It’s not often that a testy exchange at a hearing, followed by a senator’s statement that he would put a hold on the nomination until he got an adequate answer to his question, opens a window to a fundamental issue in our democracy. And a timely one.
Two days after brokering a deal to avoid the senatorial “nuclear option” — an effort by the majority to strip the minority of their filibuster rights by agreeing to a compromise that in grade school might win you an extra few minutes of recess and in Washington leads to accolades of utter disbelief at such good will — Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., announced that he intended to put a hold on the nomination of Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey to serve another two-year term. The reason was Dempsey’s refusal to answer McCain’s question — or rather, to give him the kind of answer he wanted.
The question was this: “Do you believe the continued costs and risks of our inaction in Syria are now worse for our national security interests than the costs and risks associated with limited military action?”
The answer was this: “I am in favor of building a moderate opposition and supporting it. 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.”
In other words, it is President Barack Obama’s decision whether to use military force, and the man McCain called his “sole military adviser” refused to say what option the military favored.
In this instance, it is clear why McCain was so frustrated. He went to Syria and met with the rebel forces. McCain favors stronger military action. He is looking for (and maybe believes he has, if he were to speak freely) a supporter and an ally in Dempsey, a voice at the table advocating for and not merely explaining the military option.
He is frustrated that the most powerful military man in the United States is so careful, reticent, reluctant to throw his power around.
Talk about a miracle.
I’m not arguing that civilian control of the military ultimately turns on how Dempsey frames his analysis of the military options in Syria. Indeed, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, seemed to have come up with a compromise by the end, when he announced that Dempsey would return in the future to discuss with the committee the pros, cons and costs. Said Levin: “If you’ll do that, it may be a step that would be a constructive, positive step.”
I expect he will do that. I expect this particular dispute will be resolved.
But the fact that it could be a dispute at all is one of those minor miracles of democracy and the rule of law that is easy to forget in our collective disgust with the day-to-day operations of our government.
We live in a country where the most powerful military man actually (if you share McCain’s view) has to be encouraged to take a strong position on whether the nation should resort to a military option.
Name one other country in the world where that is a “problem.”
Meanwhile, a majority in the Senate was in fact able to craft a deal to address the problem of stalled nominees (for as long as two years), which should not have been a problem in the first place. But, hey, we are still talking about Washington, D.C., in 2013.
— Susan Estrich is a best-selling author, the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.