Mullen: Relationships Key to Preventing Conflict

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)