Marine Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser today received assurance by Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) of a quick approval of his nomination to become commander of U.S. Africa Command, but only after McCain used him as a conduit for a harsh attack on President Barack Obama’s policies in Libya.
McCain opened his questions to Waldhauser today by declaring that the current chaotic situation in Libya was due to the “abject, total failure on the part of this government and this president.”
The Arizona Republican said the U.S.-led coalition took out former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 without the loss of a single aircraft or personnel, “then walked away” and never provided any support for the forces that tried to run the country after Gaddafi’s death.
“We are paying a heavy price,” McCain said, with a weak United Nations-recognized government in Tripoli battling a strong ISIS presence and several dissident militias for control of the north African nation.
“You are handed a can of worms,” the chairman said, asking Waldhauser how we could handle the situation.
Waldhauser acknowledged that the situation in Libya was “very complex” and the United States had “two significant objectives” – to get the recognized government up and running, and to combat the spread of ISIS. He said the government was “making very slow progress,” but would take a long time to establish control over the country. The government forces have “made some progress” in the fight against ISIS, having surrounded the terrorists’ stronghold of Sirte but not pushing into the city. He also noted that the government’s alliances with the various tribal militias “comes and goes.”
Waldhauser, currently the director for joint force development for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was named by Obama to replace Army Gen. David Rodriguez as head of the newest of the geographic combatant commands. The 62-year old career infantry officer has led Marines in combat in Operation Desert Storm, then later in Afghanistan and Iraq. He has commanded the 1st Marine Division and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and was commanding general of Marine Forces Central Command.
In that last position, Waldhauser clashed with then-commandant Gen. James Amos over what he said was Amos’ insistence that the members of a Marine sniper platoon videoed urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters “be crushed.” Amos denied making that statement and removed Waldhauser from supervising the investigation into the incident.
If confirmed, Waldhauser would be promoted to general, giving the Marines four four-star officers.
Under questions from McCain, Waldhauser said AFRICOM is an “economy of force” command with limited resources to carry out its primary missions of building partner capacity by training and advising friendly national forces in Africa. In addition to the thousands of ISIS fighters in Libya and some neighboring nations, he cited the threat of al Shabab terrorists in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria and other small extremist groups. He said his primary need would be additional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets to help the local forces AFRICOM supports.
Pressured by McCain, Waldhauser said he did not know of any “overall grand strategy” to counter the diverse threats in Africa.
In response to questions from other committee members, Waldhauser said it was “important to our national security that we have a stable, secure Africa,” which require U.S. forces to counter the extremists’ efforts to spread instability. “It’s important to us that we continue those activities to ensure they don’t spread outside those countries” and affect US interests.
Questioned by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on what authority he would have to take action against ISIS or other threats, Waldhauser said action could come only from “presidential directives.”
“AFRICOM has some authority, but not to go after ISIS on its own. It would be good to have that authority,” he said.
Waldhauser also predicted that ISIS was “likely to grow in Africa” if it is defeated in its current strongholds in Syria and Iraq.
Graham called that “the strongest testimony I’ve heard in this committee. I look forward to supporting your nomination.”
Other committee members from both parties also expressed their support for Waldhauser’s nomination. And at the end, McCain did as well and said he wanted to see him confirmed before Congress goes on its next recess.
McCain gave the same assurance to Air Force Lt. Gen. Joseph Lengyel, the current deputy chief of the National Guard Bureau nominated to be the next chief, who also appeared before the committee.