Pentagon, Conservative Worldviews Clash on House Floor

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Pentagon, Conservative Worldviews Clash on House Floor

The dramatic clash in worldviews between the American national security establishment and conservative leadership is on display as the House debates its yearly authorization bill, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Provisions restoring cut programs and bringing back failed policy proposals to keep Guantanamo open, build East Coast missile defense, retain nuclear weapons and prepare to build new ones amount to a comprehensive rejection of recent years’ consensus among national security leaders, as well as the Pentagon’s own guidance on how best to pair defense strategy and spending while rebalancing our national power.

The House version of the NDAA breaks last summer’s bipartisan budget deal to fund weapons the Pentagon doesn’t want and that don’t fit within the new defense strategy. As The Hill reports, “The veto threat also conditionally extends to the overall size of the bill, which is $3.7 billion above President Obama’s request and $8 billion higher than the Budget Control Act spending caps.”  Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey pointed out earlier this year that reducing the rate of growth in the defense budget – as mandated by the bipartisan Budget Control Act – will help rebalance our national power and increase our security: “Our grand strategy is being renegotiated in terms of outcomes in the face of the nation’s budget crisis, it’s because, truly, we are only as strong as those three pillars – diplomatic, military and economic – can interrelate with each other to achieve a common outcome. And if one of those pillars is weakened, they’re all weakened. So it makes no sense for us as a nation to have an extraordinarily capable military instrument of power if we are economically disadvantaged around the world. So we’ve got to rebalance ourselves.”

The House bill also restores funding for weapons systems the Pentagon says it is ready to retire, including several types of transport aircraft and the Global Hawk drone. It also rejects cost-savings measures, including modest increases to fees for military healthcare and a new round of military base closures. As former Assistant Secretary of Defense Doug Wilson pointed out Monday, every dollar Congress spends on non-priority items steals scarce resources from the higher-priority needs of troops on the ground: “Additional monies given to the Pentagon for weapons that have not been requested by the civilian leadership and have not been requested by the military leadership are monies that are going to come out of things like force structure, they’re going to come out of investment and technology, they’re going to come out of national security needs.” [The Hill, 5/15/12. Martin Dempsey, 1/12/12. Doug Wilson, 5/14/12]

Failed, rejected “policy zombies” – East Coast missile defense, endless Guantanamo, new nuclear weapons – return to life in NDAA language; experts oppose. Beyond the budgetary issues, senior military and national security experts, along with the White House, are raising concerns about attempts in the bill to legislate a missile defense shield the Pentagon doesn’t want; develop nuclear materials our deterrence theorists don’t believe we need; and keep terrorism suspects – at Guantanamo currently and into the future – locked away from the courts that have been most effective in punishing them for their deeds and showcasing to the world the how strong and sturdy our society is.

Mandating “one-size-fits-all” treatment of terror suspects, over objections of Pentagon, FBI, CIA. Counterterrorism and civil liberties experts on the right and left united to oppose provisions in last year’s NDAA that sought to keep all terror suspects out of civilian courts. This year, those provisions are back. Yesterday, the White House issued a veto threat over provisions that would “continue and in some cases expand unwise restrictions that would constrain the flexibility that our Nation’s armed forces and counterterrorism professionals need to deal with evolving threats… [and] unnecessarily renew, supplement, or enhance the restrictions on the transfer of Guantanamo detainees into the United States or a foreign country.” [White House SAP, 5/15/12]

National security experts have repeatedly gone on the record in support of this approach to counterterrorism:

  • Major General Paul Eaton (ret), senior adviser, National Security Network. “The armed forces are not staffed, trained or equipped to do what our men and women in blue do very well. Our police, FBI and prison system are designed to keep America safe from criminals – a category that includes terrorists. The NDAA provisions do the opposite of making us safer. Our military, interrogation, intelligence and law enforcement leaders have repeatedly expressed their concerns.” [Paul Eaton, 11/29/11]
  • John Brennan, a career CIA officer and current White House counterterrorism advisor. “The prison at Guantánamo Bay undermines our national security, and our nation will be more secure the day when that prison is finally and responsibly closed.” [John Brennan, 9/16/11]

Build nuclear weapons like it’s 1979? As William Hartung of the Center for International Policy writes, “There have been so many bad proposals on defense issues thrown around in the House of Representatives lately it’s hard to know where to start. Build a costly, unworkable missile defense system on the East Coast? Check. Try to undermine the President’s ability to implement the New START treaty, which calls for mutual reductions in U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenal? Check. Fund a new facility to increase capabilities to make plutonium components of nuclear warheads? Check. All of these proposals – advanced under the ‘leadership’ of Rep. Michael Turner (R-OH) – would take us back to the worst days of the Cold War, when political posturing and inflated fears drove a dangerous, costly, and counterproductive arms race. It’s as if the last three decades of nuclear arms reductions – begun under the Republican right’s favorite icon, Ronald Reagan – had never occurred. Or that we didn’t have record deficits. Or that our most urgent security threats didn’t involve stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, not keeping open the possibility of building more.”

