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Russia Poses 'Greatest Threat' To U.S., Gen. Dunford Tells Senate Panel


After a two-month wait, General Joe Dunford finally got his job interview today. He's President Obama's choice for the nation's top military officer. Dunford would be the administration's third Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As NPR's David Welna reports, the confirmation hearing left little doubt that he'll get the job.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Over the past year, General Joe Dunford has gone from commanding the U.S. troop drawdown in Afghanistan to taking over as commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, so Dunford's no stranger to being in the hot seat before the Senate Armed Services Committee. In his opening statement, he modestly acknowledged what a big job he was trying out for.


JOE DUNFORD: As I appear before you this morning, I'm mindful of the complexity and volatility of the current security environment.

WELNA: But there's one thing Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton first wanted to clear up with Dunford.


TOM COTTON: It's been reported that your nickname is Fightin' Joe. Is that correct?

DUNFORD: Senator, actually, it's not one I use.

COTTON: But it's one that's been given to you, correct?

DUNFORD: Senator, perhaps by my wife.


WELNA: In fact, Dunford's troops gave him that nickname after he led them in a firefight a dozen years ago while marching on Baghdad. There was not much fighting today though, with his Senate inquisitors. John McCain, the panel's Republican chairman, did press Dunford on the Pentagon's revelation this week that only 60 rebel fighters have been trained in Syria to fight the so-called Islamic State when this year's goal was to train more 5,000 of them.


JOHN MCCAIN: What do you know about that particular situation?

DUNFORD: The feedback I've received is those numbers are largely attributable to the vetting process, that they think they've learned some things during the process of these first 60.

WELNA: McCain pointed out that the U.S. requires those vetted to pledge that they won't fight the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, but it's made no commitment to protect them if they're attacked by that regime.


MCCAIN: Given your experience in the military, do you think it's a good idea to train people and send them into a conflict to be attacked and barrel bombed by another entity and not defending them?

DUNFORD: Chairman, I don't. If we train those individuals and they go back into Syria to fight then I think if we expect them to be successful, we need to provide them with enabling capabilities that will allow them to be successful.

WELNA: Dunford was also grilled on Iraq. Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions said it would make sense to let some of the 3,500 American troops on the ground there go beyond training and advising Iraqi troops, and actually provide them battle support.


JEFF SESSIONS: Isn't it time for us to move forward in that direction?

DUNFORD: Senator, without appearing to be evasive, what I would really like to do, if confirmed, is to have the opportunity to get on the ground, speak to the commanders, and, frankly, provide, you know, a more comprehensive recommendation to how we can move the campaign forward in Iraq without focusing on one or other of the factors.

WELNA: For the most part, Dunford struck a tone of being concerned but noncommittal. One striking exception was when this combat-hardened veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan was asked by West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin...


JOE MANCHIN: What would you consider the greatest threat to our national security?

DUNFORD: My assessment today, Senator, is that Russia presents the greatest threat to our national security.

WELNA: And that's because, Dunford said, Russia's nuclear arsenal poses an existential threat, and its behavior has been, in his words, nothing short of alarming. Chairman McCain pressed Dunford on whether the U.S. should provide Ukraine with antitank missile systems and other armaments to defend against Russian military strikes.


DUNFORD: Chairman, from a military perspective, I think it's reasonable that we provide that support to the Ukrainians. And frankly, without that kind of support then they're not going to be able to protect themselves against Russian aggression.

WELNA: For McCain, who's demanded that the Obama administration provide Ukraine with more military aid, Dunford's answer was just what he wanted to hear. Like most other senators on the panel, McCain spoke to Dunford as if the 59-year-old general had already been confirmed as Joint Chiefs Chairman.


MCCAIN: I'm confident that you will serve with distinction.

WELNA: If he is confirmed, as expected, Dunford would take over the Joint Chiefs Chairmanship October 1. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.

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