US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey testifies June 12 during a hearing before the Senate Budget Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington. Dempsey is back in the Senate today for a confirmation hearing. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain says he will block US Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey’s nomination to a second term in the post, according to Associated Press reports.
The reports came after McCain and Dempsey sparred to a rhetorical draw Thursday morning as they traded jabs over Syria and the four-star’s advice to the president and Congress.
According to the AP, McCain said after the hearing that he will block the nomination due to his dissatisfaction with Dempsey’s answers to questions about the potential use of U.S. military force in Syria.
The Arizona Republican came hard at Dempsey from the start of the hearing, interrupting the general as he attempted to answer McCain’s first question.
McCain wanted to know, essentially, whether what he sees as “inaction” by Washington to intervene in Syria’s civil war is doing more harm to US interests than would getting involved.
When Dempsey started to answer, McCain cut in before the chairman uttered even a sentence. The longtime Senate Armed Services Committee member informed Dempsey he wanted “an answer” but not “a filibuster.”
The two sparred for several minutes over what constitutes action. Dempsey claimed the US has “not been inactive,” signaling American personnel have been backing rebel forces covertly.
McCain, and other lawmakers in both parties, want direct US military and CIA action to tip the balance of that civil war to the rebels, or to force Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the negotiating table.
Dempsey at one point advised McCain that direct US military action in Syria could make worse a situation that has left dead nearly 100,000 people and sent refugees pouring into neighboring countries.
McCain disagreed, and pointedly told Dempsey that when it comes to Syria, “I would know — perhaps better than you — because I’ve been there.”
The Senate’s so-called “Maverick” appeared to hold the upper hand for the first few minutes of his allotted question time.
He hit Dempsey hard for, as he summarized it, changing his stance too often about whether Washington should arm some parts of the Syrian opposition. McCain also questioned Dempsey’s ability to provide quality advice to the president about national security matters.
But Dempsey rallied late in the exchange, firing back at McCain about his proper role as the commander in chief’s top military adviser.
The chairman told McCain that when it comes to situations like the Syrian civil war, which analysts say the Obama administration has struggled to fully understand, his views and advice to the president also will change. Essentially, Dempsey was saying his advice would be formed by studying intelligence data and the facts as the Pentagon understands them.
Dempsey also disputed, as he described it, McCain’s portrayal of him as the one official preventing the US from launching a military operation in Syria. “I am not,” he said sharply.
The chairman resisted McCain’s attempts to pry from him what advice he currently is giving President Obama about Syria. Dempsey said it would be inappropriate to disclose that in public because it would taint the administration’s internal process on a final intervention decision.
With his final punch, the veteran senator told Dempsey his unwillingness to provide that advice to Congress stands at odds with “how this committee has worked for the last 30 years.”
McCain let everyone, including a Defense News reporter, know all week that he has major concerns about Dempsey’s performance as chairman over the last two years, and the prospect of him serving as the president’s top military adviser for two more.
“There are a number of things he has said and done which are very questionable,” McCain said during a brief interview Tuesday.
“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.”
Some defense sources say McCain is, as one put it, “on an island” in his opposition to Dempsey getting a second two-year term as chairman. To that end, 90 minutes into the hearing, no other senator — Republican or Democrat — voiced opposition to Dempsey’s nomination.