New York Times
July 19, 2013
WASHINGTON — Senator John McCain said Thursday that he intended to block President Obama’s nomination of Gen. Martin E. Dempsey to another two-year term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Mr. McCain made his announcement after he and the general had a testy exchange over whether the Obama administration was doing enough to assist the Syrian rebels.
“I’m actually going to put a hold on General Dempsey until General Dempsey responds to legitimate questions,” Mr. McCain said just two days after he helped negotiate a deal to ease the Senate confirmation process for Mr. Obama’s nominees.
Asked whether he would place the hold only after the Armed Services Committee forwarded the nomination to a vote by the full Senate, Mr. McCain responded tersely, “Before, after and during.”
“I want to see him answer the question,” he added. A vote by 60 senators can overcome a hold.
The confirmation battle grew out of a debate over whether the United States military should be ordered to more aggressively support Syrian rebels to oust the government of President Bashar al-Assad, including combat action like establishing a no-fly zone. Mr. McCain, who has called for American military intervention in the Syrian civil war, traveled to Syria in late May to meet with the rebel forces. It was the first time that a United States senator had traveled to Syria to meet with the rebels since the conflict erupted two years ago.
But the tension between Mr. McCain, one of the Senate’s most respected military veterans, and General Dempsey, whose career includes multiple wartime commands, is over the proper role of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs in offering military advice to a president on national security issues with a clear political component — liked going to war.
Mr. McCain opened his talk with General Dempsey with a pointed question: “Do you believe the continued costs and risks of our inaction in Syria are now worse for our national security interests than the costs and risks associated with limited military action?”
General Dempsey said the administration had been active in supporting Syrian rebel forces, and described his role as advising the president on the risks and benefits of military options. But he emphasized that only the civilian leadership could order military action.
“I am in favor of building a moderate opposition and supporting it,” General Dempsey said. “The question whether to support it with direct kinetic strikes is a decision for our elected officials, not for the senior military leader of the nation.”
His response frustrated Mr. McCain, who said that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs is “the sole military adviser” to the president and is obliged to advocate for or against combat.
Mr. McCain challenged General Dempsey to share his opinions with the Armed Services Committee — as the chairman had pledged to do during the opening minutes of the session. General Dempsey said his private counsel to the president would remain private.
“We’ve given him options,” General Dempsey said. “The members of this committee have been briefed on them in a classified setting. We’ve articulated the risk. The decision to use force is the decision of our elected officials.”
The committee chairman, Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, closed the hearing by reaching agreement with General Dempsey to return to discuss possible options for military action, including the pros, cons and costs.
“If you’ll do that, it may be a step that would be a constructive, positive step,” Mr. Levin said.