Floor Statements

Washington, D.C. ­– U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, delivered the following opening statement today at a hearing on the reappointment of General Joseph Dunford to be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff:

“The Committee meets this morning to consider the nomination of General Joseph Dunford for reappointment as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“General Dunford, this committee thanks you for your decades of distinguished service to our nation. We are grateful to your wife, Ellyn, for the support that she has always provided to you, and to all who serve our nation in uniform. I would also like to welcome your son, Patrick, who is joining us this morning. I know that your other children, Joe and Kathleen, send their support from afar, even as I bet they are a little relieved that they do not have to sit through your interrogation.

“In order to exercise its legislative and oversight responsibilities, it is important that this Committee and other appropriate committees of the Congress are able to receive testimony, briefings, and other communications of information.

“General Dunford: My colleagues and I will have a lot of questions for you about the many pressing national security challenges we face. But this hearing also offers an opportunity to reflect on some broader topics that have historically, and more recently, been a major focus of this Committee’s efforts—the unique role of the Chairman in our national security structure and the state of civil-military relations.

“As ‘principal military adviser’ to the President, the National Security Council, the Secretary of Defense, and the Congress, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the most important military duty in our nation. The Chairman is the one military officer with the authority to present comprehensive analysis and advice to civilian policymakers, informed by all the military services and combatant commands, and spanning every global and functional issue of national security.

“This responsibility is now more important than ever. Our country faces a multitude of national security challenges, all of which cut across the regional and functional organizations that divide up the Department of Defense. The Chairman is the only military officer with a truly comprehensive perspective on the joint force, on all of the threats we face worldwide, and the interplay between them. That is why this Committee acted last year to clarify the Chairman’s statutory responsibility to advise civilian leaders on the global strategic integration of our military efforts.

“The Chairman’s unique role lends extra gravity to the responsibility that you and every military officer possesses—the responsibility to provide best military advice to civilian leaders. This is not a luxury. It is a duty. It is a duty that military officers owe to the American people, and to the men and women under their command.

“Civilian policymakers, in both the executive and legislative branches, rely on our military professionals to better understand the military dimensions of the national security challenges we face and the options at our disposal for wielding military power effectively. But best military advice does not stop there: Military officers, and especially the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, must tell their civilian superiors what actions they believe are best and right to take—and they must do so honestly, candidly, respectfully but forcefully, whether civilians want to hear it or not. Best military advice may be disregarded, but it must always be given.

“What’s more, in my opinion, best military advice should not be narrowly limited to technical military matters. When the Chairman offers his best military advice, he is not simply offering the best advice about the military, but rather the best advice from the military—and that extends to issues of national security policy, strategy, and operations. For example, the decision to take our nation to war properly rests with civilians. It is a policy question. But military officers should not be prohibited from voicing their advice on such a matter. Indeed, it is their duty to do so.

“Just as we are clear about what constitutes best military advice, we must be equally clear about its limitations. Advice is just that—advice. The Chairman, as principal military advisor, is not in the chain of command. Ours is not a general staff system. In our system, operational command rests with combatant commanders, who report by law to the Secretary of Defense. The Chairman must advise civilian leaders on the military dimensions of strategy, operations, and plans—both within and among our combatant commanders’ areas of responsibility—and it is his right, indeed his responsibility, to provide competing advice to policymakers when he disagrees with combatant commanders. But the Chairman is not an operational commander.

“Similarly, best military advice does not mean independent advice. It occurs in the context of civil-military relations, and I want to say a few words on this in closing.

“Professor Eliot Cohen has described civil-military relations as an unequal dialogue. The civilian and military worlds are not to be dichotomized and held apart. Rather, they must be brought together through an iterative process of discussing, scrutinizing, and refining military strategy, operations, and plans—a process in which civilian leaders must play an active role and make the major decisions. Best military advice is central to this dialogue, but it can never replace it.

“Unfortunately, I sense that this civil-military dialogue has become strained. At times, civilian officials have disrespected military leaders, disregarded their advice on critical military matters, and shirked accountability for their decisions. More recently, civilian oversight and control of the military has morphed into meddling and micromanagement of tactical details for political purposes, which has harmed military effectiveness. The last administration distinguished itself in this regard.

“What we must guard against, General Dunford—especially now, when so many civilian leaders at the Department of Defense are either missing or are themselves recently retired military officers—is an overcorrection. We cannot afford to swing from civilian micromanagement to civilian marginalization. We need to restore balance in civil-military relations—where best military advice is always rendered and received, but is done so as part of a dialogue with civilians who participate actively and have the last word on policy, strategy, operations, and plans.

“This Committee takes its obligations seriously in this regard. The civil-military dialogue does not only occur within the Department of Defense. It occurs between the branches of government as well. That is why the Chairman also serves as the principal military advisor to the Congress. And that is why, as part of the confirmation process, we ask current and future Chairmen, like all military officers, to provide their best personal advice to this Committee, if asked. It is to ensure that the members of this Committee and the full Congress are able to meet our independent constitutional responsibilities to the Americans we serve.

“At present, this Committee, and the Congress more broadly, is not receiving the information and the respect it deserves as a co-equal branch of government. We do not work for the President or the executive branch. We have distinct and equal responsibilities under the Constitution, and the administration needs to understand its obligations to the Congress in this regard. Too often, members of this committee are learning in the media for the first time about major national security and military activities that we, as the committee of oversight, should be told about, and consulted on, in advance. Even now, nearly 10 months into the year, we are told that we have a new strategy for Afghanistan, but members of this committee have far more questions than answers. The administration must do better, and until it does, the Congress and this committee will be forced to use what levers we have to show the administration that we are not, and will not be, a rubber stamp.

“We will have many questions for you, General, and we look forward to your candid, forthright, and best military advice.”