For top U.S. military officer, economy emerges as major concern

Commanders are increasingly worried about the health of the economies of key U.S. allies.

To understand how much the job of the nation's top military officer has changed, consider the issue Army Gen. Martin Dempsey identified as one of his top concerns.

"We are extraordinarily concerned about the health and viability of the euro … because of the potential for civil unrest and the breakup of the [European Union] that has been forged over there," Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the audience at an Atlantic Council event on Friday.

Dempsey's comments echoed the public comments of Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, and the other White House officials charged with monitoring the health of the global economy and trying to improve conditions here at home.

But the words weren't uttered by policymakers like Geithner or Bernanke. They came from Dempsey, the president's top military adviser and a man whose job normally focuses on the risks posed by transnational terror groups and rogue nations like Iran or Pakistan.

The comments illustrate a broader point: The European economic crisis is emerging as an unexpected concern for senior U.S. commanders, who are increasingly worried not just about the state of the American economy-whose frailty is spurring deep cuts in Pentagon spending-but also about the health of the economies of key U.S. allies.

Dempsey and other top commanders have a pair of concerns. First is that the economic problems and enormous budget deficits facing European countries like Spain, Britain, and Italy will force American allies to further cut their defense budgets, making it harder for them to fight alongside the U.S. in future conflicts.

The second concern has no direct tie to military or security issues. Instead, Dempsey was expressing a broader fear that the current economic crisis in Europe-which has been marked by bitter squabbling between key nations like Germany and France-threatens the future viability of the euro and could lead to the breakup of the European Union.

In his remarks on Friday, Dempsey said it was unclear if the emergency economic measures under consideration by European policymakers "will be the glue that holds it all together."

"It's something we should all be concerned about," he said.

The chairman has been doing more than simply voicing his concerns about the economy; he's also been giving himself a crash course in economics.

A few months ago, Dempsey went to the U.S. Military Academy's economics department to issue an unusual apology.

"I walked into the head of the department and I said, 'I'm really sorry,' " said Dempsey, a 1974 graduate of West Point. " 'I'm sorry I didn't pay attention when I was a cadet here to what you were talking about, to macroeconomics and microeconomics.' I've just now realized that this is going to be a big factor in my life for the next two or four years."

He followed that up with a visit to New York three weeks ago to spend a half day at the Federal Reserve Bank there to discuss the challenges facing the U.S. economy. Last week, he hosted Bernanke in his office at the Pentagon for a two-hour meeting about the precarious state of the American and European economies.

"The topic was whither economics, not only here but also in Europe," Dempsey said.

The fact that Dempsey is even asking the question was a vivid reminder that in a world of economic unease, American power is no longer measured primarily by the military strength of the U.S. and its allies. Indeed, it's their economies-and not their armed forces-that could pose the biggest risks.