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Why does John McCain have a problem with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs?

Sen. John McCain said he’d put a hold on the confirmation of Gen. Martin Dempsey for a second term after a testy exchange about Syria. Is the senator's real aim to engage with the White House on Syria policy?

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
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, Thursday

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?” he asked.

“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 inside Syria.”

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. “And I think history shows that those of us who supported the surge were right, and people like you who didn’t think we needed a surge were wrong.”

Iraq has recently descended into a new round of violence that analysts blame in large part on a lack of governance throughout the country.

In Thursday’s hearing, McCain pressed Dempsey for his personal opinion on the wisdom of becoming more deeply involved in Syria. The chairman has repeatedly expressed reservations about arming the rebels.

“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,” Dempsey said.

McCain seemed mystified that Dempsey would not provide his personal opinion on the matter.

“I’ve given those views to the president,” Dempsey said. “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.”

He added, “If the administration and the government decides to use military force, we have provided a variety of options – and you know that.”

This seemed to be the point at which McCain decided to hold up Dempsey’s confirmation. “Well, if it is your position that you do not provide your personal views to the committee when asked, only under certain circumstances, then you have just contradicted what I have known this committee to operate under the last 30 years.”

After he left the hearing, McCain indicated he would block further action on the confirmation until he gets an adequate response from Dempsey.

“I want to see him answer the question,” McCain said in a briefing with reporters following the hearing. “I mean hello.”

That said, McCain has long been frustrated with Dempsey’s caution about the arming of rebels, and the hearing Thursday brought this frustration to a head.

“I wasn’t surprised at how things unfolded in the hearing,” says Elizabeth O’Bagy, senior Syria analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.

By McCain putting pressure on Dempsey, McCain is in turn pressuring President Obama. 

“This is one way that Congress can leverage the administration to give them answers,” Ms. O’Bagy adds. “It’s indicative of a larger issue that’s going on between Congress and the White House.”

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