The House Armed Services Committee just passed a defense appropriations bill filled with moral contradictions and illogical absurdities. Consider:
It removes some racist symbols in the military, but preserves Trump’s ability to use the military against anti-racist demonstrators.
It abdicates Congress’ responsibility to declare war, but prevents the executive branch from moving toward peace.
It was passed by elected officials, but gives a single general the ability to overrule an elected branch of government.
It requires officials to state definitively that removing troops won’t harm security interests, but not to say whether keeping them there will—despite the destabilizing and destructive impact of our troop presence to date in the Middle East.
It is supported by deficit hawks, but would result in 50 percent higher military spending than the last Cold War budget.
The Military and Racism
The Committee’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) requires the removal of Confederate names and flags from military bases. That is an unequivocally good and important thing. Most Americans now understand that the Confederacy was a brief and violent insurrection against lawful authority, conducted solely to help a few wealthy people keep holding other people in brutal bondage. Forcing Black servicemembers and civilians to live and work in the presence of these names and symbols was an extension of slavery culture.
But a number of House Democrats joined with Republicans to block restrictions on Trump’s ability (or a future president’s) to use the military against peaceful protestors, as Trump threatened to do against Black Lives Matter protesters in early June of this year. Another Republican, Sen. Tom Cotton (considered a potential presidential candidate) tweeted:
If necessary, (use) the 10th Mountain, 82nd Airborne, 1st Cav, 3rd Infantry—whatever it takes to restore order. No quarter for insurrectionists, anarchists, rioters, and looters."
Cotton, a former military officer, understands that "no quarter" means refusing to accept the lawful surrender of an enemy. Cotton and Trump were talking about the Insurrection Act, a 213-year-old law which gives the president the power to use the military inside the country under certain circumstances. Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) drafted an amendment in response to these threats, and to the misuse of paramilitary police forces against BLM demonstrators which would have limited that power. It was killed, however, with the help of Democrats on Committee like Reps. Kendra Horn (Okla.), Xochitl Torres Small (N.M.), Jared Golden (Maine), Elaine Luria (Va.), Anthony Brindisi (N.Y.) and Gil Cisneros (Calif.)
Some people point out that the Insurrection Act has been used for good, most notably when Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy used troops to protect brave Black children who were integrating Southern schools. But the Escobar amendment would not have prevented that. It would have merely required the president to certify that states were unwilling or unable to quell an unlawful disturbance or rebellion, and have given Congress the ability to terminate a president’s use of the Act.
The result? Trump can still send troops to attack Black demonstrators, but they’ll be deployed from bases with more politically correct names.
The Opposite of Authority
Democrats also helped passed two amendments that would make it harder for Trump to reduce troop levels in Afghanistan and Europe. The Constitution gives Congress the sole authority to declare war, which it has not done in countries where we are currently at war. It gave the president authorization to use military force in the Middle East in 2001, but there is considerable controversy about the extent of that authorization. Trump has not provided Congress with an annual report on his administration’s view of its warmaking authority, which he was legally obligated to do on March 1.
Congress has not demanded that report, nor has it declared war. And yet, in a bizarre inversion of its constitutional authority, The Committee passed two amendments barring a president from reducing military presence without Congressional authority—in places where it never declared war in the first place!
One amendment, introduced by Democrat Jason Crow of Colorado, restricts the president’s ability to reduce troop levels in Afghanistan unless he reports to Congress about the effect of troop reductions on a list of factors that is several pages long. This is a bureaucratic snarl and an exercise in predicting the unpredictable. It’s clearly designed to impose an impossible burden, as is made clear by the requirement that all of the following officials must concur with the report:
- the Secretary of State;
- the Director of National Intelligence;
- the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs;
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- the Commander of United States Command;
- the Commander of US forces in Afghanistan; and,
- the US Permanent Representative to NATO.
All of these officials must put their careers on the line by stating that none of the many bad things listed in the amendment will happen. How many people would take that risk? The amendment doesn’t require them to declare that keeping troop levels higher will have no negative consequences, even though that is also clearly possible. This makes it clear: if you want to protect yourself, block these withdrawals.
The Crow amendment even requires the officials to certify that troop reduction “will not unduly increase the risk to United States personnel in Afghanistan.” A complete withdrawal would reduce that risk to zero, but the amendment doesn’t address that possibility.
The General’s Veto
The other such amendment, from Democrat Ruben Gallego of Arizona, blocks the president from reducing troop levels in Germany and elsewhere in Europe until Congress receives separate certifications from the Defense Secretary and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that it would not threaten military and security goals.
To my knowledge, these two amendments are the first time a military officer (currently US Army General Mark Milley) has been given the power to overrule a president, simply by withholding his “concurrence.” The president could theoretically fire him, but that would trigger a political firestorm.
It doesn’t take a rose-colored view of Trump to see the dangers in this approach. Trump is no peace president. He hasn’t ended our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite his campaign promises, and he has dropped more bombs in the Middle East than either Bush or Obama. He’s brought us to the brink of war with Venezuela and North Korea, and he has heaped praise on brutal authoritarians like Bolsonaro of Brazil, Duterte of the Philippines, and Modi of India.
But Congress hasn’t acted to end any of those threats and escalations. It has chosen to block the president when, and only when, he might reduce our military presence in other countries.
The War Dividend
Then there’s the sheer size of this appropriation. The Orwellian-named “defense budget” was already larger than that of the next ten countries combined – three times China’s and eleven times Russia’s, according to estimates. And that’s not counting the intelligence budget. Or Homeland Security’s. Or the cost of the Department of Energy’s work on nuclear weapons.
In 1991, as the Cold War was ending, the budget was $280 million, which is $527 billion in 2021 dollars. The House Armed Services Committee just unanimously approved a budget of more than $740 billion. That doesn’t include the “Overseas Contingency Operations” budget that funds the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for which the Defense Department is requesting $69 billion. When this cost is added to the NDAA budget, the total is approximately $810 billion – an increase of more than 50 percent over the country’s defense spending in 1991, at the close of the Cold War.
Where’s that “peace dividend” we were promised?
Speaking of peace: This figure is more than 14 times larger than the “international budget” line item for diplomacy. And yet, the Trump Administration is proposing to cut its international budget request by nearly $12 billion, from $55.8 billion in fiscal year 2021 to $43.9 billion in FY 2021.
The War on Logic
There is simply no logic to it—other than the inexorable logic of war profiteering and global control. Even if you believe intelligence reports about election hacking and bounties on US troops, neither of those activities will be stopped by high-cost items like the F-35 fighter or the Navy’s billion-dollar. This bill was approved by a vote of 56-0, so it is highly likely to pass.
A few representatives fought for common-sense ideas. Rep. Escobar introduced her Insurrection Act amendment. Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) fought the Gallego amendment on troops in Germany.
And there was one piece of good news: the Committee adopted an amendment from Khanna to end logistical support for the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen. The Saudi assault on that country has created a humanitarian catastrophe, one Congress should have prevented.
But Congress seems to approach military interventions as if it were building mousetraps. It makes it easy to get into them, but almost impossible to get out.