McCain Slams Marine Commandant Nominee on Iraq and Arming Recruiters

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller. Cliff Owen/AP
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller. Cliff Owen/AP

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., slammed the views of the nominee to be the next Marine commandant, Lt. Gen. Robert Neller, on arming recruiters and putting JTACs forward in Iraq.

McCain ended the Senate Armed Services Committee nomination hearing by ripping into Neller, who testified that he had reservations about arming recruiters in response to the Chattanooga shootings earlier this month in which four Marines and a sailor were killed.

"You know what happened in that recruiting station," McCain told Neller. "The guy walked up to the door and shot four Marines. That was in the media. I'm sure, no matter what job you're holding, you knew that, didn't you? Then shouldn't we have been able to have those Marines defend themselves?"

"Yes, they should've been able to defend themselves," said Neller, who appeared taken aback by McCain's angry outburst. Earlier, Neller said "I think we need to take a look at it" when asked about arming recruiters, but stressed that "we need to stay connected to the American people."

Last Friday, McCain and Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Tex., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, issued a joint statement saying they were crafting legislation to allow the arming of recruiters and also giving post commanders the authority to allow the carrying of personal weapons on base.

McCain also went after Neller on Iraq, interrupting Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who was grilling Neller with a series of rapid-fire questions on Iraq, Syria, Iran and whether ISIS was targeting Americans in the U.S. "I'm not aware that they've specifically targeted American individuals," Neller said.

"General, you're not answering the senator's questions," said McCain, who went on to engage Neller on Iraq and the use of U.S. Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs) on the front lines in Iraq to guide airstrikes.

McCain accused Neller of trying to give a "scholastic answer" on JTACs and said "you know full well as I do – forward controllers make the difference. This line about they're the ones (the Iraqis) that have to do it for themselves – general, they can't do it themselves. We know that. That's why they're losing."

McCain asked: "Maybe you can tell me what we're doing that will win against ISIS. Can you tell me that?"

"Senator, what we're doing, I believe, is providing advisor teams and support," Neller began to say.

McCain cut him off: "And that's succeeding?"

"It stemmed the tide against ISIS, but it is not removing them from Iraq," Neller said.

"So you believe that ISIS is losing?"

"No sir, I do not."

"Do you believe they're winning?

"No, sir," said Neller. "I don't believe they're winning either, I believe they're at a stalemate."

McCain also made a rare reference to his son, James McCain, who served as an enlisted Marine in Iraq's Anbar province, in summing up his differences with Neller.

Fallujah and Ramadi

"General, if you think we're doing what we need do in Iraq and Syria, then we have a real strong and different view of the situation there," McCain said. "We lost too many good Marines in the battles of Fallujah and Ramadi. One of my sons fought there. For us to say we're doing what we need to do is not in keeping with the sacrifice those brave young people made."

McCain sought to adjourn the hearing but Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., the ranking Democrat on the Committee, interjected in Neller's defense: "I don't think anyone understands the sacrifices the Marines made in Iraq better than General Neller. I think, I certainly think, that there's no one who feels more deeply about the situation in Iraq."

McCain swept up his papers and quickly left the hearing room while Reed went to the witness table to confer with Neller.

It was not immediately clear whether McCain would put a hold on Neller's nomination, as he has done previously with Obama administration defense nominees. McCain said he would be submitting additional questions in writing for Neller to answer.

Before the exchanges with McCain, the questioning had been cordial and formulaic, and Neller had appeared headed to easy confirmation as the 37th Marine commandant, succeeding Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford. The committee announced Thursday that Dunford's nomination to succeed Army Gen. Martin Dempsey as the next Joint Chiefs chairman had been forwarded to the full Senate for a vote.

The 62-year-old Neller, an infantry officer who now serves as head of Marine Corps Forces Command in Norfolk, Va., was commissioned in the Marines in 1975 after graduating from the University of Virginia.

Neller, who grew up in East Lansing, Mich., also has a master's degree in Human Resource Management from Pepperdine University.

Neller has been a rifle platoon and company leader and participated in Operation Just Cause in Panama in 1989 and in Operation Restore Hope in Somalia in the 1990s.

Other assignments included recruiting and director of the Special Training Division at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego. He has also served as a tactics instructor at The Basic School in Quantico, Va., and as a Staff Officer in the Policy Division of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) in Belgium.

As deputy commanding general (Operations) of I Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward), Neller served in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2005-2007.

In his testimony, Neller expressed concerns about the rebalance of forces to the Pacific and the plan as part of the rebalance to reposition thousands of Marines now on Okinawa to Guam and Hawaii. Neller said the Marines might then not have enough amphibious ships to respond quickly in an emergency.

"Our ability to move forces – that's going to be the hard part," Neller said. "The strategic lift is kind of the long pole in that tent. I'm concerned particularly about grey-hulled strategic lift."

Neller also said "we haven't given up" on eventually getting a new amphibious landing vehicle that can operate from over the horizon in bringing Marines from ships to the beach. "The current tractor is over 40 years old," Neller said of the AAV-P7/A1 Amphibious Assault Vehicle now in the inventory.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at richard.sisk@military.com

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