The Cable

Marine General Pushes John McCain’s Buttons on Islamic State

Arizona Senator wants more information from the Marine three-star general.

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 23:  Lt. Gen. Robert Neller takes his seat during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee July 23, 2015 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Neller, who commanded troops in Iraq from 2005 to 2007, is the Obama Administration's choice to succeed Gen. Joseph Dunford as 37th commandant of the Marine Corps.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 23: Lt. Gen. Robert Neller takes his seat during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee July 23, 2015 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Neller, who commanded troops in Iraq from 2005 to 2007, is the Obama Administration's choice to succeed Gen. Joseph Dunford as 37th commandant of the Marine Corps. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Sen. John McCain unexpectedly ripped into the nominee to be the next commandant of the Marine Corps on Thursday morning, telling him at the close of his nomination hearing, “I’m very disappointed in a number of your answers” on the Islamic State.

Marine Lt. Gen. Robert Neller was on the Hill to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee in his bid to replace the current commandant, Gen. Joseph Dunford, who has been tapped to be the next Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman.

But Neller’s answers to a few key questions posed by Sen. Lindsey Graham caused McCain, the panel’s chair, to deliver a lecture about the threat posed by the Islamic State after Neller described the extremist group as being locked “in a stalemate right now” with Iraqi forces and coalition air power.

McCain blasted the general, noting the jihadist group is holding major cities like Ramadi and Fallujah, and dominates huge swaths of land in both Iraq and Syria. The Arizona senator fumed that “I don’t know where you’ve been. Obviously ISIS is winning in Iraq.”

Neller served as the deputy commanding general for operations for a Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq’s Anbar province from 2005 to 2007, a unit which included thousands of Marines spread out across the Sunni-dominated area.

McCain promised to follow up the hearing with more written questions to drill down on the general’s thinking. “We lost too many good Marines in the battle of Fallujah and Ramadi,” McCain told him. “Sen. Graham and I were over there and one of my sons fought there, [so] for us to say we’re doing what we need to, I think frankly is not keeping with the appreciation that we should have for the sacrifice that those brave young people have made.”

Neller also partially broke with a number of top generals recently called to Capitol Hill — including Dunford, his potential deputy, Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, and the nominee to lead the Army, Gen. Mark Milley — who have all called Russia the most serious threat to the United States currently. Neller offered a slightly more nuanced assessment, saying that while Moscow undoubtedly has the greatest military capability out of all potential enemies, “the greatest threat is radical extremism.”

“Right now, I don’t think they want to fight us,” he said. “Violent extremists want to kill us. Their capability is not that great, but their intent is high.” Dunford, Selva, and Milley have all agreed that Russia is an “existential threat” to the United States.

Photo Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Correction, July 23, 2015: Paul Selva is a general in the Air Force. A previous version of this article said he was a Marine general.

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