5 Issues that Divide Conservatives and the American Military


The rift between the U.S. military and the leadership of American conservatism has now become so broad that one issue area alone doesn't contain it. Today you had the spectacle of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs telling a U.S. senator that claims other senators had made about the alleged ill-effects of ratifying the Law of the Sea Treaty were without merit. But that's just the latest. Let me give you a list:

1. Law of the Sea. The ratification of this treaty -- which gives legal footing to US navigation, exploration and commercial exploitation at sea -- is supported by all the current Pentagon brass, six former Secretaries of Defense and Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, five former commandants of the Coast Guard, eight former Chiefs of Naval Operations. Today, the Pentagon sent Secretary Panetta and CJCS Dempsey to the Senate with Secretary Clinton to make their case -- and got a number of U.S. senators going out of their way to oppose the treaty -- or just assert that "there are a lot of other issues we should be addressing," Pentagon urgency notwithstanding.

2. Alternative Energy. The Pentagon is the world's largest consumer of fossil fuels. It has been estimated that every gallon of gas sent to troops in Afghanistan takes seven gallons to deliver, and neocon/former CIA director James Woolsey, not someone easily tarred with the crazy enviro label, estimates the real cost of gas for operations in Iraq to have been about $100/gallon. The Pentagon has in recent years sponsored a great deal of innovative research on efficiency and alternative fuels. Over at Grist, Dave Roberts has put together a list of ways House Republicans are trying to cut and block these programs.

3. Who Jails Terror Suspects? Career miltiary folks will tell you quickly that they are warriors, not jailors; that's why Panetta, Petraeus and 26 retired military leaders opposed conservative efforts in the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to require that anyone arrested on terror charges in the U.S. be handed over to the military for confinement and/or trial. After the administration issued implementing regulations that effectively told the Pentagon "stay out" and the FBI, DHS and law enforcement, "keep up the good (and constitutional) work, Congress fired back, both complaining that the administration was not doing its will and acting to make sure that amendments to this year's NDAA that would have secured constitutional civil protections for anyone arrested in the U.S. failed.

4. Iran. The head of Central Command, General James Mattis, has cautioned the Senate that a military strike would "just delay" Iran's nuclear program. The LA Times' Doyle McManus has written, "It’s hard to find a high-ranking U.S. military officer who thinks war with Iran is a good idea." But today's talks between Iran and the P5+1 powers had barely opened before influential senators were demanding that the U.S. show no flexibility and instead impose further sanctions; during the GOP primary, candidates competed to implicitly or explicitly question military leaders' judgement on Iran.

5. Pentagon Budget. Sure, we're used to the idea that members of Congress might question Pentagon officials' judgement on whether this or that weapons system is really necessary, or working as well as the glowing press releases say. But in the last month -- the same month, mind you, that some Air Force pilots have refused to fly F-22s out of safety concerns --we've watched House Republicans reinsert into the 2013 authorization drones that the Pentagon wanted to retire and an East Coast missile defense system that the Pentagon doesn't want. They've also questioned whether the commanders are sincere in saying they can live within the administration's proposed 2013 budget.

What's going on? Roberts points to strictly financial motives for the fossil-fuel-related shenanigans, and there are certainly defense-industry dollars sloshing through Congress' budget debates as well. But this isn't only about money; it's about ideology. The military-industrial complex is small-c conservative -- and I'm using both those terms in a completely value-neutral, descriptive way. It looks for fights it can win, not fights -- like a land war in Iran, or endless, bank-breaking fuel bills -- that might fatally weaken it. It looks to consolidate. It is a status quo power seeking to preserve the status quo. And these days, preserving the status quo involves fuel made from seaweed, talks with Iranians and getting out of the prison business.

Whatever the conservative movement in America is at the moment -- conflicted, in a battle for its soul, looking to get its groove back -- it isn't a status quo power. That is producing the fascinating dissonance of conservatives who ritually stand up in front of the public and say they want to "listen to the commanders" ignore the commanders on issue after issue. That just may also have something to do with the percentage of military campaign contributions reported to be going to either President Obama...or Ron Paul.

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