US Sen. John McCain, seen here in June, said July 23 that he will not block Gen. Martin Dempsey's nomination to a second term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (Jim Watson / AFP)
WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain announced Tuesday he will not block Gen. Martin Dempsey’s nomination for another term as Joint Chiefs chairman.
While the Arizona Republican told reporters Dempsey’s nomination could now move toward confirmation, McCain also sharply panned the general’s gloomy description of the likely composition and cost of a US military operation to end Syria’s bloody civil war, which Dempsey wrote in a letter Monday.
“I’m not holding his nomination,” McCain told a group of reporters on Capitol Hill, four days after he and Dempsey clashed during a Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing. “It’s going through the committee; there’s no hold.”
The former GOP presidential nominee said he will let the nomination move forward, in part, because “the president, I think, has the right to choose his team around him — particularly as far as military advisers are concerned.”
But McCain made clear he continues to have grave concerns about Dempsey remaining President Barack Obama’s top military adviser. Specifically, McCain served up a harsh critique of Dempsey’s detailed answers to questions he and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., asked the general in a letter last week about a Syria intervention mission.
Dempsey responded in a letter that arrived Monday on Capitol Hill. Dempsey’s answer raised eyebrows in Washington due to its massive cost projections and description of complex military operations that would require “hundreds” of American combat platforms.
According to the Joint Chiefs chairman, options for a Syria operation — depending on the type of mission — would cost $500 million to $1 billion per month. What’s more, an intervention would require Washington to deploy “hundreds of ground- and sea-based aircraft, intelligence and electronic warfare support, and enablers for refueling and communications.”
The implication: A force stressed from more than a decade at war in harsh desert and mountainous environments would be further stressed as the sequestration era begins.
McCain sharply dismissed Dempsey’s Syria projections — and, as he has for more than a week, the general’s military judgment.
“Of course, [Dempsey’s] answers are most disappointing because it has nothing to do with the realities of the challenges we face. He basically describes a scenario where it’s impossible to intervene, and that’s not true,” McCain told reporters. “The status quo is not acceptable, and that is that [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad is winning this battle.”
Independent international groups say around 100,000 people have died in the Syrian civil conflict. A higher number of refugees have fled to other Middle East nations, and some lawmakers and experts warn that could cause new problems in an always-volatile region.
McCain said he is “disappointed” in Dempsey’s letter, adding: “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
To that end, McCain took yet another swipe at Dempsey’s military acumen.
“This assessment that Gen. Dempsey gave is beyond anything that any rational military thinker that I know would contemplate,” the senator said. That’s because “the dimensions of the challenge are far different than what Gen. Dempsey describes,” McCain added.
“The Israelis have just shown on four different occasions they can take out targets inside Syria that are being transported to Hezbollah,” McCain said, boldly accusing Dempsey of describing only missions that hardly anyone in Washington would support.
“How come the Israelis can do it without quote, hundreds and hundreds of aircraft and submarines and all that?” McCain asked rhetorically. “What Gen. Dempsey is doing is portraying a scenario that, obviously, no one could contemplate.”
Uncharacteristically, McCain even challenged reporters about whether he ever threatened to hold the nomination — despite saying he would try to block it “before, during and after,” according to reports.
“I didn’t say that. I said I was very concerned about ... his nomination,” McCain said. “I will do everything in my power to change the administration’s policy, including meeting with the secretary of state yesterday and meeting with the president last week.”
McCain told Defense News he will not privately lobby his colleagues to vote against Dempsey’s nomination: “I’ve never lobbied my colleagues on any issue.”