Commentary

Washington and the World According to Mac Thornberry

The newly installed chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), discussed the role of Congress in national security during a recent speech at theAmerican Enterprise Institute. There were no big surprises. For example, few would dispute Thornberry’s assertion that the federal government’s first responsibility is to defend the homeland; and most agree that Congress has a vital role in making national security decisions.

But while it’s oddly refreshing to hear a congressional leader defend the legislature’s role in national defense, the chairman’s frame is unduly narrow. He defines Congress’ responsibility for determining the “size, shape, and soul of the military,” but omits Congress’ equally crucial role in authorizing or sustaining military operations abroad. Indeed, Thornberry suggests that the president was essentially free to use the military that the Congress hands to him, which turns the Constitution on its head. At a minimum, Chairman Thornberry might have spelled out his views on the need for a new Authorization to Use Military Force to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

The other point that stood out from the speech is Thornberry’s view of the world, and America’s role in it. Thornberry, echoing many of his colleagues, believes that the world is dangerous, and getting more so. He contends that none of his “predecessors [as HASC committee chairman] had to face such a wide array of serious, complex threats to our security as we do today.”

The just-departed HASC chairman Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) might agree with that assessment, but former Rep. Carl Vinson (D-Ga. and HASC chair 1949-1953; 1955-1965) or former Rep. Charles Melvin Price (D-Ill. and HASC chair 1975-1985), were they still alive, probably would not.

Thornberry, like many of his colleagues, would be well advised to question the assumptions that drive his views on national security issues.

For example, Thornberry incredibly claims that “the thought of the Capitol burning as in 1812 was inconceivable for two centuries” and that “only the courage of passengers on United Flight 93 stopped it from happening again on 9/11.” To be clear, no one should doubt the bravery of the Flight 93 passengers, and the role that they played in stopping a genuine disaster. But it is curiously myopic to claim that the very thought of direct attacks on Washington, DC had disappeared from the nation’s collective consciousness for more than 200 years. Tell that to those who lived through the Cold War. Vinson and Price every day pondered a massive thermonuclear strike by Soviet planes and missiles, one that wouldn’t merely destroy the Capitol building, but the entire capital city — and, much of surrounding Maryland and Virginia.

Thornberry’s answer to the threats posed by a supposedly more dangerous world is primacy: a foreign policy that hinges on a forward-deployed military geared to stopping prospective threats before they materialize. But primacy requires a large and costly military, far larger and more expensive than can be supported by $496 billion in 2015 dollars in annual Pentagon spending (the average called for by the Budget Control Act) and more expensive, even, than the military that contended with the Soviets and their supposed clients and proxies for decades (U.S. military spending during the Cold War averaged $458 billion per year, in 2015 dollars).

While Thornberry correctly understands that the resources provided to the U.S. military are insufficient to execute an ambitious global policing mission in the 21st Century, he wrongly sees increased spending as the only solution. We could, and should, revisit the military’s mission, especially by calling on other countries to defend themselves and their interests, and relieve the crushing burden on U.S. troops and taxpayers. How much more U.S. spending would it take if we don’t change course? He doesn’t say. In response to a question from AEI’s Tom Donnelly, Thornberry refused to commit to a minimum floor below which Pentagon spending could not safely fall. In the meantime, the new chairman seems adamant about removing the BCA spending caps (i.e. sequester) and has left open all options — including possible tax increases — in order to get a deal.

It is encouraging that Thornberry is sober-minded enough to realize the need for compromise, and that he won’t be able to get everything he wants for the Pentagon without making difficult or politically painful trade-offs elsewhere. He also wants to remove the slush fund known as Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO). The chairman should stick to his guns on that one.

But overall, Thornberry, like many of his colleagues, would be well advised to question the assumptions that drive his views on national security issues. If the world is not as dangerous as the news tells us it is, if our wealthy allies can do more to protect themselves and their interests, and if we can identify and implement meaningful reforms within the Pentagon’s budget, we need not bust the BCA spending caps in order to maintain the world’s preeminent military.

Christopher Preble is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.