Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who will retire this month, is that rare senior official in President Donald Trump’s Washington whose career and reputation don’t seem to have been tarnished by his dealings with the president. The explanation is simple: The low-key, Boston-Irish Marine maintained the distance and discipline of a professional military officer. He didn’t try to be Trump’s friend or confidant, and he stayed away from palace intrigue. The White House treated him with respect, and his fellow commanders came to regard him with something approaching awe: “We’d all like to be Joe Dunford,” one four-star general says.
In the ceaseless turmoil of the Trump administration, Dunford has been a steady hand who helped insulate national-security policy from disruption and political pressure. His Pentagon colleagues say he will be keenly missed - several described him as the best chairman in recent decades - and that they are hoping that Gen. Mark Milley, his successor, can sustain the independence and cool judgment that defined Dunford’s tenure.
Dunford doesn’t like talking about his relationship with the White House. The closest he has come was probably a Pentagon press briefing last month: “I’ve worked very hard to remain apolitical and not make political judgments. ... I work very hard to provide military advice ... and make sure that our men and women in uniform have the wherewithal to do their job.”
“Joe Dunford is a man for all seasons,” says Jim Mattis, the former secretary of defense and a fellow Marine. “Joe has a quiet mind, not easily distracted; he quantifies things, but he brings in the nonquantifiable. Still waters run deep in him. You simply can’t shake his faith in his fundamental values.”
Mattis cites two combat anecdotes to explain Dunford’s unflappable style. In March 2003, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, Mattis told Dunford that because of a last-minute change of plans, his regiment had to move out in five hours, rather than at dawn the next morning. “He just took it in stride,” Mattis says.
A few days later, Dunford’s unit had fought its way to the Tigris River, with the loss of some Marines, and was ready to seize a strategic bridge. Mattis told him he had to fall back until conditions were safer for the assault. Dunford obeyed that painful retreat order without hesitation, Mattis says.
Dunford was born for the job. The son of a Marine who fought at Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War, he grew up in Quincy, Massachusetts, a working-class suburb of Boston. Colleagues say he retained those grounded values throughout a rapidly rising career.
Gen. Frank McKenzie, the Centcom commander and another fellow Marine, remembers that Dunford faced a delicate problem as a young lieutenant colonel on the staff of the Marine commandant. He had to manage a popular but misplaced protocol officer. He promptly removed the officer, to the consternation of some politically powerful friends.
Dunford’s dream was probably to become Marine commandant himself, and after he was appointed to that post in 2014, friends say he assumed it was his last post. When President Barack Obama nominated him chairman in 2015, “he took the job with a Catholic sense of guilt” to do his duty, one friend says.
On Dunford’s desk as chairman, he placed the admonition of a venerated predecessor, Gen. Omar Bradley, who cautioned his staff that they didn’t have the “luxury” of focusing on just one theater but needed to think globally. Dunford has prodded the different services and combatant commands to do just that - move toward integrated global strategy, rather than separate fiefdoms.
Dunford built a powerful joint staff to coordinate policy, directed by strong officers like McKenzie and Adm. Michael Gilday, the new chief of naval operations. The joint staff’s importance grew as the interagency process of the National Security Council decayed. Some grouse that the joint staff is now too powerful, but it helped fill a dangerous vacuum.
In dealing with Trump, Dunford’s friends say his model was Gen. George C. Marshall, the celebrated wartime chief of staff to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Marshall didn’t try to be FDR’s pal, or laugh at his jokes, or join his social gatherings. Marshall simply did his job.
One four-star general recalls that Trump would sometimes ask Dunford if he liked a particular policy option. “I’m not in love with any of them,” Dunford would answer. “My job is to give you choices.”
It’s Dunford’s legacy that in a time of national tumult and division, the military seems to have remained steady as a rock.
David Ignatius is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.