WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain said Thursday he will block Army Gen. Martin Dempsey’s nomination for a second term as Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman due to his dissatisfaction with the officer’s responses to questions about the potential use of U.S. military power in Syria.
McCain, R-Ariz., pressed Dempsey during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee to provide his 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 Bashar Assad’s forces.
Dempsey said he has provided President Barack Obama with options for the use of military force, but he declined to detail those choices.
During a testy exchange with McCain, Dempsey said 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 action until he gets an adequate response from Dempsey.
“I want to see him answer the question,” McCain said.
The situation in Syria, where a civil war has killed almost 93,000 people, figured prominently at Thursday’s hearing 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 pressed Obama to take a more forceful approach to defeat Assad’s forces. While the administration has authorized lethal aid to rebel forces, 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.
“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 Obama always asks his military commanders for options “and that is true in an arena like Syria.” He said the president is constantly reviewing U.S. options in Syria.