What Is John McCain’s Beef With Gen. Dempsey Really All About?


US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, left, and Sen. John McCain butted heads on the topic of US intervention in Syria during Dempsey's confirmation hearing last Thursday. McCain wants answers from Dempsey over Syria before he will allow the Dempsey's nomination to keep his job to move forward. (AFP PHOTO)


Sen. John McCain clearly would rather have someone not named Martin Dempsey as America’s top military officer.

After all, the Arizona Republican is threatening to place a hold — a move that essentially freezes a nomination — on the Army four-star general’s nomination for a second two-year term as Joint Chiefs chairman.

McCain says he’s mulling a hold because Dempsey refuses to give the Senate Armed Services Committee his unvarnished opinion about whether the U.S. should get directly involved militarily in Syria’s civil war.

One must take McCain at his word that his worries about Dempsey’s “judgment” are related to the chairman’s comments last year that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would fall. In fairness to McCain, Assad hasn’t; in fairness to Dempsey, he might eventually.

One’s tenth reading of the transcript of the testy McCain-Dempsey exchange from last Thursday’s SASC confirmation hearing, conjures a furrowed brow, a long exhale and the inescapable feeling that this very public spat is about more than Syria. The same is true about whether or not McCain’s feelings toward Dempsey are that deeply rooted in a legal dispute over whether a Joint Chiefs chairman owes Congress his honest personal and military advice.

So, what’s McCain’s hold threat really all about?

We’d all be naive to think Syria and a feeling that Dempsey is holding back when he talks publicly and privately to lawmakers — including McCain — isn’t, as the senator says, a big influence in his feelings.

But McCain’s tone Thursday, several one-on-one conversations I’ve had with him about Dempsey, and comments he’s made to groups of reporters in recent weeks, suggest there’s more at play.

One good thing about McCain — in fact, a trait that should be encouraged in more public officials — is he typically will let you know what he’s truly thinking. For this reason, we cannot ignore a topic the senator himself brought up Thursday while questioning Dempsey. Nor can we undervalue its role in his dim view of the sitting chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“Actually, Gen. Dempsey, you and I went through this in 2006, when I said that it wasn’t succeeding and that we had to have a surge and that only a surge could succeed in reversing the tide of battle, and you disagreed with me then. Way back then.

“And 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.”

This isn’t the first time McCain has hammered an Obama administration national security nominee about the head in a public setting for that individual’s pre-surge skepticism. Remember Chuck Hagel?

ThinkProgress.org, a blog tied to the political wing of the liberal-leaning Washington think tank Center for American Progress, helps provide some context. In a Nov. 15, 2006 blog post, ThinkProgress points us to an exchange between McCain and then-U.S. Central Command chief Gen. John Abizaid. The two are discussing whether or not a surge of American troops into Iraq at a time when the U.S.-led war was going poorly would help:

MCCAIN: Did you note that Gen. Zinni, who opposed the invasion, now thinks that we should have more troops? Did you notice that Gen. Batiste, who was opposed to the conduct of this conflict also says that they may need tens of thousands of additional troops? I don’t understand, general. When you have a part of Iraq that’s not under our control — as Al Anbar Province is, which has been — I don’t know how many American lives have been sacrificed in Al Anbar Province, but we still have enough and we will rely on the ability to train the Iraqi military, when the Iraqi army hasn’t sent the requested number of battalions into Baghdad.

ABIZAID: Sen. McCain, I met with every divisional commander, Gen. Casey, the core commander, Gen. Dempsey. We all talked together.

And I said, ‘In your professional opinion, if we were to bring in more American troops now, does it add considerably to our ability to achieve success in Iraq?’

And they all said, ‘No.’ And the reason is, because we want the Iraqis to do more. It’s easy for the Iraqis to rely upon to us do this work. I believe that more American forces prevent the Iraqis from doing more, from taking more responsibility for their own future. They will win the insurgency. They will solve the sectarian violence problem. And they’ll do it with our help.

If more troops need to come in, they need to come in to make the Iraqi army stronger. That’s my professional opinion.

Abizaid’s mention of Dempsey clearly did his colleague no favors in his future deals with the Senate’s “Maverick.” It’s unclear how McCain voted in early August 2011 when the Armed Services Committee and full Senate confirmed Dempsey for his first term as chairman (the committee crafted no written report on its vote; the full chamber weighed in via a voice vote).

It’s clear there’s at least a bit of ax-grinding going on here. (A McCain spokesman did not respond to a question on Friday via email about to what extent his boss’ anti-Dempsey views are rooted in the 2006 surge disagreement.)

For now, the burden in convincing McCain to put away his sharp-edged tool rests largely on Dempsey’s star-lined shoulders. Nomination spats happen. They typically are resolved in a few weeks. Are they desirable? No. Are they allowable under Senate rules and to be expected in a political system? Absolutely. Democracy is noisy and messy — yes, even in America.

What’s clear is the Iraq war continues to hang over U.S. national security issues like a black cloud. And that is more troubling than any temporarily delay in a nomination spat some might dub silly.

The Iraq war’s legacy is still being written, it’s lethal tentacles still poisoning U.S. politics and policy-making. That threatens to continue clouding U.S. foreign policy decisions over a decade after the Iraq war was, for better or worse, launched. This should cause more heartburn than any political nomination spat or possible ax-grinding.

John T. Bennett

John T. Bennett

Bennett is the Editor of Defense News' CongressWatch channel. He has a Masters degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University.
John T. Bennett