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Senate Panel Considers Gen. Dunford's Joint Chiefs Nomination


To his troops, he's known affectionately as Fighting Joe. To the Washington establishment, General Joseph Dunford is set to become the most powerful military officer in the nation. In just the past year, he's gone from commanding all U.S. forces in Afghanistan to taking over as commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps to becoming President Obama's pick to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Today, Dunford faces a key hurdle. He testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee. NPR's David Welna has this profile.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: It was early April, 2003, and Joe Dunford, then a colonel, was leading a Marine combat regimen in a march towards Baghdad. Suddenly, forces loyal to Saddam Hussein opened fire on one of the Marines' tanks.

BING WEST: I saw the whole - the whole fight go on. I was there with them.

WELNA: That's former Marine infantryman and assistant secretary of defense, Bing West. As an author embedded with Dunford's unit, West watched him leap into action.

WEST: Dunford stopped his Humvee. And he and his team on his Humvee, only three others, got into a gunfight with the Iraqi soldiers who were trying to get the tank from both sides. And they were shooting people at about 15 feet. That's where he got the name Fighting Joe.

WELNA: Who gave it to him?

WEST: The troops.

WELNA: Those who know Dunford say he's not crazy about the nickname, but it stuck. Last year, Forbes Magazine ranked Dunford seventh among its world's 50 greatest leaders. This son of a Boston Irish Catholic firefighter, who was also a Marine, tends to be self-effacing. Here's Dunford talking to reporters in Kabul a few weeks after taking command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.


GENERAL JOSEPH DUNFORD: Having poor time management skills and organizational skills, I'm not going to tell you that I'm doing my job very well right now. I'll let others judge that.

WELNA: And so others did.


BARACK OBAMA: My choice for the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Joe Dunford, is one of the most admired officers in our military.

WELNA: That was President Obama two months ago, announcing Dunford as his choice to be his third chairman of the Joint Chiefs.


OBAMA: I have been extraordinarily impressed by Joe from the situation room, where he helped to shape our enduring commitment to Afghanistan, to my visit last year to Bagram, where I saw his leadership firsthand. I know Joe. I trust him.

WELNA: The question now is whether Fighting Joe Dunford can navigate the political battlefield of Washington. Two years ago in Kabul, Dunford, a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, spoke of his approach to dispensing advice.


DUNFORD: Typically, you know, I don't provide my recommendations for best military advice in public. And I don't share the details and negotiations in public. That's just how I do business.

WELNA: But in Washington, you can't always work behind the scenes. While Dunford oversaw Obama's drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, he told Congress last year a bigger contingent of U.S. forces should remain in Afghanistan than what had been planned. That pleased defense hawks. Aaron MacLean is a former Marine infantry officer who's with the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative news website.

AARON MACLEAN: He argued, I think justifiably and honorably, that a total departure from Afghanistan would lead to a total collapse of that country. He argued that before Congress. I presume he argued it privately with the president himself. And we haven't withdrawn totally from Afghanistan.

WELNA: But Dunford is still a team player. Earlier this year, South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham pressed Dunford to defy the Obama administration and endorse sending U.S. ground troops to fight the self-styled Islamic State.


LINDSEY GRAHAM: Do you agree with me that the best way to ensure that you degrade and destroy ISIL is have some American ground forces to help the regional forces?

DUNFORD: Senator, right now I think it's critical that we provide U.S. support.

WELNA: It was a classic non-answer answer and a show of loyalty to the president. The trick for any Joint Chiefs chairman is striking a balance between loyalty to the boss and candor. Again, Bing West.

WEST: Joe is cautious in that he isn't going to overstep his bounds. The commander in chief remains the commander in chief. Joe will give his military advice.

WELNA: If Dunford's confirmed as expected, he'll become the president's top military adviser once the current chairman, Martin Dempsey, steps down in September. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: July 9, 2015 at 12:00 AM EDT
In the audio and transcript of this story, we call Dunford the son of a firefighter. We should have said police officer.
David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.

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