McCain: Vice Chair of Joint Chiefs' Answer at Hearing One of ‘More Embarrassing Statements I've Ever Heard’

December 9, 2015

Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) lambasted the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Thursday for his answer to a question on implementing no-fly zones in Syria, calling the response "embarrassing."

Vice Chairman Gen. Paul Selva's answer to a question posed by Sen. Roger Wicker (R., Miss.) is what triggered the criticism. Wicker asked Selva, who was testifying alongside Secretary of Defense Ash Carter on the fight to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, whether the United States currently has the capabilities to put into effect a no-fly zone over parts of Syria.

Selva confirmed that the U.S. has the "military capacity to impose a no-fly zone," but said the Pentagon has not recommended doing so out of fear of a potential escalation in conflict through "miscalculation" with Russian and Syrian armed forces in the air.

"Are we willing to engage a direct conflict with the Syrian integrated air defense system or Syrian forces, or by corollary, a miscalculation with the Russians should they choose to contest the no-fly zone?’ Selva asked.

He explained that the military has thought about these possibilities and the potential "for loss of American life in the air in an effort to defend the no-fly zone," concluding that such a move is not warranted.

The Vice Chairman also cited the political situation on the ground as reason not to implement a no-fly zone, saying that if one was imposed, ground forces "would still contest the safe zone on the ground."

Selva's response echoed the Secretary of Defense's answer to the same question, who argued the costs of such an endeavor would outweigh the benefits.

Before McCain made his statement, Wicker gave a rebuttal to Selva's answer. Wicker said he believes a no-fly zone would have helped the U.S. and Europe by mitigating the Syrian refugee crisis by giving Syrians a place to flee to in their own country.

McCain then addressed Selva directly, saying, "General, I must say, that's one of the more embarrassing statements I've ever heard from a uniformed military officer, that we are worried about Syria and Russia's reaction to saving the lives of thousands and thousands of Syrians who are being barrel bombed and massacred—so far, 240,000 of them."

"Remarkable performance," McCain said sarcastically.

Implementing a no-fly or safe zone over parts of Syria has been a centerpiece of the policy debate in Washington over how to fight the Islamic State and weaken Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The idea of putting a no-fly zone into effect has received bipartisan support from many analysts and politicians, and Republican presidential candidates and Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton have both called for such a move.

They argue no-fly zones would help create safe havens on the ground to be humanitarian centers for those have been forced from their homes and a place to train moderate Sunni rebels to fight the Islamic State.

The Obama administration has rejected imposing no-fly zones, arguing for deconfliction with the Russians instead and emphasizing the ongoing diplomatic process to lead to a political transition in Syria.

The president himself has called the prospect of no-fly zones and other proposals to alter his strategy "mumbo jumbo" and "half-baked ideas."