McCain Is Wrong About Dempsey on Syria

Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona)

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Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona)

Sen. John McCain wants answer from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Syria. But surely he knows Gen. Martin Dempsey isn't going to answer them. By James Joyner

Sen. John McCain is blocking a second term for Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, after a testy exchange in a hearing Thursday. His grounds? The refusal of Dempsey to “respond to legitimate questions” from the senior senator from Arizona.

McCain’s 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?” More pointedly, he asked, “Do you think we ought to see how we could stop the war by intervening and stopping the massacre?”

Dempsey’s response:  ”Senator, I am in favor of building a moderate opposition and supporting it.” But, he continued, “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.”

Pressed further, on the grounds that the chairman has been, since the Goldwater-Nichols reforms of 1986, the chief military advisor to the president, Dempsey countered, ”We’ve given [the president] options.” He added, “The members of this committee have been briefed on them in a classified setting. We’ve articulated the risk. The decision to use force is the decision of our elected officials.”

Given that this is a perfectly reasonable response, it immediately struck me that McCain is either shockingly ignorant of the chairman’s role or, more likely, simply grandstanding. But, then, a second shoe dropped: Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the committee not only backed McCain’s move but signed a joint letter urging Dempsey’s detailed written response to not only those two questions but several others—including an assessment of the Afghanistan mission.

I’m perplexed that two such seasoned national security professionals are taking this tack.

Dempsey’s job is to offer his best military advice to the president, not to pick and choose the wars America fights. (Theoretically, the latter is Congress’ job but presidents have taken over that role in the postwar period.) With respect to Syria, Dempsey should make sure that the president and defense secretary understands the costs, benefits, and risks associated with various options; under questioning from Congress, it’s also appropriate for him to share that information with the American people. But it’s manifestly not Dempsey’s job to argue in favor of military intervention over other courses of action.

As Dempsey noted in the hearing, “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.” Indeed, that’s the sort of conduct that rightly got Douglas MacArthur and Stan McChrystal fired.

I haven’t the foggiest idea what Dempsey’s private opinion is on the advisability of intervening in Syria. Given his decades of training and hard-won wisdom, I’d be interested in hearing it. 

If I were to hazard a guess, given that he’s offered his views to the committee in a classified briefing and that McCain’s the one asking him to put them on the record, I’d reckon that they’re more in line with McCain’s than the president’s. But that’s just a guess.

Regardless, Dempsey’s not a political pundit; he’s a uniformed military officer who answers to the elected commander-in-chief.  If he were to articulate the administration’s policy as his own, he would come across as a lapdog, undermining the chairman’s standing as an independent voice. If he were to publicly criticize the administration’s policy, he would undermine civilian control of the military. 

John McCain, a graduate of the Naval Academy who spent a quarter century in uniform, surely knows that. And, as he’s aptly demonstrated, he doesn’t need surrogates to argue for military intervention in the world’s trouble spots. Nor, frankly, does he need to gin up controversies to draw attention to his own views on Syria. If he’s not on at least one of the Sunday talking heads shows this weekend, it’ll be a rare occasion, indeed.

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