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News / Brèves

US General Martin Dempsey: Don’t Get Caught in the Thucydides Trap

3 May 2012

Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, engaged in a masterful war-avoidance intervention on May 1, during an appearance at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. On China he warned against the U.S. falling into a "Thucydides trap.

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Thucydides

" The trap, he said, "goes something like this — it was Athenian fear of a rising Sparta that made war inevitable.

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Thucidides and the Peloponesian wars

Well, I think that one of my jobs as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and as an advisor to our senior leaders, is to help avoid a Thucydides trap. We don’t want the fear of an emerging China to make war inevitable. So, Thucydides — so, we’re going to avoid Thucydides trap." He went on to emphasize the importance of military-to-military engagement with China, as difficult as that may be at times, reporting that during the short time, last year, that he was Army Chief of Staff, he was able to meet with his PLA counterpart. In two weeks, the Shrangri La Dialogue will convene in Singapore, and he hopes to meet with his Chinese counterpart, there as well, "and we’ll talk very openly and transparently about what we’re trying to do in the Pacific..."

Gen. Dempsey is engaged in a similar effort with regard to Iran, as he made clear. He reported that he’s "coordinating" very closely with Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Benny Gantz, "especially in the area of intel sharing so that we can come to a common understanding of the threat and of the likely timelines that we might have to confront," and he was quick to point out that the collaboration does not rise to the level of joint military planning. Dempsey’s influence on Gantz may be shown by statements that Gantz made last week, when he told Ha’aretz, in an interview, that international pressure on Iran, in the form of diplomatic and economic sanctions, and a credible military option, will prevent Iran from "going nuclear," indicating his view, like that expressed by Dempsey in Congressional hearings in February, that the regime in Tehran is, indeed, acting rationally.

On Syria, Dempsey was very clear about what he can and cannot provide. He said his primary responsibility is to provide options should the civilian leadership of the U.S. and/or NATO ask for them. But, "among the things we can’t do is guarantee a political outcome that would be better than the one that’s there now, to tell you the truth. And so — but that’s not for me to decide." He also reported that, in his travels in the region, the concern that’s most often expressed to him about Syria (besides the obvious "why haven’t we done anything yet") is "what’s next before they take that final step of military action." As for NATO, from which Dempsey returned last week, he said there’s currently no military planning underway in NATO with respect to Syria, because if there were, the U.S. would be part of it, but in any case, "the military instrument should never be wielded alone."

Though not as eloquent as Dempsey, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz expressed a similar caution, this with respect to Iran, in remarks at the Stimson Center, just a couple of hours earlier. Lincoln Bloomfield, the Stimson Center’s chairman of the board, asked Schwartz if the Air Force was prepared for an extended involvement in Iran after the initial combat mission were executed, as in what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. Schwartz replied that the Air Force is ready to support whatever mission is assigned to it, but that one of the lessons of the last ten years is the need "to better scope the consequences of action, or inaction, to try to anticipate what might unfold... and include those potential consequences in the decision-making process." He admitted that this was not done in Iraq, and therefore, "we weren’t prepared for the sequel," that followed the initial invasion and overthrow of Saddam Hussein.