President Obama signaled Tuesday the turmoil across the Middle East would be a main focus of his remaining months in office by choosing a combat infantryman in Marine Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).
Dunford, who led a regiment in Iraq and commanded U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, will have the Middle East at the top of his agenda while also committing to modernizing the force and keeping alive the administration's plan to rebalance forces to the Pacific, Obama said.
Obama, who previously nominated Dunford as U.S. commander of forces in Afghanistan and Marine commandant, said "I know Joe. I trust him. Joe's a proven leader" and the right choice to succeed the retiring Army Gen. Martin Dempsey as the next JCS chairman.
Dunford was "one of the military's most highly regarded strategic thinkers" and "he's already proven his ability to give unvarnished advice" that will be his main responsibility as chief military advisor to the president, Obama said.
Obama also named Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, the head of the Transportation Command, to be Dunford's deputy as vice chairman of the JCS, replacing Adm. James "Sandy" Winnefeld.
Neither Dunford nor Selva spoke during the brief ceremony that was also attended by Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and National Security Advisor Susan Rice.
The Middle East was at the top of a laundry list of challenges for Dunford read off by Obama.
"We have to keep training Afghan forces and remain relentless against Al Qaeda," Obama said. "We have to push back against ISIL (another acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) and strengthen forces in Syria and build moderate opposition in Syria."
"We have to stand united with our allies in Europe and keep rebalancing our posture as a Pacific power," Obama said.
Obama called Dunford the epitome of "Boston Strong" as the son of a Boston police officer, Joseph Dunford Sr., who served as a Marine in Korea.
"I think the only downside in my book is, as a White Sox fan, there is yet another Red Sox fan who I'll have to deal with," Obama said.
Obama called for the quick confirmation of Dunford and Selva. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who will preside at Dunford's confirmation hearing as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), signaled his support of Obama's choices.
In a statement, McCain stressed that the times called for a ground combat veteran in the military's top post.
"In addition to his leadership of the Marine Corps, Gen. Dunford's exemplary service in Iraq and Afghanistan makes him a strong choice as we confront threats to stability and peace in both countries and throughout the region," McCain said.
"Gen. Dunford has the experience and vision to lead the Joint Chiefs and help shape our national security strategy at a time of enormous global challenges," Reed said in a statement.
The 59-year-old Dunford would become only the second Marine to serve as JCS chairman, following on Gen. Peter Pace who held the position for one, two-year term from 2005 to 2007.
Pace retired when it became clear that the Senate would balk at his re-nomination over the handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by the administration of former President George W. Bush.
Several military analysts cited Dunford's personal relationship with Obama as the deciding factor in the swift series of promotions that brought him to be named the military's top uniformed officer.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh and Adm. Samuel Locklear, head of the Pacific Command, were also considered to be on the short list for JCS chairman but they lacked the personal connection to Obama.
Dunford has been "very close to the President and his team at the White House," and may fare better than his predecessors at avoiding what former Defense Secretaries Leon Panetta and Robert Gates have called the tendency of the White House to "micromanage" the military, said MacKenzie Eaglen, an American Enterprise Institute analyst.
In addition to the relationship with Obama, Dunford's experience in ground combat was also influential in Obama's choice, Eaglen said. "The Army and the Marine Corps will be essential" to meeting the challenges in the Mideast and "it's just completely logical to have a ground forces commander" in charge, Eaglen said.
As JCS chairman, Dunford "will have a constituency of one, and that's the President," Eaglen said, but "he will need buy-in from 535 members of Congress."
"All the chiefs have struggled with Congress. There's a major credibility gap between the chiefs and Congress" on budgets, personnel and the cost-cutting sequestration process, Eaglen said.
Lawrence Korb, a Center for American Progress analyst, agreed that "it's important to have somebody with ground combat experience" now as JCS chairman. "I really do think that's the determining factor" in the choice of Dunford, Korb said.
Dunford is a 38-year veteran of the Marines. He was commissioned as an officer in 1977 and served as a platoon and company commander for several years before moving to administrative roles.
He holds two master's degrees from Georgetown University and Tufts University, is a graduate of the elite Army Ranger School and the Army War College, and has been known to run the occasional marathon with his grown children.
The Marines have noted that Dunford essentially "skipped a star" in his rise up the senior leadership ladder. He was selected for promotion in only months from one-star brigadier general to three-star lieutenant general.
Dunford has a proven combat reputation but he will be facing "probably the most complex security situation since the end of World War II," said Anthony Cordesman, a Center for Strategic and International Studies analyst.
"The question is not how Dunford will lead but how enabled will the White House make him," Cordesman said.
The White House has been guilty of micromanagement of the military, Cordesman said, but at times "it doesn't seem to manage at all."
Dunford has worked for demanding leaders before in the ferment of combat and managed to get his points across and maintain independence.
In the book "The March Up," an account of the 1st Marine Division's drive from Kuwait to Baghdad in the 2003 Iraq invasion, the retired Marine authors noted Dunford's independent streak in dealing with then-Maj. Gen. James Mattis, the division commander.
"When you first met him, Dunford seemed quiet, almost reserved, but you soon realized that the impression was misleading," wrote retired Marine Col. Bing West and retired Marine Maj. Gen. Ray Smith.
"Totally self-confident, he had an active and imaginative mind – in staff meetings he was the most apt to pick up on Mattis's invitation to offer alternatives to the division's planned scheme of maneuver," the authors wrote.
Dunford led Marine Regimental Combat Team-5 under Mattis in Iraq, where he earned the nickname "Fighting Joe."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com