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McCain threatens to hold up Gen. Dempsey’s Joint Chiefs reappointment

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appears before the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

WASHINGTON -- The debate over U.S. intervention in Syria threatened to derail the confirmation of America’s top military officer Thursday when a senior Republican senator vowed to block Army Gen. Martin Dempsey’s second-term appointment as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) will hold up the nomination “until he gets answers to the legitimate questions he asked of Gen. Dempsey on Syria,” McCain spokesman Brian Rogers said after McCain and Dempsey clashed during a confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

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McCain expressed frustration with the general’s testimony regarding the possibility of launching airstrikes to bolster beleaguered rebel forces in the Syrian civil war. The general acknowledged that the Pentagon had drafted plans for “direct kinetic strikes” and President Obama was weighing the military options.

But Dempsey refused to offer his personal views, saying the president would make the final decision on use of force.

McCain unsuccessfully pushed the general to give his opinion, asking, “Do you think we ought to see how we could stop the war by intervening and stopping the massacre?”

In a heated exchange, Dempsey said he would “let this committee know what my recommendations are at the appropriate time, yes, sir.”

“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,” Dempsey said. “That issue is under deliberation inside of our agencies of government, and 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.”

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McCain accused Dempsey of shifting his public position on intervention and performing “pirouettes” in his testimony to Congress.

Dempsey rejected that characterization, saying the administration had “adapted our approach based on what we know of the opposition.”

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Later in his testimony, Dempsey acknowledged that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces had strengthened his position in recent months. “Currently the tide seems to have shifted in his favor,” he said.

McCain has long urged the administration to deepen its military involvement in Syria, where more than two years of fighting between security forces and an array of rebel militias have left as many as 100,000 people dead.

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The Obama administration said last month that it would provide weapons and ammunition to opposition forces, although the White House has refused to provide details on the precise nature and scope of its military support.

Obama has explicitly ruled out sending ground troops, but administration officials have said that nearly all other military options remain under consideration. Obama also has suggested that a establishing a no-fly zone would be difficult and ineffective.

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White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Thursday that the president was “constantly reviewing our options in Syria” and evaluating a “changing situation there in terms of what’s in our national interest and what is the best way to help the Syrian people and the Syrian opposition.”

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