National Security Network

Ending the Year by Playing Politics with National Security

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Report 18 December 2009

Military Military Defense GOP military nonproliferation


2009 is ending as it began, with an emerging and dangerous pattern of conservatives in Congress using national security as a wedge issue for cheap political gain.  This morning, conservatives in the Senate failed in their attempted to filibuster the Defense Appropriations Bill, which provides critical funding to troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as vital programs necessary for America's security - admitting that the attempt came not out of any policy concern but simply the desire to delay a vote on health-care legislation.  Also this week, 41 senators sent a letter to the President that misrepresented a Senate agreement on the need to strengthen our nuclear weapons research facilities as a call for new nuclear weapons.  This pattern of political attacks over national security is a dangerous precedent that conservatives have been advancing throughout the year.  From blocking the a defense bill because of a hate crimes amendment to depriving veterans of well-deserved benefits to blocking critical confirmations -conservatives continually placed politics above national security.

Congressional conservatives attempt to filibuster the defense appropriation bill, putting politics above national security. "Senate Republicans failed early Friday in their bid to filibuster a massive Pentagon bill that funds the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an unusual move designed to delay President Obama's health-care legislation," reported the Washington Post.  As the Post's reporting makes clear, the sole purpose of the GOP stunt was to derail healthcare legislation.  Though "Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) cited the roughly 1,800 earmarks in the bill worth $4.2 billion in explaining his opposition," according to the Post, "most others were blunt in their rationale for opposing the military legislation."  "‘I don't want health care,' Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) said Thursday evening."  While unsuccessful, the move would have had major consequences for national security priorities at a time when American troops are at risk in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Post elaborated: "If the filibuster on the $626 billion defense bill had succeeded, Democrats would have had to scramble to find a way to fund the military operations, because a stopgap funding measure for the Pentagon will expire at midnight Friday."  When the Democratic leadership pushed forward with the bill anyway, just three conservatives wound up supporting it - Sens Kay Bailey Hutchison (R - TX), Olympia Snowe (R - ME), and Susan Collins (R - ME) - and only after Democrats showed that they had the votes necessary to block the GOP's filibuster. 

A New York Times story highlighted Democrats' indignation: "Democrats chided Republicans for forcing the procedural vote on a measure they would normally support, saying it was a flawed strategy to slow down Pentagon money in their anger over health care. ‘There is no more important bill for the safety of our troops,' said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat. ‘I think they picked the wrong bill.'"

Senator Feingold emerged as the lynchpin of democratic efforts to thwart GOP obstruction.  Feingold, who has emerged as a fierce and valuable advocate for progressives skeptical of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, strongly emphasized that his motion for cloture should not be interpreted as a concession to the administration, but rather a rebuke of conservatives for their politicization. "Senator Russ Feingold, the anti-war Wisconsin Democrat, was the key for Democrats after he agreed to vote for the measure,... ‘I am against continued funding for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,' said Mr. Feingold, who was personally encouraged by President Obama to vote with the party. ‘But it became apparent that this was really an effort to slow down a bill they were going to vote for anyway to destroy health care and that is not something I wanted to see happen.'"[Washington Post, 12/18/09. NY Times, 12/18/09]

Conservatives misread bill, in order to promote production of more nuclear weapons. In Yesterday's Washington Times, Bill Gertz writes that, "All 40 Republican senators and one independent wrote to President Obama on Wednesday reminding him that the current defense authorization law links modernization of the aging U.S. nuclear arsenal to further U.S.-Russian arms reductions... The 41 senators - enough to block formal ratification of a new treaty, which requires 67 votes - stated in the letter that they agree with the defense legislation's language that says modernizing the aging U.S. nuclear stockpile is critical to further U.S.-Russian arms cuts. ‘In fact, we don't believe further reductions can be in the national security interest of the U.S. in the absence of a significant program to modernize our nuclear deterrent' the senators stated." And the letter itself says that "As you know, section 1251 of the National Defense Authorization Act, of 2010 requires that the submission of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) follow-on agreement to the Senate be accompanied by a plan to modernize the U.S. nuclear deterrent."

However, Section 1251 of the Defense Authorization Bill requires a plan to "modernize the nuclear weapons complex" -not of the  "nuclear arsenal" or "nuclear deterrent."  What's the difference?  As the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Agency (NNSA) explains, "nuclear weapons complex is comprised of DOE national weapons labs, plants, and facilities."  Modernizing it means making our facilities and weapons safer and more secure - and giving the labs the resources they need to work on verification, safeguards, dismantlement and a host of other nuclear policy issues.  The bill specifically calls for "A description of the plan to modernize the nuclear weapons complex, including improving the safety of facilities, modernizing the infrastructure, and maintaining the key capabilities and competencies of the nuclear weapons workforce, including designers and technicians." 

On the other hand, to ‘modernize' our stockpile essentially means building new nuclear weapons, something not in the legislation nor required. The conservative letter is simply incorrect in its assertion that the Defense Authorization requires modernization of the deterrent or arsenal itself.  [Washington Times, 12/19/09. Letter to the President, 12/15/09. National Defense Authorization Act of 2010, 10/7/09. Department of Defense, NNSA. Physicians for Social Responsibility, 7/23/09]

Latest acts part of a larger pattern of conservative obstructionism and politicization. Conservatives' latest actions in the Senate on the defense bill and the START reveal what has become among them an unfortunate tendency: exploiting national security for political gain. 

