WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain said Thursday he will block Army Gen. Martin Dempsey's nomination for a second term as Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman due to his dissatisfaction with the officer's responses to questions about the potential use of U.S. military power in Syria.
McCain, R-Ariz., pressed Dempsey during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee to provide his personal opinion on which approach in Syria carries greater risk for U.S. national security interests: continued limited action on the part of Washington, or more significant steps such as establishment of a no-fly zone and arming rebel forces with the weapons they need to stem the advance of President Bashar Assad's forces.
Dempsey said he has provided President Barack Obama with options for the use of military force, but he declined to detail those choices. "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," Dempsey said.
During a testy exchange with McCain, Dempsey said he would "let this committee know what my recommendations are at the appropriate time."
Dempsey's response, McCain said, contradicted his commitment to provide the committee with his personal views, even if those opinions differ from the administration in power.
McCain told reporters after leaving the hearing room that he planned to put a hold on the nomination, essentially blocking any further action until he gets an adequate response from Dempsey.
"I want to see him answer the question," McCain said. "Hello!"
Seeking a compromise, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the committee chairman, asked Dempsey to provide the panel by early next week with an unclassified list of options and the general's assessment of the pros and cons of each. Levin made clear he is not asking Dempsey to share his personal opinion on whether or not to use force in Syria. Dempsey agreed to provide the list.
Levin said he hoped the assessment from Dempsey would give McCain "greater reassurance."
"I don't know if it will, but that was the way in which I think a legitimate issue needs to be addressed," Levin told reporters.
The situation in Syria, where a civil war has killed almost 93,000 people, figured prominently at Thursday's hearing amid an increasing clamor among Assad's opposition for active U.S. involvement.
Senators including Levin and McCain have pressed Obama to take a more forceful approach to defeat Assad's forces. While the administration has authorized lethal aid to rebel forces, it isn't trying to enforce a no-fly zone in which Syria's combat aircraft would be barred from flying, or otherwise intervene militarily.
"Senator, I am in favor of building a moderate opposition and supporting it," Dempsey told McCain. "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."
The use of kinetic strikes, a military term that typically refers to missiles and bombs, "is under deliberation inside of our agencies of government," Dempsey said.
Asked about Dempsey's comments, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama always asks his military commanders for options "and that is true in an arena like Syria." He said the president is constantly reviewing U.S. options in Syria.
"There are a whole range of options that are out there," Navy Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said of the planning for military action in Syria. "We are ready to act if we're called on to act."
Dempsey acknowledged in response to a question from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., that Assad's forces have the upper hand.
"Currently the tide seems to have shifted in his favor," the general said.
Graham said after the hearing that McCain's question deserves an answer. "I'm prepared to vote for Gen. Dempsey, but I think the question Sen. McCain asked needs to be answered," he said. "I think Sen. Levin gave Gen. Dempsey a chance to do it."
The Senate committee is considering Dempsey's and Winnefeld's nominations for second terms in their posts.
Air Force Col. Ed Thomas, Dempsey's spokesman, said the chairman "respects the confirmation process and, if confirmed for another two-year term, will be honored to serve at the pleasure of the president and with the consent of Congress."
To avoid getting drawn deeper into Syria's civil war, administration officials have pointed to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 as an example of what can go wrong when America's military becomes involved in Middle East conflicts.
During his exchange with McCain, Dempsey said "situations can be made worse by the introduction of military force" without first understanding how the country would continue to govern and ensuring that government institutions don't fail.
Dempsey said last month at a Pentagon news conference that establishing a no-fly zone would be difficult because Syria's air defense system is sophisticated. He also cautioned that taking such a step is essentially an act of war.
"I'd like to understand the plan to make peace before we start a war," Dempsey told reporters.