Dempsey's Reconfirmation Will Shine Spotlight on Foreign Policy

Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the military’s top officer, is up for confirmation for another two-year term at an awkward time for the Obama administration, as it wrestles with its response to unrest abroad and steep cuts to defense spending at home.

Dempsey, a largely noncontroversial figure, will almost certainly be rewarded with another two years as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But his confirmation hearing this week before the Senate Armed Services Committee will likely be a bumpy ride with senators grilling the four-star Army officer on his track record, as well as the administration’s plans and priorities.

The hearing will, in short, give members of the committee — particularly Republicans — an opportunity to challenge the White House’s national security strategy and grill the officer that has the president’s ear.

“Any chief of staff when they’re renominated, you sort of have to go back through the process, now they have a track record,” said Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, a senior member of the Armed Services panel. “There have been some obviously very difficult decisions that have been made during his tenure. There have been some that I agree with, some that I disagree with.”

The civil war in Syria — and the cautious response Dempsey has advocated — will undoubtedly take center stage during the Thursday hearing.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a vocal Republican on both the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, has already said he has many questions about what he considers to be Dempsey’s “flawed leadership,” particularly on advice he’s given to the president and statements he has made before Congress.

McCain, who has pushed the administration to be more aggressive in aiding the Syrian rebels to oust strongman Bashar al-Assad, listed Syria as a top concern.

Unlike McCain, Dempsey has steadfastly resisted pressure to take action against Assad, cautioning that military options will not necessarily resolve the conflict and could ultimately prove too risky. For instance, he has noted that establishing a no-fly zone, as some on Capitol Hill have urged the White House to seriously consider, would be difficult and amount to an act of war.

“I’d like to understand the plan to make peace before we start a war,” Dempsey told reporters on June 26.

President Barack Obama’s secret plan to send small arms to carefully vetted Syrian rebels has divided Capitol Hill, and lawmakers have been demanding more details. Some, like McCain, have been pushing publicly for this kind of support for the Syrian rebels for months. Others, however, are worried the weapons could end up in the wrong hands.

Even Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., has called for the administration to do more, including expanding training of Syrian rebels and possible coalition airstrikes against Syrian warplanes, helicopters, tanks and artillery to degrade Assad’s military advantage over the rebels.

Last week, Levin said he didn’t want to “pretend that I’m anywhere in the same category as Gen. Dempsey, who has tremendous respect, by the way, on the Hill.” But Levin stood his ground and said he believes standoff weapons can make a difference in Syria, lining up a potential clash with Dempsey during the hearing.

Levin and Angus King, an independent from Maine and an Armed Services member, have also issued a statement asking the administration to call an international meeting with countries that support the Syrian rebels to “develop specific options and plans for a range of contingencies.”

Aside from Syria, Dempsey will likely get targeted questioning from members of the panel on the unrest in Egypt and the apparent decision to keep $1.3 billion in military aid flowing to the country, despite this month’s power change in Cairo.

Exiting Afghanistan?

Afghanistan will similarly factor large during the hearing, with questions abounding on the White House’s exit strategy there following a report last week that the administration was considering removing all troops after 2014.

Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he has problems with the “ zero option” and would prefer to keep 16,000 troops in the country after the war’s official end. And some Democrats on the committee have voiced concerns about even discussing that possibility.

A U.S. troop commitment after 2014 “needs to be made clearly and it needs to be made now,” Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said at a hearing on Afghanistan policy July 11. The public discussion of the zero option is “very damaging,” Kaine added.

But even lawmakers who have long been skeptical about the administration’s national security policies and strategies signaled they are inclined to ultimately support Dempsey’s confirmation.

After a lengthy meeting with Dempsey recently, Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire said she does not share McCain’s concerns and believes Dempsey is qualified to continue in his post. Nonetheless, she said she will use the hearing to get answers to lingering questions.

“There’s so much happening in the world right now that there will be issues that I will raise with him,” Ayotte said.

Similarly, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said he has “great concerns” about the administration’s national security strategy and will use the hearing to address those with Dempsey. Graham called Dempsey a “good man” and said he is inclined to support his confirmation.

“This is the president’s choice,” Graham said. “He has served our country for a very long time.”

Even McCain signaled recently that he could ultimately vote to approve Dempsey, who was first confirmed to the post by a unanimous voice vote in 2011.

“I still have concerns, still have questions, we’ll go through the normal process,” McCain said Monday evening.