“I think Syria is probably the most complex issue...of all,” Dempsey said, speaking to the National Press Club.
“It’s in many ways a crucible for all of the other factors and influences related to the Arab spring, the conflict among different sects among Islam, ethnic issues, major power interventions, non-state actors -- honestly there’s a catalogue of complexity that we could share on Syria,” he said. And major powers outside of Syria are trying to predict what will happen “on the other side.”
In that context, Dempsey appeared to bluntly reject calls for increased military involvement in the conflict.
“We continue to plan for a number of contingencies. We're prepared to provide options if those options are required," he said, including working through NATO. "But the military instrument of power, at this point, is not the prominent instrument of power that should be applied in Syria.”
Dempsey gave the press corps a rare open forum with which to pepper him with questions, although written and handed up to the dais. The chairman in his first year has built a reputation for, frankly, ducking the press by rarely taking reporters on overseas travels or giving in-depth interviews with major media outlets.
In January, Dempsey said that he intended to be a quieter chairman, at least when compared with his predecessors and other more publicly prominent general officers of recent years, like Adm. Mike Mullen or CIA Director David Petraeus. Indeed, Dempsey has kept his relationships with the Joint Chiefs, combatant commanders and Afghanistan field commanders, as well as his dealings with the White House and President Obama, all in close confidence.
At the National Press Club, the chairman recapped his first year in office, focusing on his travels abroad and building one-on-one relationships with foreign militaries.
Dempsey said he wants to expand his foreign travel with visits to China, India, and Russia after giving heavy initial focus to Afghanistan (six times) and the Middle East (five times), including Turkey, Israel, Jordan and Iraq. He also has traveled to Latin America, Colombia and Brazil, and made three trips to the Asia-Pacific region in support of the “pivot.”
“As you can tell, I’m working hard on my friends list,” he said.
But Dempsey also said he recognizes concerns that the increased use of the military abroad has led to a “militarization of foreign policy.”
“I’m sure there’s places and parts of the world where that’s true,” he said. “We are very prominent, we are very -- we have great access because we build relationships, and we’re just a lot bigger.”
“I have the opposite fear in some ways, meaning I think that the notion that the military is too prominent in foreign affairs right now is probably focused on the Mideast. The rest of the world, I think that it is a pretty careful and pretty thoughtful balance.”
Dempsey said he was a colonel in his 40s before meeting his first Department of State counterpart, but that experience has vastly changed, as young captains work with civilians abroad. Some relationships with foreign countries abroad will have to change, he said, as the military pulls back from some spots.
“We have to be careful that doesn’t create a vacuum.”