Published July 18, 2013
WASHINGTON – A senior Republican senator said Thursday he will block Army Gen. Martin Dempsey's nomination for a second term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff due to his dissatisfaction with the officer's responses to questions about the potential use of U.S. military power in Syria.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona pressed Dempsey during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee to provide his personal opinion on which approach in Syria carries greater risk for U.S. national security interests: continued limited action on the part of Washington, or more significant steps such as establishment of a no-fly zone and arming rebel forces with the weapons they need to stem the advance of President Bashir Assad's forces.
Dempsey said that he has provided President Barack Obama with options for the use of military force in Syria. But he declined to detail those choices, saying that "it would be inappropriate for me to try to influence the decision with me rendering an opinion in public about what kind of force we should use."
During a testy exchange with McCain, the general added that he would "let this committee know what my recommendations are at the appropriate time."
Dempsey's response, McCain said, contradicted his commitment to provide the committee with his personal views, even if those opinions differ from the administration in power.
McCain told reporters after leaving the hearing room that he planned to put a hold on the nomination, essentially blocking any further Senate action until he gets an adequate response from Dempsey.
"I want to see him answer the question," McCain said. "Hello!"
The situation in Syria, where a civil war entering its third year has killed almost 93,000 people, figured prominently amid an increasing clamor among Assad's opposition for active U.S. involvement.
Senators including Carl Levin, D-Mich., the committee chairman, and McCain have been pressing Obama to take a more forceful approach to defeat Assad's forces. While the administration has authorized lethal aid to rebel forces battling Assad's troops, it isn't trying to enforce a no-fly zone in which Syria's combat aircraft would be barred from flying, or otherwise intervene militarily to halt the war.
"Senator, I am in favor of building a moderate opposition and supporting it," Dempsey told McCain. "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."
The use of kinetic strikes, a military term that typically refers to missiles and bombs, "is under deliberation inside of our agencies of government," Dempsey said.
Asked about Dempsey's comments, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday that Obama always asks his military commanders for options "and that is true in an arena like Syria." He reiterated that the president is constantly reviewing U.S. options in Syria.
"There are a whole range of options that are out there," Navy Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said of the planning for military action in Syria. "We are ready to act if we're called on to act."
Dempsey acknowledged in response to a question from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., that Assad's forces have the upper hand in Syria.
"Currently the tide seems to have shifted in his favor," the general said.
The Armed Services Committee is considering Dempsey's and Winnefeld's nominations for second terms in their posts.
To avoid getting drawn deeper into Syria's civil war, administration officials have pointed to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 as an example of what can go wrong when America's military becomes involved in Middle East conflicts.
"We've rushed to war in this region in the past. We're not going to do it here," Obama's chief of staff, Denis McDonough, said Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation."
During his exchange with McCain, Dempsey said "situations can be made worse by the introduction of military force" without first understanding how the country would continue to govern and ensuring that government institutions don't fail.
Dempsey's first term as chairman has been a turbulent one with the military drawing down from lengthy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, he has had to grapple with billions of dollars in budget cuts that have threatened military readiness, the epidemic of sexual assaults in the ranks, the crisis in Syria, and most recently unrest in Egypt.
Dempsey also addressed the emerging picture of serious flaws inside the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command. He called the flaws discouraging and "moving rapidly toward disgraceful."
Dempsey said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called him while traveling this week to make sure he was aware of reports that the MIA accounting effort is plagued by internal conflict and dysfunction. Hagel wants to "get to the bottom" of the problem, he said.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said the committee needs to hold hearings to investigate.
Associated Press writers Robert Burns, Bradley Klapper, Donna Cassata, and Darlene Superville contributed to this report.