The Bipartisan Parts of the Defense Bill Suck, Too

House Republicans used $886 billion (!) NDAA as a pitchfork for a culture-war witchhunt. That just scratches the surface of what's wrong with this thing.

The Bipartisan Parts of the Defense Bill Suck, Too
Just adefense bill.

Edited by Sam Thielman

REP. ADAM SMITH (D-Wash.) doesn't recognize his committee's defense bill, the Fiscal 2024 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), anymore. "We worked with our colleagues in committee to pass a bill in an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote that invested in the greatest sources of America’s national strength: service members and their families, innovation and technology, allies and partners, and our defense industrial base and military readiness," said Smith, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. "That bill no longer exists." House Republicans have larded the bill with amendments to cripple servicemembers' access to abortion care and otherwise combat the specter of the "woke military," an invention of right-wing media.

The amendments really are disgusting and should indeed doom the bill. The notion of the "woke military" is ludicrous to anyone familiar with the U.S. military, but the material damage of the amendments arrayed against it is very real. Denying TRICARE coverage for surgical transition and hormone therapy simply reimposes a ban on transgender service. And forcing people to remain pregnant against their will is tyranny.  

But the problems with the NDAA run even deeper. And they have everything to do with the bill Smith joined all but one member in voting out of committee. That bill, the product of bipartisan consensus, is another turn of the ratchet in the China Cold War. It authorizes $886 billion in defense spending, and that's just the start.

The centerpiece of the bill, the thing that both Smith and Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) embrace, is its provisions against China. The NDAA expands "logistics capabilities in the Indo-Pacific to ensure our forces can sustain the fight," in the language of the committee's bill summary. If you want a look at what that looks like on the ground in the "First Island Chain," read Sarah Topol's excellent New York Times Magazine piece about the long-term devastation of Guam, an absolutely crucial link in that chain, as the result of its geographical utility to the U.S. during a conflict with China.

Then there's the bill's provisions for nuclear weapons. Section 1641 instructs the Pentagon to develop a nuclear sea-launched cruise missile that the Biden administration rejected last year. Section 1639 stops Biden from getting rid of more than 25 percent of the U.S. stocks of the B83 megaton nuclear gravity bomb. Section 3119 preserves the "low-yield" sub-launched nuclear warhead, the W76-2, which Trump fielded in 2020. Remember that the committee passed this bill on a bipartisan basis.

The NDAA also codifies what's called Section 1202 authorities, which permit Special Operations Forces (SOF) to "mentor" foreign troops, paramilitaries and even mercenaries as they operate in irregular, greyzone ways—that is, operations below the threshold of traditional armed conflict— this time focusing on China. Section 1202 is an outgrowth, expansion, and redirection of a War on Terror authority known as 127e ("One Twenty-Seven Echo") that provides SOF with a bounty of proxy war options. This authority was originally supposed to expire in 2025, demonstrating how congressional sunsets can disguise permanence.

I'll spare everyone an exhaustive reading of the NDAA, since extensive experience in writing those has proven to me that no one reads them. But just two more things. First, the bill defunds the Countering Extremism Working Group. That group's initiatives have been, in the words of a senior Pentagon official, "milquetoast." But the point of getting rid of it is to make sure that no subsequent defense secretary gives the office teeth it could use to expel white supremacists and other far-right extremists from service. Second, Section 2854 orders the defense secretary "to use, transfer, or donate to States on the southern border" construction materials to complete Trump's border wall, "including bollards."

Finally, when I say the $886 billion that the NDAA authorizes is just the start, I mean that Chairman Rogers is proposing an accounting trick familiar from the War on Terror. In June, ahead of the House Armed Service Committee marking up the bill, Rogers said that, at risk of speaking prematurely, "we will need a supplemental later this year—for China specifically." Supplemental funding, as it was known under George W. Bush—Barack Obama renamed it "overseas contingency operation" funding—carved out the annual cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars from the "base" defense budget so as to make the defense budget look smaller than it actually was. It also created a separate pathway to fund those operations, should an NDAA look imperiled, as the culture-war amendments now imperil the FY2024 NDAA in the Senate. One way or another, a trillion-dollar defense bill is not far off.

As I was writing this, the House passed the bill. "The threat we face from China is the most pressing national security threat we’ve faced in decades—the FY24 NDAA is laser-focused on countering China," Rogers said in a statement that just hit my inbox. The Senate may strip out the most egregious amendments on abortion access, transgender healthcare and defunding Pentagon DEI offices. The "laser focus" on China will surely remain—not just in this bill, but future ones – and that's its own problem.

Meanwhile, CNAS' Richard Fontaine, who used to be John McCain's foreign-policy adviser, wants to force Pacific nations to choose between the U.S. and China. That's the kind of Cold War bloc formation the Biden administration insists it doesn't seek—while its policies deepen the interests and incentive structures that lead to it. The NDAA reflects and accelerates all this.

ONE GOOD THING IN THE BILL: A bipartisan amendment passed that stops the Pentagon from purchasing constitutionally-protected data from data brokers. Hopefully that stays in.

SPEAKING OF. If you like this newsletter, you should really also subscribe to Un-Diplomatic, written by my friend Van Jackson. His latest is a trenchant warning against military Keynesianism, a strategy that seeks economic growth through defense spending. ("[Y]ou make the welfare of Americans dependent on the endless preparation for and waging of war," he writes.) And Van gives us a sneak preview of a book he's writing with Mike Brenes, one of my go-to scholars for understanding the state of the military-industrial complex. This is what we're going to get from their upcoming The Rivalry Peril:

Defense spending is an extremely inefficient job stimulus.  According to Brown University’s Costs of War Project, the “job multiplier effect” from federal spending on the military is lower than the same amount spent in any industry (6.9 jobs in the defense industry and supporting supply chains for every $1 million spent).  The measurable opportunity cost of defense spending—what we specifically forego economically when we fund the Pentagon—is the gap between the military job multiplier and the job multiplier in non-defense sectors of the economy.  Investing $1 million in renewable energy retrofitting jobs has a multiplier effect of 10.6 jobs.  The job multiplier in healthcare is 14.3 jobs.  And the job multiplier for primary and secondary school education spending is 19.2 jobs.  Based on these figures, the economic opportunity cost of the first 16 years of the “War on Terror” was somewhere between one and three million jobs lost domestically.

Military Keynesianism doesn't enrich the working class. It enriches the defense corporations, and the politicians they purchase.

AND ONE GOOD NON-DEFENSE-BILL THING. Kamala Khan will soon be an X-Man, in a new series co-written by Iman Vellani herself. I love this, as I love Jamie McKelvie's costume design. Ms. Marvel is my older daughter's favorite superhero—I have every issue of the G. Willow Wilson and Saladin Ahmed series waiting for her; both were series that my wife and I read in floppies each month—and I expect my younger one will love Kamala too. The Ms. Marvel onesie that I made for them years ago may have something to do with it.