraqi security forces and eventually squeeze it out of existence.”

This statement contradicts his assessment of a generational fight and goes against the current State Department comments, which state that Iraq will not be partitioned into three sections and that KRG is part of Iraq.

In his statement GEN Dempsey not only gives the northern parts of Syria and Iraq to the Kurds but he also: excludes the South, leaving it open for interpretation as to the boundaries of the south or the force structures in the south; makes the statement “Iraqi security forces” and not the Iraqi Army; and gives the most difficult mission to the American supported opposition groups in Syria, given ISIL begins on the boarders of Lebanon and expands into Iraq.

NEC-SE asks: Is General Dempsey asserting that the Kurdish will be given control over the northern areas of Iraq and Syria formulating the footprint for a greater Kurdistan?

Also, given the fact that GEN Dempsey does not mention the southern approach, is he making that comment to give ISIL a departure route into a future southern Iraqi partitioned region or into a future Saudi region, or is he excluding Saudi Arabia from any future conversations on the ISIL topics and issues?

When GEN Dempsey states: “and from the east through Iraqi security forces”, and does not refer to them as the Iraqi Army, is that an admission by him that an Iraqi Army does not exist at this time and will not exist in the future given the Iranian influence in Iraq?

When GEN Dempsey states: “from west through Syrian opposition” is he seriously giving the hardest part of the mission to the Syrian opposition who will have to push ISIL back into the Iraqi region taking the capital city of Al-Raqqah and pressuring the Khabour River Valley?

Jim Garamone of DoD News, Defense Media Activity, reported that Dempsey believes this is a generational fight first and foremost because the ideology has affected a generation of young Arabs. “It’s going to take a long time to convince those young Arabs that they don’t have to follow such a radical ideology to have a life,” he said.

From the NEC-SE standpoint this is not a positive note to hang your hat on if you’re in the fight to win it. What’s more, when he says, “the ideology has affected a generation of young Arabs”, he ties all Arab youth to ISIS insulting the majority of the coalition forces that are from the Arab nations.

Does GEN Dempsey understand that in making such statement that he is placing NATO and the West against all of the Arab nations and does he understand that by making this comment it is perceived as if he is placating to the leader of the Shia Iran who are Arians and not Semitic like the Arab Sunni’s are?

Furthermore does he understand that when he does not mention the south in his closing comments combined with these terms, it may seem that he is giving the south to a greater Shia region in the Middle East?

NEC-SE understands that the clarification of these questions will better determine our nations ability to work within the region to achieve our collective goals for which so many Americans sacrificed their lives and so many of our allies continue to sacrifice their lives today.

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