Policy & Strategy

McCain drops hold threat on Dempsey confirmation

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Tuesday dropped his threat to place a hold on President Obama’s nominee to lead the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

McCain told reporters that he would not block Gen. Martin Dempsey’s confirmation as Joint Chiefs chairman despite his disagreement with the top U.S. military general over what action the U.S. military should be taking in Syria.

{mosads}The shift from McCain came after Dempsey sent Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) a letter Monday outlining his assessment of possible military options in Syria.

McCain remains critical of Dempsey’s position on Syria, arguing the general was taking the position that it was practically impossible to intervene.

“This assessment that Gen. Dempsey gave of how to address the challenges in Syria are beyond anything that any rational military thinker that I know would ever contemplate,” McCain said.

“He basically describes a scenario where it’s impossible to intervene, and that’s not true. And the status quo is not acceptable, which is [Syrian President] Bashar Assad winning this battle,” he said.

Dempsey’s assessment, which Levin requested at a confirmation hearing last week that featured some testy exchanges between McCain and Dempsey, expressed caution about using military force in Syria.

His letter warned it would cost $1 billion per month or more for a no-fly zone or buffer zone and that U.S. forces might have to go into Syria to retrieve any downed aircraft.

Dempsey also questioned the usefulness of using U.S. military force even if it toppled Assad’s government, harkening back to Iraq and warning that action without a post-Assad plan could lead to more instability.

“We must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action,” Dempsey wrote. “Should the regime’s institutions collapse in the absence of a viable opposition, we could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control.”

McCain had threatened to put a hold on Dempsey’s nomination last week after Dempsey would not provide his opinion at his confirmation hearing on whether the risks of U.S. military action outweighed doing nothing there.

But on Tuesday, McCain said he would not stand in the way of the confirmation despite his concerns.

“The president, I think, has the right to choose his team around him, particularly as far as military advisers are concerned,” McCain said.

Other senators who have also pressed the Obama administration to do more in Syria have not raised opposition to Dempsey.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has been with McCain every step of the way demanding a no-fly zone in Syria and arms to the rebels, but he did not join the call to block Dempsey’s confirmation.

“I think the option of doing nothing is more costly than trying to change the force of the tide of battle,” Graham said when asked about Dempsey’s response to Levin.

Levin said he was satisfied with Dempsey’s answers.

“The point is he has given us significant information” said Levin, who has also supported creating a no-fly zone. “I think that is useful in that regard.”

In addition to the assessment, McCain and Levin on Friday sent Dempsey a letter asking him to respond to 11 questions, including six on Syria and five on Afghanistan.

Dempsey has yet to respond, although Levin’s office said it was expecting a response this week.

This story was posted at 12:39 p.m. and updated at 8 p.m. 

Tags Carl Levin John McCain Lindsey Graham

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