Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, left, shakes hands with Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., following testimony with US military leaders before the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington, DC, in June. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Syria. Afghanistan. Egypt. Budget cuts. Military readiness. Judgment.
There is no shortage of issues on which senators intend to press America’s top military officer Thursday during a session likely to include some fireworks.
Senate Armed Services Committee members say they expect to get some answers from Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and Vice Chairman Adm. James Winnefeld on a range of national security issues that have garnered headlines in recent months.
Policy and budget issues likely will dominate the confirmation hearing. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., tells Defense News he intends to zero in on Dempsey’s “judgment” and the quality of the advice he gives to the commander in chief.
“There are a number of things he has said and done which are very questionable,” McCain told Defense News.
“For example, why did he say well over a year and a half ago it’s inevitable [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad will fall when I knew that wasn’t the case?” McCain said.
The fiery senior SASC member said he wants to know more about “his judgment and what advice is he giving the president because he believes Assad will fall.”
He added that his questions about Dempsey’s judgment also are rooted in the general’s repeated insistence that, as McCain summarized it, “Iran is a rational nation.”
Asked to respond to McCain’s comments, Caitlin Hayden, a White House spokeswoman, referred a reporter to a statement from President Obama about Dempsey and Winnefeld. In it, Obama said he trusts Dempsey, his top military adviser.
“These two superb officers have led our military ... with great distinction, deep conviction, and absolute integrity over the past two years and I am confident in saying that our nation is safer and more secure today because of their visionary, dedicated, and tireless leadership,” Obama said in the June 26 statement.
“Gen. Dempsey often talks about trust as the foundational quality of the profession of arms — trust between leaders, those they lead, the institutions they represent, and the Nation they serve,” Obama said. “These two distinguished military leaders have earned my trust and that of the American people.”
But the panel’s senior Democrat, Chairman Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, defended Dempsey’s judgment and the level of advice he gives Obama.
“I don’t agree with Sen. McCain on that,” Levin said, shaking his head.
But, notably, Levin followed that with his own critique of the chairman.
“I would prefer that Gen. Dempsey would be more forward leaning on putting more pressure on Assad because I think that could be done by providing the Free Syrian Army with greater training and weaponry,” Levin said.
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., who chairs the panel’s Strategic Forces subcommittee, was more effusive in his defense of Dempsey.
“Gen. Dempsey works for the president,” Udall said in a brief interview. “He has been loyal and effective, and is a big intellect. He has vision, and strategic and tactical expertise.”
The situation in Syria won’t be the only issue discussed Thursday morning.
'About 10 Things'
Levin, who will lead off the questioning of Dempsey and Winnefeld, wants answers about the Obama administration’s troop withdrawal plans for Afghanistan.
The chairman said he will ask “whether or not he expects there’s going to be a decision on the pace of reduction after the fighting season is over, or whether he expects that decision won’t come until early next year,” Levin said Tuesday evening.
“In turn, that will affect whether or not there will be a gradual slope or a flat-lining of the amount of troops left there … until next February,” Levin said.
Udall chuckled when asked what questions he intends to lob toward the four stars.
“I’ve got about 10 things, according to what the country faces, whether it’s Syria or Egypt,” Udall said.
And, of course, the decade-spanning $500 billion cut to planned Pentagon spending inevitably will come up.
“I think here at home, we have to do a better job implementing the cuts known as sequestration,” Udall said. “I think Gen. Dempsey has a story to tell on that, and he has some ideas on how the Pentagon can do its part. I want Gen. Dempsey to tell us even more about how he sees this unfolding.”
Loren Thompson, COO of the Lexington Institute and an industry consultant, predicts “the hearings will focus mainly on the nexus between sequestration and readiness, with a liberal sprinkling of home-state concerns about specific bases and programs.”
Still, Thompson said, “some Republicans may take Gen. Dempsey to task for siding too readily with the White House, but most senators understand he doesn’t have a choice.”
Hagel Part Deux?
Senators say they don’t expect a sequel to the combative Jan. 31 SASC confirmation hearing for sitting Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. During that memorable day-long session, Republican senators hammered Hagel over his stances on Israel, Iran, Iraq, nuclear weapons and other issues.
Asked whether Thursday’s hearing could turn into a Hagel repeat, Levin’s eyes grew wide. He shook his head before saying, “I doubt it.”
But Levin’s facial expression was reminiscent of one he wore in late June, when he told Defense News he was “hopeful” Dempsey would be confirmed for a second term with few problems. At that time, Levin added this qualifier: “But you just never know here.”
Still, McCain made clear this week he intends to bear down hard on Dempsey during his allotted time.
“If it gets contentious, we can all handle it after what we’ve been through this week,” Udall said, referring to a nasty partisan fight over the Senate’s rules. “The Senate at its best is civilized but substantive — and feisty.”