John McCain Doesn’t Understand What Joint Chief Chairman Does

My first post for DefenseOne, “McCain is Wrong About Dempsey on Syria,” has posted.

The piece is relatively short and defies excerpting. The essence is that McCain wants the chairman of the Joint Chiefs to weigh in on the advisability of intervening in Syria and Dempsey argues that it’s the president’s job to make that call. The nut ‘graph:

Dempsey’s not a political pundit; he’s a uniformed military officer who answers to the elected commander-in-chief.  If he were to articulate the administration’s policy as his own, he would come across as a lapdog, undermining the chairman’s standing as an independent voice. If he were to publicly criticize the administration’s policy, he would undermine civilian control of the military.

Interestingly, as this was going to “press,” another shoe dropped:  Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the committee not only backed McCain’s move but signed a joint letter urging Dempsey’s detailed written response to not only those two questions but several others—including an assessment of the Afghanistan mission.
I’m perplexed that two such seasoned national security professionals are taking this tack.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. C. Clavin says:

    They are both Bozo’s.

  2. legion says:

    Every time I think McCain can’t send his reputation any lower, he opens his mouth again. How can someone with his background not know that a CJCS can’t and shouldn’t answer questions like that?

  3. Ron Beasley says:

    Dempsey should certainly advise the President behind closed doors but disagreement in public would be grounds for termination.

  4. JohnMcC says:

    Well, thank you for leading me to learn a bit more about Gen Dempsey. We in the Tampa area thought we knew him pretty well from his time @ McDill with Central Command. But who knew that he speaks Gaelic and wrote his Masters Thesis about W B Yeats!

    And yeah, my almost-namesake is pretty much a horses pattootie.

  5. Anderson says:

    two such seasoned national security professionals

    What professionals? They’re politicians.

  6. Tillman says:

    Political Grandstanding: Every little soundbite counts, no matter how stupid.

  7. James Joyner says:

    @Anderson: It’s one thing to grandstand against the president, another politician. But the JCS Chairman?

  8. stonetools says:

    I’m sure he’ll take his usual Sunday morning talk show seat to senatorsplain why he thinks Dempsey should be usurping the President’s function. .

  9. Anderson says:

    They’re politicians. They have no principles. (Like Obama.) Harassing Dempsey is another way of getting at Obama. Just a tool.

  10. Dazedandconfused says:

    I think there was some press about Kerry and Dempsey crossing swords a couple weeks ago too.

    These guys want to have a national debate about whether or not we should invest in the Syrian rebels? OK..but I don’t like their odds. I don’t see any evidence of public enthusiasm and they might lose standing. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say they stand to become more aware of their loss of standing. The House just passed something blocking that, didn’t they?

  11. Scot says:

    What is the proper way for congress to get advice and opinions from the military? Is the problem that McCain is asking for a public response or that he is not entitled to know at all?

  12. James Joyner says:

    @Scot: First, he already got Dempsey’s answers in an off-the-record briefing. He’s just trying to force Dempsey to go on-the-record. Second, Congress is entitled to get answers from Dempsey on various questions of military efficacy–the “how” and “whether” issues. That’s not what he’s being asked here. McCain wants the military to weigh in on the “should” question. And, no, sitting officers do not weigh in on those in public.

  13. David in KC says:

    And according to NPR this morning, McCain put a hold on Dempsey’s renomination.