The line went viral in Israeli and other foreign press, with some questioning whether it was part of a concerted Obama administration effort to dissuade Israel from launching a strike. Some even suggested Dempsey was suggesting such an act would be a war crime. On Thursday, as Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. James Winnefeld arrived in Jerusalem for talks with his counterparts, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Israeli news outlets were still asking what the remark meant.
So the E-Ring asked the Pentagon.
According to a transcript of the roundtable provided to the E-Ring by Dempsey's spokesman, Col. David Lapan, [now available here] the exchange on Iran began when an unnamed reporter noted "a toughening of U.S. rhetoric" recently and remarked how U.S. leaders are speaking out against an Israeli attack. The reporter then asked: "Why is it that you can't simply -- or have you explicitly told the Israelis that any kind of attack now would be a very, very bad thing for them and a very bad thing for you?"
Dempsey's response was classic Dempsey: "Well, first of all, I don't do rhetoric...my job is options, readiness, preparedness. And to why we haven't said explicitly to Israel, ‘Don't do it,' -- they're a sovereign nation. I mean, we're not in the business of telling other nations -- other than those with whom we're in conflict -- but we're not in the business of telling other nations how to behave."
Then, Dempsey answered a follow-up question by saying he doesn't know all of Israel's contingency plans, which is normal even among allies.
Then, Dempsey is asked outright if he will get warning from Israel:
DEMPSEY: I don't know. We -- I haven't asked the question.
DEMPSEY: Yes, really.
Q: I would have thought that would have been a fairly basic question -- [cross talk]
DEMPSEY: Well, remember what I said. I don't want to be -- yeah, no, no, no. I don't want to be accused of trying to influence -- nor do I want -- nor do I want to be complicit if they choose to do it. So I haven't asked the question.
According to Lapan, "Gen. Dempsey was emphasizing that he does not expect Israel to clear its sovereign choices with the U.S., and he doesn't want others to think or suggest the U.S. has such a role."
That may simply be the best gloss on an uncomfortable situation. But the Israelis are taking the same tack: "Israel maintains for itself the right to make decisions about its sovereignty, and the United States respects that," Barak said according to the Jerusalem Post. Barak praised U.S. military cooperation with Israel, but he also noted: "our timetables are not the same and we have our differences."
And as for war crimes?
"He wasn't using complicit in the context of ‘illegal,'" Lapan said.
DOD photo by D. Myles Cullen/Released