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Robert Scheer Headshot

There Goes the Republic

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Once again the gods of war have united our Congress like nothing else. Unable to agree on the minimal spending necessary to save our economy, schools, medical system or infrastructure, the cowards who mislead us have retreated to the irrationalities of what George Washington in his farewell address condemned as "pretended patriotism."

The defense authorization bill that Congress passed and President Obama had threatened to veto will soon become law, a fact that should be met with public outrage. Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth, responding to Obama's craven collapse on the bill's most controversial provision, said, "By signing this defense spending bill, President Obama will go down in history as the president who enshrined indefinite detention without trial in US law." On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney claimed "the most recent changes give the president additional discretion in determining how the law will be implemented, consistent with our values and the rule of law, which are at the heart of our country's strength."

What rubbish, coming from a president who taught constitutional law. The point is not to hock our civil liberty to the discretion of the president, but rather to guarantee our freedoms even if a Dick Cheney or Newt Gingrich should attain the highest office.

Sadly this flagrant subversion of the constitutionally guaranteed right to due process of law was opposed in the Senate by only seven senators, including libertarian Republican Rand Paul and progressive Independent Bernie Sanders.

That onerous provision of the defense budget bill, much discussed on the Internet but far less so in the mass media, assumes a permanent war against terrorism that extends the battlefield to our homeland. It reeks of a militarized state that threatens the foundations of our republican form of government.

This is not only a disaster in the making for civil liberty but a blow to effective anti-terrorist police work. Recall that it was the FBI that was most effective in interrogating al-Qaeda suspects before the military let loose the torturers. Under the newly approved legislation, that bypassing of civilian experts will be codified as a routine option for a president.

As The New York Times editorialized, the bill "would take the most experienced and successful anti-terrorism agencies--the F.B.I. and federal prosecutors--out of the business of interrogating, charging and trying most terrorism cases, and turn the job over to the military." Not only has FBI Director Robert Mueller III opposed this shift in the law, but so has Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who previously ran the CIA.

What's alarming is not just that one pernicious aspect of the defense spending bill, but the ease with which an otherwise deadlocked Congress that can't manage minimal funding for job creation and unemployment relief can find the money to fund at Cold War levels a massive sophisticated arsenal to defeat an enemy that no longer exists.

Throwing $662 billion, plus hundreds of billions more in non-Pentagon "security" programs, at what that other great-general-turned-president, Dwight Eisenhower, condemned as the "military-industrial complex," with its tentacles in every congressional district, is an act of absurdity in a world bereft of a serious military challenge to the United States. Not even the best-funded terrorists can afford aircraft carriers.

There is simply no militarily significant enemy in sight, yet we spend almost as much on our armed forces as the rest of the world combined, and are already ludicrously superior in military might to any rogue power, like Iran, that might threaten us. The hawks who attempt to justify Cold War levels of spending on advanced weaponry by reviving "Red China" as a formidable enemy are undermined in their argument by China's sharply limited regional force projection. The real leverage that China exercises over U.S. policy options is not military but rather economic and derives precisely from the fact that we have gone into debt to those same communists in order to fund our irrational military spending.

Military spending is rationalized with patriotic froth, but it is driven by the unfortunate fact that it is the most reliable source of government-funded profits and jobs. It is an obviously inefficient use of resources as a means of lifting the overall economy compared with building infrastructure and training workers for the jobs of the future, but don't count on Congress or the president to change that dynamic anytime soon. The White House's five-year projection of defense spending aims not at the one-third budget cut initiated by the first President Bush in response to the end of the Cold War, but at a "flattening" of military expenditures between 2013 and 2017.

We had every right to expect President Obama to stick to his word and veto this bill, not as a means of forcing a much needed bigger cut in government waste, but more urgently because its assault on the Constitution's requirement of due process represents a direct threat to the freedom of the American people every bit as menacing as any we face from foreign enemies.