Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, holds up a photo July 18 of a deployed American soldier as he testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee at his reappointment hearing. Dempsey said during congressional testimony Thursday that he has provided President Obama with options for the use of force in Syria. (J. Scott Applewhite / AP)
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 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!"
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 Carl Levin, D-Mich., the committee chairman, 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.
The Senate committee is considering Dempsey's and Winnefeld's nominations for second terms in their posts.
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 and dense. 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.
Dempsey's first term as chairman has been a turbulent one with the military drawing down from lengthy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, he has had to deal with billions of dollars in budget cuts that have threatened military readiness, the epidemic of sexual assaults in the ranks, the crisis in Syria, and most recently unrest in Egypt.
Associated Press writers Robert Burns and Bradley Klapper contributed to this report.