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McCain Blocks Joint Chiefs Chairman Over Personal Vendetta

July 19, 2013

Just days after playing a key role in ending the log jam over Republican filibustering of President Obama's executive branch nominees, Arizona Senator John McCain put a road block in the front of the anticipated confirmation of Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey. McCain announced he would put a "hold" on Dempsey's second term heading up the JCS until the General answered his questions about his personal views on Syria policy. If that sounds like childish petulance from would-have-been President McCain, that's because it is. In the past, General Dempsey cautioned against McCain's positions on the Iraq surge, maintaining a permanent U.S. troop presence there, launching military strikes against Iran and establishing a no-fly zone over Syria. And now it's payback time.
McCain's pledge Thursday that "I'm actually going to put a hold on General Dempsey until General Dempsey responds to legitimate questions" came after a testy exchange before the Senate Armed Services Committee. As the New York Times reported:

Mr. McCain opened his talk with General Dempsey with a pointed question: "Do you believe the continued costs and risks of our inaction in Syria are now worse for our national security interests than the costs and risks associated with limited military action?"
General Dempsey said the administration had been active in supporting Syrian rebel forces, and described his role as advising the president on the risks and benefits of military options. But he emphasized that only the civilian leadership could order military action.
"I am in favor of building a moderate opposition and supporting it," General Dempsey said. "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."

If President Obama ordered military action against the Assad regime, General Dempsey told Congress in late April, U.S. armed forces would be ready. But, he warned, steps like establishing a no-fly zone would not come without great risk. With its modern arsenal and proven ability to knock out sophisticated anti-aircraft defenses, Chairman Dempsey explained that "the U.S. military has the capability to defeat that system, but it would be a greater challenge, take longer and require more resources" than in Libya. He added:

"Whether the military effect would produce the kind of outcome I think that not only members of Congress but all of us would desire -- which is an end to the violence, some kind of political reconciliation among the parties and a stable Syria -- that's the reason I've been cautious about the application of the military instrument of power. It's not clear to me that it would produce that outcome."

But that wasn't the response John McCain was looking for. After Israel hit targets inside Syria, McCain appeared on the Sunday shows in May to mock the Joint Chiefs Chairman on national television:

McCain, appearing on ABC's "This Week," accused the Joint Chiefs of Staff of looking for ways to avoid imposing a no-fly zone in Syria. He said Israel proved last week that airstrikes inside Syria can work against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
"I'm sure they took out assets of Assad's in Syria, which is exactly what we could do with cruise missiles and with Patriot missiles," McCain said. "So that obviously blows a hole a mile wide in our Joint Chiefs of Staff, who prove again if you don't want to do something, they can find reasons not to do it."

Of course, among the items on John McCain's to-do list was keeping a permanent U.S. military presence in Iraq. But when Dempsey testified in support of President Obama's decision to honor the 2008 status of forces agreement signed by President Bush and withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq, John McCain accused the General of having no credibility on the issue:

Since you brought up regrettably Gen. Dempsey 2003 and 2004. The fact is that you did not support the surge and said that it would fail. Secretary Panetta was part of the Iraq Study Group that recommended withdrawals from Iraq and opposed the surge and so we're all responsible for the judgments that we make and obviously that affects the credibility of the judgments that we make now on Iraq. I regret that you have to bring that up Gen. Dempsey.

Of course, it was McCain who should have regretted bringing up the subject. After all, at almost every turn in the run-up to the invasion and the ensuing American occupation, McCain's judgment was almost always wrong, often disastrously so. From his predictions of a short war, claims U.S. troops would be greeted as liberators and that the U.S. would find weapons of mass destruction to his announcements of mission accomplished, his ongoing confusion over Sunni and Shiite, friend and so much more, John McCain was wildly off the mark. And with Iraq once again on the brink of disintegrating into sectarian civil war, the wisdom of President Obama and his Joint Chiefs Chairman has been confirmed.
But if the United States does not maintain permanent bases in any country for the purpose of referring a civil war, John McCain has long had another use in mind. In the six years since he first sang "bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran," Senator McCain has pushed for American strikes against Tehran's nuclear program. But it wasn't just Bush and Obama Defense Secretary Robert Gates warning against "pulling the trigger." In an attempt to forestall a unilateral Israeli strike against Tehran's nuclear facilities, in early 2012 U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and intelligence director James Clapper warned of the retaliatory threats to U.S. interests, economy and even the homeland. Joint Chiefs Chairman Dempsey declared an attack by his overstretched military would not be "prudent" and reiterated for Congress that Tehran is a "rational actor." As he explained to Fareed Zakaria of CNN:

"It's not prudent at this point to decide to attack Iran," said Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in the interview.
"I think it would be premature to exclusively decide that the time for a military option was upon us," Dempsey added, according to early reports of the interview, noting that he sensed that increased sanctions were beginning to have an effect..."A strike at this time would be destabilizing and wouldn't achieve their long-term objectives."

In that same February 2012 interview, Dempsey was also cautious about stepping up American aide to the rebels in Syria. "I would challenge anyone to clearly identify for me the opposition movement in Syria at this point." In June 2013, Dempsey had his response. After meeting with Syrian rebels who may have included the leader of a group which kidnapped Shiite pilgrims, McCain announced:

"I can assure you, we know who they are. They've been fighting for over two years, they are patriots and, yes, there are extremists flowing in country."

If that sounds familiar, it should. In 2003, John McCain described Iraqi National Congress leader turned Iranian ally Ahmed Chalabi this way:

"He's a patriot who has the best interests of his country at heart."

John McCain may have been wrong about almost every aspect of the American conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. But that doesn't mean he won't continue his temper tantrum towards the general who has had the temerity to disagree with him, as these fireworks from Thursday show:

Dempsey also said recent U.S. military experience should counsel caution since the introduction of military force can make things worse, an apparent reference to America's experience in Iraq.
"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?" Dempsey said.
"You and I went through this in 2006," McCain said. McCain said Dempsey disagreed at the time with what came to be known as the "surge" strategy in Iraq, which involved sending additional forces to Iraq and changing the way troops were employed.
"I think history shows that those of us who supported the surge were right, and people like you, who didn't think we need a surge were wrong," McCain said.

As for the 4,500 Americans killed and 30,000 more who were wounded in Iraq, their families can take comfort in John McCain's promises that they were greeted as liberators.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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