- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
The two generals nominated to sit atop the Defense Department’s hierarchy agree: President Vladimir Putin’s Russia is the greatest threat facing the United States today.
U.S. Air Force Gen. Paul Selva — President Barack Obama’s pick to be the next vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that he “would put the threats to this nation in the following order: Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and all of the organizations that have grown around ideology that was articulated by al Qaeda,” offering the same list delivered last week by Obama’s nominee to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford.
During his own July 9 confirmation hearing before the same committee, Dunford called Moscow’s recent behavior in Ukraine and in eastern Europe “nothing short of alarming,” adding that “Russia presents the greatest threat to our national security” and “could pose an existential threat to the United States.”
Prodded by Sen. John McCain on why he would place terrorist groups dead last on his list, Selva simply said that they just don’t threaten Americans at home. “Right now, [the Islamic State] does not present a clear and present threat to our homeland and to our nation,” he said.
Russia, on the other hand, takes the first prize because its military might presents an “existential threat to this country should they choose to be,” Selva said.
Speaking on the day that the P5+1 group of nations and Iran reached an agreement to halt Tehran’s nuclear program for at least a decade, Selva also said that sanctions relief and the opening up of over $100 billion in frozen Iranian assets would give the country more resources to fund terrorist groups like Hezbollah — “if it chooses to do so.”
Without getting into detail, he added that the United States needs to “have a range of available options with which to respond” to threats from Iran, should they arise.
In his opening statement, McCain actually flipped Dunford and Selva’s list on its head, saying that the list of national security challenges is led by “the rampage of [the Islamic State]’s terrorist army, Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and support for its destabilizing proxies, revisionist Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and China’s continued military buildup and aggressive behavior toward its neighbors.”
Seated next to Selva during his testimony was Air Force Gen. Darren McDew, who has been tapped to lead U.S. Transportation Command. His take was also slightly different, holding that cyberattacks should rank first in any threat list, since a coordinated attack could bring the transportation infrastructure across the country to a halt.
McDew’s assessment is more in line with comments made by James R. Clapper, director of national intelligence, during his own congressional testimony in February, where he maintained that cyberattacks against the nation’s infrastructure were the biggest threat to the country.
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