If you dropped in from outer space to watch the House Armed Services Committee debate the latest defense spending bill on Wednesday morning, you could be excused for not realizing that this country is facing a budget crisis.
The United States is expected to hit its debt ceiling this month, and some leaders in Congress are refusing to lift it on the grounds that the federal government spends too much and is growing too big.
As House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon has complained: "Democrats simply do not care how large the deficit grows."
But somehow, that issue just isn't coming up among McKeon and his usual "deficit hawk" supporters when it comes to defense spending. One representative after another argues for this or that fighter jet engine or firing range or other pet project that the U.S. military has said it doesn't need, while looming over the entire budgeting process is the whopping amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, proposed by McKeon, that includes a new and expanded declaration of war.
The government doesn't need that, either.
The United States has already spent more than $1.283 trillion on military operations since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, according to the Congressional Research Service. With the orchestrator of the attacks dead and a federal shutdown looming if Congress can't get a new budget in order, it seems an odd time to be expanding the "war on terror" beyond Iraq and Afghanistan, to reach potentially anywhere in the world that the President decides it should. Yet that's exactly what McKeon's "Detainee Security Act" (now incorporated into the NDAA) would do.
These wars started, of course, as a response to the September 11 attacks. The Authorization for the Use of Military Force enacted by Congress in 2001 allowed the U.S. military to wage war against "those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons..."
That has come to mean, and repeatedly been defined as, an authorization to use military force against al Qaeda, the Taliban and "associated forces."
So why is McKeon now arguing that we need a new law to authorize an even broader use of force?
McKeon (who also supports development of the GE/Rolls Royce F-136 Jet engine that the Pentagon says it doesn't need) explains the new bill as merely affirming "that the United States is engaged in an armed conflict with al Qaeda, the Taliban and associated forces pursuant to the Authorization for Use of Military Force from 2001."
But if that's all it's doing, then why is the new bill necessary? The AUMF of 2001 already provides that. The only possible justification for proposing a new AUMF is to expand the "war on terror" to be just that -- not only a war against the groups and individuals related to the September 11 attacks, but a "war" on terrorism more broadly -- wherever it is found and regardless of how "terrorism" is defined. McKeon recently gave us a hint of where he thinks a new war could reach, saying that "the threats posed by al Qaeda cells in Yemen and Africa underscore the evolving and continuing nature of the terrorist threat to the United States."
In fact, the bill would also authorize the use of military force domestically, if "terrorists" are found here at home.
Expanding the war now is foolhardy. And, despite its supporters' purported interest in reducing the federal deficit, it will be very costly.
What the McKeon bill would do is grant the president authority to bypass Congress in expanding the war against any "associated groups" he deems dangerous, regardless of what, if anything, they've done to the United States. As a practical matter, it would be a license to launch attacks in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan or anywhere else in the world where the U.S. military believes insurgents may be.
Though the language differences are subtle, the McKeon legislation makes clear that the president would have the authority to detain "belligerents" -- including but not limited to those currently defined by the Obama administration as detainable. That means that McKeon and his co-sponsors are contemplating the use of military force against some broader category of undefined "belligerents" somewhere in the world who are not now detainable in our current state of war, but would be under an expanded one.
That's raised alarm bells among House Democrats. In a letter sent on Tuesday, nearly three dozen of them called on McKeon to withdraw the provision from the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, and at least hold hearings on the matter before a vote on what they called "a serious ... departure from current counterterrorism policy and practice."
Among the many troubling aspects of the Detainee Security Act, they wrote, are "provisions that expand the war against terrorist organizations on a global basis" that could reach far beyond Afghanistan.
That war has dragged on for almost ten years, and after the demise of Osama bin Laden, as the United States prepares for withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Detainee Security Act purports to expand the "armed conflict" against the Taliban, al Qaeda, and "associated forces" without limit. By declaring a global war against nameless individuals, organizations, and nations "associated" with the Taliban and al Qaeda, as well as those playing a supporting role in their efforts, the Detainee Security Act would appear to grant the President near unfettered authority to initiate military action around the world without further congressional approval. Such authority must not be ceded to the President without careful deliberation from Congress.
For Congressional representatives so critical of the president in other contexts, particularly budgetary matters, it's hard to understand why they'd want to do hand him that sort of unfettered power.
As Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, a co-sponsor of the McKeon never-ending-war bill, said after President Obama agreed to military action in Libya: "I was very disappointed in the way in which the president has done this. I'm going to be very curious to see where he is going to get the funds to pay for it."
Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado, another co-sponsor of the expanded "war on terror" bill, has put it this way:
"Members of Congress and the president owe it to the American people to be honest with them about the extent of our fiscal problems and offer real solutions that don't kick the proverbial can down the road."
It's not clear how these lawmakers have convinced themselves that declaring an unlimited war on all unnamed enemies of the United States of the president's choosing is going to do that.
Follow Daphne Eviatar on Twitter: www.twitter.com/deviatar