Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Offensive Politics Of Defense

Yesterday, the House of Representatives passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for the next fiscal year (here's a summary). With American troops still in combat in Afghanistan and Yemen and Africa, even as the United States faces an historic economic downturn - a situation that no one in a position of authority seems to address in any coherent, comprehensive way - the matter of funding the Department of Defense is of no little concern.

Over the past few years, as the military has disengaged from forward combat operations in Iraq; expanded its role in Yemen and central Africa, sending special operations forces and military advisers to Uganda to pursue international criminal Joseph Kony; begun the readjustment to the full acceptance of open sexual minorities in its ranks; continued large-scale operations in Afghanistan, with multiple forays in to Pakistan including a special forces raid that killed Osama bin Laden; wrestled with on-going problems with some combat systems, most notably the F-22 fighter; struggled to create better standards of care for combat veterans wounded either physically or psychologically in a decade of war; in the midst of all this, there has been an on-going debate, domestically, concerning fiscal probity. The senior officers at the Pentagon understand this reality, and have repeatedly offered plans for near-term and long-term funding that recognize these fiscal and political realities without harming or even threatening our security.

The House Republicans, however, would far prefer to play election-year politics with the Pentagon's budget. While recognizing the realities that there is a political dimension to every budget, as they are as much a statement of priorities and plans as a rundown of spending requests, the document the House passed yesterday deals not at all with the requests the Pentagon has made. For example, it strips further funding from a long-range plan to create jet fuel from bio-fuels, a plan that not only is cost-effective in the long run, but also creates a more effective military capability.
On Monday, the Navy will announce the ships for its demonstration “Great Green Fleet” — an aircraft carrier strike group powered by biolfuels and other green energy sources — but, as reported by Wired’s Danger Room, the House Armed Services Committee is banning the Pentagon from buying alternative fuel that costs more than a “traditional fossil fuel” in its report on next year’s budget. That’s a standard that the upstart biofuel industry will find hard to meet and could well spell the end of the Pentagon’s early efforts to end a dependence on fossil fuels.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey made the case last October that military use of green energy technologies “saves lives” and an Army study in August found “A fighting force that isn’t restricted by the reach of a tanker truck or weighted down by heavy batteries is more nimble and, as a result, more lethal.”
What's hysterically funny about this is it was done in the name of cost savings, in a budget that was eight billion dollars more than the caps set in a budget resolution passed last year by this same Congress. That resolution, however, has been rescinded as the House prepares for an election year game of chicken over spending and the debt ceiling in hopes of making the President look bad. Doing this by spending more money, forcing the Pentagon to scrap a multi-year effort to refit our forces in ways that are both better for the environment and better for the military, should, were ours a more sane country, make clear how little House Republicans care about what the Pentagon wants and doesn't want.

There are many other tidbits in the NDAA, including expanding the powers of indefinite detention of American citizens, a provision that has already been suspended by a federal judge because it is so expansive it violates the First Amendment.

Lost in all of this is any sense that the Republican members of the House of Representatives care a jot or tittle for what the Pentagon might actually want. Were I in a position of authority, I would be spending long hours banging my head against anything solid because it has become impossible in our current political climate to know what is going to be funded and what isn't; whether or not it is possible to deal with contractors on various items because the projects might well simply cease to exist; and, finally, wonder if someone in a position of political power would at least make clear they understand the Pentagon's first priority is the safe and successful completion of our current military operations.

This last would mean that, rather than just spout off whatever nonsense enters their heads about taxes and priorities and on-going threats not only to our troops but to the nation as a whole, Congress would get serious about reordering our fiscal priorities such that they reflected the reality that we are a nation that continues to send tens of thousands of its young men and women in to combat - sometimes with our supposed allies (considering the increasing threat Afghan military forces pose to American troops, including those who are supposed to be training them). If we started any and all our discussions of our fiscal and economic problems with that in the forefront of our minds, we might well have a very different discussion, no less political, but far closer to the realities we face.

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