WASHINGTON, Sept. 21, 2011 — Relationships. As Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, prepares to retire from the military next week, he called these ties between national leaders and their foreign counterparts key to preventing misunderstanding and, ultimately, conflict.
Mullen offered his insights last night at the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital here as part of its sixth annual Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Lecture series.
Mullen entered the military at a “challenging, tumultuous time for our country” during the Vietnam War. Now, as the top U.S. military officer, he acknowledged having “a very difficult job at a very difficult time.”
But throughout his four-decade career, and particularly in his current post, he said, relationships have made the difference.
A student of the late Army Gen. George C. Marshall, Mullen said he was inspired by the importance Marshall placed on relationships while rising through the ranks to become Army chief of staff, secretary of state, then secretary of defense.
Marshall’s example is particularly applicable in today’s complex world, Mullen said. “Relationships are more and more critical,” he told last night’s forum.
Relationships can be at every level: between the defense secretary and his counterparts; the secretary of state and hers; the top military officer and his. But ultimately, Mullen said, they form a foundation that enables two nations to work together and overcome challenges.
“There is no cookie cutter [formula],” the chairman said. “You have to work with these individuals to really understand [their issues].”
One of Mullen’s most concerted efforts has been to strengthen the United States’ relationship with Pakistan through his personal relationship with Pakistani Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.
Visiting Pakistan 27 times during the past four years, Mullen said he has developed “a very close relationship” with Pakistan’s senior officer.
Their relationship has helped move Pakistan beyond its distrust of the United States — the product of America’s abandonment in 1989 and of its breaking of relations altogether from 1990 to 2002, Mullen said.
The Pakistanis “remember that like it was yesterday,” he said, with many of them skeptical that the United States’ renewed interest toward Pakistan since 9/11 will endure.
Mullen credits his relationship with Kayani with helping overcome some of that mistrust while advancing both countries’ interest in facing down terrorists.
It’s a relationship Mullen conceded has had its bumps along the road, such as after the United States led a secret raid into Pakistan in pursuit of Osama bin Laden. It also has required tough talk about Pakistan’s failure to keep terrorists from crossing into Afghanistan and its intelligence agency’s ties to proxy terror groups such as the Haqqani network.
“I’ve had very frank conversations with [Kayani],” Mullen said last night.
But thanks to the strength of the relationship, Mullen said, those conversations “didn’t break” the process. “I attribute some of that to the fact that we stayed in touch,” he said. “I think it’s important that we can talk about it.”
Mullen expressed regret that he has no relationship whatsoever with his Iranian counterpart, and said he would welcome one, “even if we completely disagree.”
It could promote understanding that, in a time of crisis, could help keep issues from escalating. “If there were problems there or conflict breaks out there” under current conditions, “there would be miscalculations just based on the complete lack of knowledge of each other,” he said.
The chairman recalled, for example, hosting Gen. Chen Bingde, chief of the general staff of the People’s Liberation Army, at the Pentagon in May. Two months later, Mullen traveled to China to build on those talks.
“We discussed many important issues of mutual concern,” Mullen told reporters in Beijing then during a joint news conference with Chen. “And I believe we went a long way toward advancing some of the initiatives to which we both committed during your visit to the United States in May.”
Mullen conceded last night that he and Chen have many areas where they disagree. “But we do agree on some things, and we have got to keep that relationship alive and try to understand each other,” he said.
That understanding could clear up questions about issues like China’s military build-up, and its lack of transparency about it, Mullen said. It also could encourage exchange about issues such as China’s current actions in the South China Sea to reach a peaceful resolution.
“The last thing in the world I want to see is a conflict with them in that part of the world,” Mullen said.
In yet another part of the globe, Mullen credited the longstanding U.S. military-to-military relationship with Egypt with helping that country through its current turmoil.
Mullen has consistently praised the Egyptian military for its restraint in the face of a protest movement that ultimately toppled Hosni Mubarak’s regime.
Mullen said he has “a very strong relationship” with his Egyptian counterpart, Lt. Gen. Sami Enan, and has talked with him “dozens of times or more” in recent months as the country works its way toward democracy.
“He wants us to stay in this relationship,” Mullen said. “He feels strongly about the importance of it.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)