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McCain to hold up Dempsey for renewal as top military officer after clash over Syria

July 18, 2013: Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, holds up a photo of a deployed American soldier as he testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee at his reappointment hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. Dempsey said during congressional testimony Thursday that he has provided President Obama with options for the use of force in Syria. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Sen. John McCain said Thursday that he will place a hold on the renomination of the nation's top military officer, after he and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey got into a heated exchange on the Hill over the administration's handling of the Syrian civil war. 

McCain clashed with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as he suggested Dempsey was partly responsible for a lackluster response to the Assad regime's aggression. 

After the exchange, the Arizona Republican told reporters he would place a hold on Dempsey's nomination for a second term. A "hold" refers to the Senate practice in which a lawmaker can stall a nomination in order to extract information or assurances out of a nominee -- in this case, McCain suggested Dempsey was not being forthcoming at the hearing about his views on Syria and other subjects. 

“This goes back to my concern about your role as chairman of the Joint Chiefs."

- Sen. John McCain

Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is considering his nomination for a second term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that he has provided President Obama with options for the use of force in Syria, where a civil war entering its third year has killed almost 93,000 people.

Dempsey said the issue is “under deliberation inside our agencies of government,” but did not provide additional details. He used the term “kinetic strikes,” but said the decision is ultimately one for elected officials.

“I must tell both the witnesses at the onset I'm very concerned about the role you've played over the last two years,” McCain said of Dempsey and Navy Adm. James Winnefeld while beginning his line of questioning. “General Dempsey and Admiral Winnefeld, do you believe the continued cost and risk of our inaction in Syria are now worse for our national security interest than the cost and risk associated with limited military action?”

“Senator, as we've discussed ...” Dempsey replied.

“I'd like to know an answer rather than a filibuster,” McCain shot back. “I have six minutes and 10 seconds.”

Dempsey then said the United States is at “greater risk” due to the emergence of violent extremist organizations in Syria, as is Iraq.

“You're not answering the question, General,” McCain said, before asking his original question again.

“With all due respect, Senator, you're asking me to agree that we've been inactive, and we have not been inactive,” Dempsey replied.

“We have not been inactive,” McCain said, to which Dempsey affirmed.

“This again gives validity to my concern,” McCain said. “Because, obviously, we may have — not been — inactive, but any observer knows that Bashar Assad is prevailing on the battlefield. One hundred thousand people have been killed. Hezbollah is there …  And the situation is — much more dire than it was two years ago when you and Admiral Winnefeld came to office. And so, your answer is that we haven't been inactive.”

McCain then asked the question a third time, prompting Dempsey to testify he’s in favor of building a “moderate opposition” and then supporting it. The question to support that with “kinetic strike” is ultimately up for elected officials to make and not for the senior military leader of the nation, Dempsey said.

“This goes back to my concern about your role as chairman of the Joint Chiefs,” McCain replied. “The chairman of the Joint Chiefs is supposed to provide the best advice he can as far as our national security is concerned. That's why you are the sole military adviser.”

McCain then noted that Dempsey testified in February that he advised Obama to arm vetted units of the Syrian opposition. Then, in April, Dempsey no longer supported the opposition, McCain said.

“Now we read in published reports that the administration has decided to arm the Syrian opposition units,” McCain said. “How do we account for those pirouettes?”

Dempsey wouldn’t accept the term “pirouette,” he said.

“I would accept the term that we have adopted our approach based on what we know of the opposition,” he testified. “And if you recall, in the beginning of the year, there was a period where it was pretty evident that the extremist groups were prevailing inside the opposition.  So I have not been wavering.”

In response to McCain's warning about putting the nomination on hold, Dempsey spokesman Col. Ed Thomas later put out this statement: "The Chairman respects the confirmation process and, if confirmed for another two-year term, will be honored to serve at the pleasure of the President and with the consent of Congress." 

Other fireworks during the hearing included Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asking Dempsey directly whether Syria's embattled president, Bashar Assad, is winning the fight in the war-torn country.

“Currently the tide is shifting in his favor,” Dempsey testified.

Winnefeld, meanwhile, said if pressed, he would say Assad’s regime is winning.

“But not by much,” he testified.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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