Following this week’s announcement of a new U.S. bombing campaign in Libya, several opinion pieces have been written denouncing President Obama’s decision to allow the airstrikes without further authorization from Congress, as well as Congress’ inaction on explicitly authorizing force against Islamic State extremists.
“Just five years after bombing Libya to dispose of Muammar Gaddafi, the US is now officially bombing the country again, this time against alleged Isis terrorist strongholds that cropped up in the power vacuum created by the last bombing,” writes Trevor Timm for the Guardian. “It’s yet another episode of the War on Terror Circle of Life, where the US bombs a country and then funnels weapons into the region, which leads to chaos and the opportunity for terrorist organizations, which then leads (to) more US bombing.”
Yet the lack of accountability in the latest Libya campaign is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to U.S. military policy in recent decades. Technically, according to the Constitution, Congress has the sole power to declare war, though it hasn’t done so since World War II.
At least in the early 2000s, however, major military conflicts were still commonly referred to as the “War in Iraq” and the “War in Afghanistan.” Under a kinder, gentler President Obama, however, the U.S. government has simply killed “combatants,” as well as civilians, in places ranging from Pakistan to Somalia, for pretty much any reason and at any time that it feels like it, without feeling the need for all the boring, bureaucratic red tape of formal war declarations. Today, we find ourselves fighting an enemy that calls itself Islamic State, but which the U.S. defines as a stateless terrorist organization, though it is “fully operational” in 18 countries and spreading to more, according to the National Counterterrorism Center.
Meanwhile, in other news highlighting the opacity of the Department of Defense, last week an Inspector General report was released that found that the Pentagon is likely to miss its “audit readiness” deadline, which is still over a year away, for its first ever audit of how it spends the trillions of dollars in taxpayer money it has received in recent years.
Indeed, as Reuters reported in an in-depth series in 2013, the Defense Department is the only federal agency that has never complied with a law in effect since 1992 mandating annual audits, despite receiving over $600 billion annually, or more than all other categories of the federal discretionary budget combined. And that doesn’t count anything else that might ultimately go to Pentagon programs out of the classified black budget.
“Media reports of Defense Department waste tend to focus on outrageous line items: $604 toilet seats for the Navy, $7,600 coffee makers for the Air Force,” reporter Scot J. Paltrow wrote in the 2013 Reuters series. “These headline-grabbing outliers amount to little next to the billions the Pentagon has spent on repeated efforts to fix its bookkeeping, with little to show for it.”
According to Paltrow, “the Pentagon is largely incapable of keeping track of its vast stores of weapons, ammunition and other supplies; thus it continues to spend money on new supplies it doesn’t need and on storing others long out of date. It has amassed a backlog of more than half a trillion dollars in unaudited contracts with outside vendors; how much of that money paid for actual goods and services delivered isn’t known. And it repeatedly falls prey to fraud and theft that can go undiscovered for years, often eventually detected by external law enforcement agencies.”
The Reuters series extensively documents massive levels of inefficiency, fraud and theft at the Defense Department — deeply rooted problems that have clearly not been fixed in the three years since Reuters’ investigation was published.
Despite these problems and lack of congressional oversight, however, the U.S. military remains widely trusted by the general public. Recent polling found 73 percent of respondents had “quite a lot” or a “great deal” of confidence in the military, the highest of any institution included in the poll, while corresponding confidence in Congress was at a dismal 9 percent, the poll’s lowest. Despite this jarring contrast, it remains the case that the public has no direct input on the actions of the military, while it does have the collective power to vote congresspeople out of office.
Though America’s military is changing, it has long been known as, and in many ways remains, a conservative institution. For better or worse, the Defense Department values doing certain things the way they’ve always been done. If that conservatism has contributed to the high place of honor in domestic public opinion that the military enjoys, (albeit at the cost of billions of dollars wasted using antiquated record-keeping systems) it seems it could benefit from extending its conservative philosophy to the fiscal realm.
In an era when soaring national debt in the double-digit trillions, along with extremism driven by anger over past carnage inflicted in the name of vague U.S. foreign policy goals, pose serious threats to the country, fiscal responsibility, not to mention following the Constitution, should be recognized duties of the agency charged with defending both.
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