Focused Like a Laser, On All the Wrong Things

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We used to cover the machinations of the House and Senate armed services committees very closely. Of course, 30 years ago all we cared about was whether 180 or 240 F-16 jets would be ordered in next year’s budget (that’s all our readers at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, where the plane is still being built, cared about).

But this year’s proposed bills now being crafted in each house strike us as more obstreperous than ever. There seem to be two basic elements in play: if you’re Republican – like the majority in the House – you tie the Democratic President’s hands on various national-security issues at every turn. And if you’re a lawmaker from either body, from either party, do everything within your power to protect the Pentagon money flowing into your state or district.

All this might be fine if…

…there weren’t a deficit, sequestration weren’t looming, and we weren’t wrapping up a couple of long and costly wars, with all their attendant concerns of resetting the force and tending to the hundreds of thousands of troops and vets harmed by the campaigns.

It’s amazing to attend any congressional hearing involving military spending these days and witness how many of the questions from members focus on hometown interests to the exclusion of larger issues with far more impact on national security, or matters of war and peace better handled elsewhere.

A sampling to consider:

— The Senate Armed Services Committee’s readiness subcommittee blocked the two new rounds of base closures sought by the Administration. Everyone in the Pentagon concedes we have more acreage for troops and weapons than we have troops and weapons, but lawmakers, like junkies worrying about their next fix, steadfastly oppose any effort to shuttered unneeded bases.

— The House already passed an amending stating that no Pentagon funds “may be used to propose, plan for, or execute an additional BRAC [base realignment and closure] round.” That struck the committee’s ranking Democrat as wrong. “We just want to protect our stuff, and I understand that’s what’s driving this,” Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said as the panel considered the bar earlier this month. “To simply cut off the debate and say DOD can’t do this and can’t even think about it, I think is irresponsible.”

— The House last week ordered the President to sell at least 66 F-16 jets to Taiwan. This was a two-fer: not only was it a win for the lawmaker leading the charge, Rep. Kay Granger, R-F-16, but it’s bound to tick off China as well, thereby complicating Obama’s life (the Administration had agreed only to improve older F-16s Taiwan already has).

— The House prohibited Obama from reducing the U.S. nuclear stockpile on his own.

— The House ordered a (waiverable) halt in spending on programs designed to corral Russia’s “loose nukes” until Moscow halts arms sales to Iran, North Korea and Syria. The House’s goal is admirable, but its means are questionable: a loose nuke anywhere in the world is everyone’s worst nightmare — and an al Qaeda threat dream.

— The House bars any funding to implement the Law of the Sea Treaty, contending the international maritime convention would impinge on U.S. sovereignty. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are heading to the Hill Wednesday to urge its ratification before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “It’s important to the establishment of regular international regimes governing maritime activities by nations, to include militaries around the world,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said Tuesday. “And every time we have the opportunity to signal our support for this convention, we will.”

— The House requires the Pentagon to come up with a plan to boost allied military forces surrounding Iran while, at the same time, voting down a proposal that a special envoy be sent to Tehran in an effort to negotiate a way out of its current nuclear standoff (which is kind of happening Wednesday anyway, as six world powers, including the U.S., meet with Iranians in Baghdad for the first of two days of meetings on their nuclear program).

“Diplomatic overtures, sanctions, and other non-kinetic actions toward Iran have not caused the Government of Iran to abandon  its nuclear weapons program,” the House bill says. “It it is the policy of the United States to take all necessary measures, including military action if necessary, to prevent Iran from threatening the United States, its allies, or Iran’s neighbors with a nuclear weapon.”

But the House tacked on an important P.S. to its bill Friday: “Nothing in this Act,” it said, “shall be construed as authorizing the use of force against Iran.”

Some of these, of course, will wash out when the two bodies meet in conference to agree on a single bill for Obama’s signature. Thank God for bicamerality.