Last night's filibuster attempt was actually the 2nd time conservatives have chosen to jeopardize defense spending.  Earlier this year, conservatives chose to obstruct the entire 2010 defense authorization bill, because of an amendment "that would specify harsh penalties for hate crimes, including those based on sexual orientation or gender identity," reported the Hill.  As a result, 34 Senate Republicans sought to block a vote on the defense bill, prioritizing their opposition to the Hate Crimes amendment over support for the authorization of critical funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

In another instance of craven behavior, Sen. Tom Coburn (R - OK) put a hold on a major veterans bill.  The bill provided ‘Enhancements in VA health care for female veterans, including new training for VA mental health providers to handle veterans who experienced military sexual trauma. ... Support to family caregivers of severely disabled veterans by giving them access to counseling, support and a living stipend... Expanded mental health services to rural regions where veterans currently have to drive hundreds of miles to seek mental health care... Improved traumatic brain injury (TBI) care...  [and] Additional programs for homeless veterans," according to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a non-partisan veterans' advocacy organization.

Such politicization sadly has not stopped at the water's edge.  Sen. Jim DeMint (R - SC) sought to travel to Honduras in support of the coup against Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, actively undermining sensitive efforts by the Administration to restore democratic rule.  In addition to this trip, "DeMint has blocked the nominations of Thomas Shannon, President Barack Obama's pick to serve as ambassador to Brazil, and Arturo Valenzuela, the choice for the post of assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs," according to the Hill.  Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation put DeMint's actions in a historical context: "A US Senator alone does not make the America's foreign policy, and working against the policies of the United States in collaboration with foreign officials... well... there are words that come to mind to describe this behavior, but I want to be civil towards the Senator."

DeMint's hold on the nominations of Shannon and Valenzuela followed an attempted hold on all State Department nominees by Sen. Jon Kyl (R - AZ) earlier this year.  Foreign Policy's The Cable reported that  Kyl had "put a hold on all State Department nominees," according to Senate sources.  According to The Cable, "a second Hill source who did not want to be identified said it was his understanding that all State nominees were currently on hold by Kyl, and that the chairman of the SFRC, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), the State Department, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) were trying to resolve the matter. A third Hill source also said it was his understanding all State nominees were currently under a blanket hold from Kyl." 

[The Hill, 10/22/09. Senate Roll Call Vote,10/22/09. AP via CBS News, 05/20/09 IAVA, 10/30/09. The Hill, 9/20/09. The Washington Note, 10/1/09. Foreign Policy, 6/19/09

What We're Reading

Afghan officials report that President Hamid Karzai will retain half of his cabinet as he enters his second term, keeping the six influential ministers who have been well-received by the international community, but replacing the heads of two ministries who are linked to corruption.

President Obama continues to press China towards an accord that would monitor whether countries are complying with promised emissions cuts.

India's defense minister says that India has withdrawn 30,000 soldiers from the Kashmir region over the past two years, but hundreds of thousands of forces are believed to still remain in the heavily militarized region.

Six Yemenis being held at Guantanamo Bay are set to be repatriated in the coming days, raising speculation that more detainees will be released to Yemen in the future.

UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, says 74,000 Africans-a record number-have crossed the Gulf of Aden into Yemen as refugees or economic migrants, a 50 percent increase from last year.

Iran's nuclear chief announces that the country has started making more efficient centrifuge models that it plans to begin using by early 2011, adding that international resolutions are not welcomed, and will not stop their nuclear ambitions.

The wealth of Somali pirates-who just last week were paid $3.3 million to release the crew of a Spanish vessel-has changed the economic structure in the Muslim country, driving up prices in every industry and widening the inequality gap.

The U.S. envoy to North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, reports that officials in Pyongyang have said that North Korea would like to return to six-party talks on its nuclear program.  Meanwhile, the communist state confirms that leader Kim Jong Il has received a letter from President Obama.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the secretary-general of NATO, held talks at the Kremlin earlier this week with Russian leadership about providing military assistance in Afghanistan; while President Medvedev did not say whether he would support NATO requests, he indicated that the two sides were improving ties that were damaged last summer over Russia's conflict with Georgia.

Myanmar's military junta allowed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to meet with senior members of her party on Wednesday, the latest signal suggesting the junta might be responding to Western diplomacy.

The Palestine Liberation Organization has indefinitely extended the term of President Mahmoud Abbas, who wanted to hold elections on schedule next month, but has been prevented by rival Islamic militant group Hamas banned elections in the Gaza Strip.

Commentary of the Day

In the New York Times, Roger Cohen calls for inaction by the US government with respect to Iran by drawing parallels between the Russia of 1989 and the Iran of today.

Christopher Cokinos makes a very interesting argument in the LA Times, claiming that climate scientists could learn a thing or two about how to convey their findings from a completely different field: poetry.

In the Washington Post, Henry Kissinger voices his skepticism over simply talking with North Korea rather that insisting on concrete steps towards the country's denuclearization.