Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey is getting an appetite for political controversy.

Earlier this week he offered up a “clarification” of his analysis of the effects of “sequestration,” the automatic spending cuts called for under the Budget Control Act that threaten to slash defense by another $500 to $600 billion over 10 years. Where he had originally asserted that the United States would no longer be a global power, what Dempsey meant to say was that “we wouldn’t be the global power that we know ourselves to be today.” The problem, quite clearly, was not that the chairman’s meaning was imprecise, but that his original statement had become a politically salient argument against sequestration—making life difficult for President Obama, who has said he would veto any sequestration-lifting legislation that didn’t include tax increases.

But now Dempsey’s Irish has provoked a public confrontation with Rep. Paul Ryan, head of the House Budget Committee. At a National Journal forum on the federal budget, Ryan expressed the doubts of many in Congress when he said, “We don’t think the generals are giving us their true advice” when it comes to the geopolitical and military risks associated with the defense budget. Given that, even before sequestration, the Obama administration’s 2013 budget takes $487 billion out of defense spending and reduces the Army and Marine Corps by 100,000, yet avers that this same stretched force can continue to do whatever it’s asked to do, Ryan’s skepticism is both warranted and actually expressed with gentle deference.

Dempsey has chosen, however, to take offense, claiming that Ryan was “calling us, collectively, liars.” In response to the charge that the administration’s defense plans were budget-driven, Dempsey went all in: “I stand by my testimony. This was very much a strategy-driven process to which we mapped the budget.”

Dempsey’s claim of purity and virtue would be more credible if the Budget Control Act hadn’t become law several months before the Pentagon’s strategy review. And if President Obama hadn’t completely surprised then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates last April with the announcement of his intention to cut defense spending another $400 billion—on top of a previous cut of $400 billion made by the administration—without a hint that a strategic review of the implications should come first. And if the commander in chief’s January “defense guidance” hadn’t begun with the injunction to “put our fiscal house in order here at home.”

And, finally, Dempsey would be more persuasive if he hadn’t admitted in his confirmation testimony—also last April—that “we’ve got a task to try to keep strategy running parallel with resources decisions.” Following up, Sen. John McCain translated: “So we have announced cuts without the commensurate strategy to go along with it?” Answered Dempsey: “Well, Senator, what I would describe is we’ve announced a target and we’re trying to determine what the impact would be. .  .  .” McCain: “In most cases that I’ve seen, the strategy has been developed and then the budget for it is arrived at, not the other way around.”

By barking so loudly and so readily in justification of administration policy, Gen. Dempsey will only raise suspicions about the politicization of the senior ranks of the military—not tamp them down. The danger is that Dempsey’s zeal will undercut the cause of military professionalism.

Civil-military tensions have run high in the Obama years, and the president has been willing to overrule his generals when he feels the need, most notably contravening the Afghanistan recommendations of Gen. David Petraeus, whom the White House famously feared for his alleged political ambitions. Whatever one thinks about the strategic wisdom of the president’s decisions concerning Afghanistan, you have to give Obama credit for courage: The decisions were unmistakably his. Ryan’s comments did not need to spark confrontation; civil-military norms extend to the legislative as well as the executive branch.

The service chiefs, in particular, have a legal obligation to render their best military judgment and advice to Congress. This is even truer when it comes to budgets, which draw on the unique perspective of the chiefs as the long-term uniformed stewards of the military services, while Congress plays an analogous role for civilian government. This demands not only civility but credibility.

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