Following a testy exchange between Sen. John McCain (R) of
Arizona and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of
Staff, Senator McCain said he'd place a hold on Dempsey's
confirmation for a second term.
Is this move really a bid to engage the White House in a
conversation about Syria? Or does McCain think Dempsey should be a
stronger advocate in his dealings with the White House?
Perhaps McCain was simply unhappy with Dempsey's answers to his
questions during the congressional hearing Thursday.
Around the halls of the Pentagon, some US military officials like
to joke that McCain is perpetually "one war away from happiness."
In any event, why did McCain come down so hard on Dempsey?
On the subject of Syria, the Senate Armed Services Committee
member has been adamant about his desire to arm rebels and establish
a no-fly zone.
Dempsey, by contrast, has cautioned that the contingent of rebels
who are the most skilled and dominant may also be Islamist
extremists unlikely to remain allied with the United States beyond
their interest in getting more weapons.
"In the beginning of the year, there was a period where it was
pretty evident that the extremist groups were prevailing inside the
opposition," he noted.
Today, Dempsey added, "I am in favor of building a moderate
opposition and supporting it."
This was the moment in the hearing Thursday when McCain went on
the offensive. "This goes back to my concern about your role as
chairman of the Joint Chiefs," he said.
McCain pointed to changes in Dempsey's advice to arm vetted units
of the Syrian opposition. "How do we account for those pirouettes?"
"I wouldn't accept the term 'pirouettes' here," Dempsey shot
back. "I would accept the term that we have adapted our approach
based on what we know of the opposition."
He then endeavored to pinpoint the source of McCain's
frustration. "Senator, somehow you've got me portrayed as the - you
know, the one who's holding back from our use of military force
That decision, he noted, belongs to the president.
This is not the first time Dempsey and McCain have butted heads.
They disagreed on the best way forward with regard to Iraq, for
example - a point that Dempsey raised in his testimony Thursday.
"Senator, would you agree that we have recent experience where
until we understood how the country would continue to govern and
that institutions of governance wouldn't fail, that actually,
situations can be made worse by the introduction of military force?"
McCain responded that as he recalled it, "You and I went through
this in 2006, when I said it wasn't succeeding [in Iraq] and that we
had to have a surge - and that only a surge could succeed in
reversing the tide of battle, and you disagreed with me, way back
then," he noted. …