  • Today’s threats don’t require an East Coast missile defense field. Gen. Charles Jacoby, head of U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, told Congress earlier this year, “Today’s threats do not require an East Coast missile field, and we do not have plans to do so.” [Charles Jacoby via AP, 5/9/12]
  • Proposals to block the implementation of “New START” nuclear weapons cuts agreed with Russia, to increase our ability to build plutonium weapons components, and to undermine worker safety while doing so fly in the face of 21st-century security strategy. As The Hill reports, “On nuclear issues… the administration took issue with attempts to limit its efforts to implement the New START treaty and reduce its nuclear stockpile, as the bill would ‘set onerous conditions on the president’s ability to retire, dismantle, or eliminate non-deployed nuclear weapons.’” Those conditions are misguided.

Yesterday, as the New York Times reports, “Gen. James E. Cartwright, the retired vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a former commander of the United States’ nuclear forces, is adding his voice to those who are calling for a drastic reduction in the number of nuclear warheads below the levels set by agreements with Russia. General Cartwright said that the United States’ nuclear deterrence could be guaranteed with a total arsenal of 900 warheads, and with only half of them deployed at any one time. Even those in the field would be taken off hair triggers, requiring 24 to 72 hours for launching, to reduce the chance of accidental war. That arsenal would be a significant cut from the current agreement to limit Russia and the United States to 1,550 deployed warheads each, down from 2,200, within six years. Under the New Start agreement, thousands more warheads can be kept in storage as a backup force, and the restrictions do not apply to hundreds of short-range nuclear weapons in the American and Russian arsenals. The proposals are contained in a report to be issued Wednesday by Global Zero, a nuclear policy organization, signed by General Cartwright and several senior national security figures, including Richard Burt, a former chief nuclear arms negotiator; Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska; Thomas R. Pickering, a former ambassador to Russia; and Gen. John J. Sheehan, who held senior NATO positions before retiring from active duty.” [The Hill, 5/15/12. William Hartung, 5/15/12. NY Times, 5/15/12]

What We’re Reading

Libyan Islamist commander Abdel Hakim Belhadj has resigned his military position in order to pursue a political career.

Al Qaeda’s leader released an audio address intended to shift public opinion against Yemen’s new president, accusing him of aligning with the U.S. 

Iran reported that it executed a man accused of being an Israeli intelligence agent who was behind the assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist.

Pakistan has confirmed its president will attend a summit of NATO leaders in Chicago as negotiations with U.S. to reopen supply lines into Afghanistan continue.

The Philippines may proceed to buy two squadrons of military jets, reportedly for as much as $1.6 billion, as the country aims to modernize its defenses.

Former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic went on trial for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity from the Bosnian war in the 1990s.

Greek political leaders announced that they had proven unable to form a government. 

As the leaders of Europe’s two largest economies, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande contend with Europe’s aggravated debt crisis and their conflicting approaches to resolving it.

A man set himself on fire and tried to enter into the Norwegian courthouse where suspected shooter Anders Behring Breivik is on trial for killing 77 people last summer.

The operations chief of Argentina’s Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo human rights group has been detained on charges of embezzlement and criminal conspiracy.

Commentary of the Day

James Dobbins, Dalia Dassa Kaye, Alireza Nader and Frederic Wehrey argue diplomacy and economic sanctions are the better option to prevent the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran, that Israeli security will be best served by military restraint and greater U.S.-Israeli cooperation, and that the Iranian people offer the surest hope for a future Iran that is more amenable to U.S. interests.

Andres Oppenheimer suggests that starting under President George W. Bush, the U.S. has lost some of its former economic clout in Latin America, but the trends are not irreversible.

Howard Schneider and Anthony Faiola claim that due to political deadlock, Greece may abandon the Euro.

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