It’s a rare day in Washington when Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is thrilled about a national security decision from the White House, but Tuesday, President Barack Obama nominated Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford to replace Gen. Martin Dempsey as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
When Defense One asked McCain about his longstanding dislike for Dempsey, the Armed Services Committee chairman interrupted with an enthusiastic, “Yes,” and proceeded to enumerate Dunford’s qualifications.
“I’m a strong supporter of Gen. Dunford…an outstanding selection,” McCain said. “Dunford I’ve known since 2002. Fourteen years I have known him well, because of his leadership roles in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
“I think he’ll speak truth to power,” the senator said. “That’s a habit the Marines have, and I think that he will also bring the benefit of his experience and leadership roles in combat. He’s a true combat veteran.”
The implication was obvious: As opposed to Dempsey, a combat veteran who fought in Iraq and Desert Storm?
“Uhhhhh,” said McCain, himself a Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war. After a moment, he reiterated that Dunford “is a combat veteran. His credentials in my view are the most superior of anybody who was in consideration.”
McCain and Dempsey have years of bad blood, going back to the general’s opposition to the Iraq surge and carrying through to his opposition to getting more deeply involved in Syria. The senator has called for Dempsey to resign (preferably, along with Obama’s entire national security team). In January, McCain said, “Time after time, he has made statements that are not only wrong, but ridiculous.”
Dempsey has been steadfast in his cautious use of U.S. military force, a reluctance to send troops into harm’s way that has frustrated trigger-happy hawks such as McCain.
Last month, McCain slammed the general for comments he called an “insult” to Americans who died in Iraq. As the Islamic State and Iraqi Security Forces were battling for control of the city of Ramadi, Dempsey said that “the city itself is not symbolic in any way.” The comments stung some relatives and friends of troops who died in earlier fights around the city, and Dempsey later apologized to the mother of a Navy SEAL killed there. But in a snub to McCain, he didn’t walk back his strategic assessment. “We are in a different fight now, with a different enemy, and with a different relationship with the Government of Iraq,” Dempsey said. “They must determine the path and pace of this fight. That’s what I intended to convey.” The general carries in his pocket a card for every service member killed under his command from 2003-04, when he led the 1st Armored Division in Iraq.
Much of the debate over the way forward for the fight against the Islamic State has been bogged down by re-hashing who was right about the Iraq War. Dunford is a fresh start, though it’s unclear how much impact he could have in the last years of Obama’s presidency as all eyes turn to the 2016 election.
McCain hedged accordingly when commenting on how the leadership change could affect the Obama administration’s strategy in Iraq, which he has excoriated. He and other Republicans have loudly complained that Obama does not take the advice of his military leaders, but instead relies on a small group of people without military expertise.
“I think it depends on whether the president takes his advice and counsel or not,” the senator said. “The president has ignored the advice of secretaries of defense, State, the CIA. So it depends on whether he will take [Dunford’s] advice or not.”
McCain said while the White House has not yet sent over Dunford’s nomination, the confirmation hearing will likely occur in July — before Congress’s long summer recess — or September. He’d rather not wait.
“We’ll do it. I’m confident that it will be done quickly, but thoroughly, okay? There’s a lot of questions that need to be answered. It will not be rubber-stamped. Totally supportive of him, but we’ll be asking tough questions. That’s our duty,” he said.
These questions will focus McCain’s top priorities for the post: giving candid advice to Obama “even if the president doesn’t take it,” restoring morale to troops that’s been damaged by sequestration, and selecting highly qualified people.
In the end, though, even Dunford may not be able to make much of a difference, McCain said. “[Obama] won’t take their advice and council. He hasn’t taken any of it, so why should he start now? I think [Dunford and Vice Chairman nominee Paul Selva] will do a good job. That doesn’t mean anyone is disqualified. It means the president listens to only two or three people, none of whom have any military experience whatsoever.
“That’s why the world is on fire.”