President Obama places a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington… (Jonathan Ernst, Reuters )
Reporting from Washington — President Obama nominated Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, choosing Memorial Day to put the finishing touches on his new national security team and start what the administration hopes will be a gradual U.S. drawdown from the war in Afghanistan.
In a Rose Garden presentation, the president said he was moving Dempsey from Army chief of staff to the higher post overseeing all Pentagon and military operations, selecting him in part because of his past two tours helping lead the war in Iraq.
Dempsey had taken over as Army chief of staff in April, less than two months ago.
"Marty," the president said, "your tenure as chief may go down as one of the shortest in Army history. But it's your lifetime of accomplishment that brings us here today. "
If confirmed by the Senate, Dempsey will replace Adm. Michael G. Mullen, the outgoing Joint Chiefs chairman who is retiring after his term expires in September.
As Obama's senior military advisor, Dempsey's challenge will be to balance the administration's desire for the Afghanistan troop withdrawal with the Pentagon's desire to keep as many forces there as long as possible to preserve fragile security gains. Obama has said he will start the withdrawal in July, and expects all U.S. forces to be gone and the Afghan government to take over by 2014.
"We have much to do," Obama said, mindful not only of Afghanistan and Iraq, but also of the ongoing NATO operations in Libya. But he said he had faith in Dempsey, calling him "one of our nation's most respected combat-tested veterans."
The president noted that Dempsey and the Defense Department would oversee some "difficult budget choices" in military spending that are likely to come up in the months ahead, while also "keeping our military the finest fighting force in the world."
In Iraq, Dempsey commanded the 1st Armored Division from 2003 to 2004, a time when the insurgency was gaining intensity. The division's deployment was extended for several months after fighting erupted in Baghdad and Shiite Muslim militias stormed police and other government buildings to the south. Dempsey oversaw the campaign to retake the towns.
He returned to Iraq in 2006 to take charge of the training of Iraqi army and police. After receiving a fourth star, he was named acting head of U.S. Central Command.
Dempsey graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1974.
His nomination as chairman of the Joint Chiefs comes after Obama's first choice, Marine Gen. James Cartwright, the current vice chairman, fell out of the running because of concerns that his management style might complicate Senate confirmation.
In contrast, Dempsey, a former English professor at West Point, is considered a popular, thoughtful officer who has questioned the Pentagon's belief that expensive, high-tech weapons system are the key to winning the insurgencies the U.S. now finds itself fighting.
Also Monday, the president nominated Navy Adm. James A. Winnefeld as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, which Obama said means that "for the first time," both top leaders of the Joint Chiefs will have led combat troops in the post-Sept. 11 era.
Winnefeld currently heads the Northern Command, based in Colorado Springs, Colo., a headquarters responsible for defense of the U.S. He previously commanded U.S. naval forces in the Mediterranean Sea and oversaw carrier-based air operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Army Gen. Ray T. Odierno is an Iraq war veteran like Dempsey, whom he is replacing as Army chief of staff. Odierno, an artillery officer who commanded the 4th Infantry Division in Iraq, was criticized for his heavy-handed tactics in seeking to suppress the insurgency near Tikrit, former President Saddam Hussein's hometown.
But his soldiers helped capture Hussein, and Odierno replaced Army Gen. David H. Petraeus as overall commander in Iraq during the U.S. troop increase. He was credited with executing an innovative counterinsurgency campaign that drastically lowered violence levels and helped break the insurgency between 2008 and 2010.
All three appointments require Senate confirmation.
The new leaders round out Obama's rejiggered defense structure, with CIA Director Leon E. Panetta succeeding Robert M. Gates as secretary of Defense, and Petraeus, now the top on-site commander in Afghanistan, returning home to run the CIA.
Noting the significance of Memorial Day, the president said, "Across our nation, we pause to honor those who've given their last full measure of devotion in defense of our country.
"The men and women of our armed forces are the best our nation has to offer. They deserve nothing but the absolute best in return. And that includes leaders who will guide them, and support their families, with wisdom and strength and compassion."
Before the ceremony, Obama and the first lady met with Gold Star families, whose loved ones were killed while serving in the military, and hosted a breakfast in the White House State Dining Room in their honor. After the Dempsey announcement, the president placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
There, he praised U.S. military men and women who volunteer with the sentiment: "Send me no matter the risk. Send me no matter how great the sacrifice."
Calling them fallen heroes, Obama said: "They gave of themselves until they had nothing more to give. Their courage … sustains this country."